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RImrock Ranch by Lloyd Russell, Pioneertown, California, USA

Lloyd Russell places a flexible cabin with a detached industrial shed-like structure. Photography by Harrison Photography

‘Cowboy modern’ are the words the client used to describe San Diego-based architect Lloyd Russell’s design for his house in Pioneertown, California. It’s good to know the west is by no means dead - and if this is its current iteration, it looks in good shape. When Jim Austin first thought about purchasing the land for a ranch near Joshua Tree National Park, he wanted Russell to go in on it with him, having worked together on a previous warehouse adaptation project in San Diego that was eventually shelved.

‘He was so into this property, but I wasn’t ready to pour my life savings into it, so I told him I would be his enabler,’ Russell says. Austin bought the property, which included five cabins, four of which had been rented out for short-term accommodation and included a list of the next season of bookings, which Austin adhered to. Six months into his ownership, the main cabin burned down and he needed to build from the ground up. This, according to Russell, gave them the freedom to do something different and improve on the site.

Russell, with his laid-back demeanour and collaborative nature, worked closely with Austin to realise a shared vision. According to Russell: ‘He’s a musician, and I use the analogy of how musicians always get together and play. There’s a structure and framework, but it’s about how you listen to others. This was the first time I really went about and did that.’

Early in the design process, the two men were at a well-known local bar, Pappy and Harriets Palace. ‘We were talking about the bar, which is in the adobe building and has these great features like carved-out places in the wall to put liquor bottles in. I wanted to get that vibe without being clichéd,’ Russell explains. Austin was at first interested in taking specific design cues from the interior. Russell urged him away from that, instead looking to elements from their previous warehouse project.

Looking at nearby agricultural buildings, Russell suggested using a detached shed structure over a house, which would mitigate solar gain and create shaded outdoor space that could be used year-round in the desert climate. The next step was to determine the layout of the house. As the site was surrounded by four adjacent cabins, Russell wanted to make something that took advantage of views on all sides, but wouldn’t necessarily be seen from them.

‘Ironically, I was using tricks of urban housing to create community and privacy at the same time’

Additionally, the house had to be adaptable. Its initial purpose was as a second home for Austin so Russell divided the building into two wings flanking a central kitchen. One of the wings was fitted with a sink and a refrigerator, in case Austin chose to subdivide and rent the space. But he plans to make the house his primary home within a few years, so it couldn’t feel like a set of units.

The kitchen features a roll-up garage door fronted by the ‘stage’, a large outdoor porch where the architect and client envisage events, concerts and parties taking place. This use illustrates the importance of adaptable scale in the project, and reflects the interest of the designers to create something that would be as comfortable for two people as 20, and which is achieved in part by the dual-structure arrangement of the small house nestled into the bigger shed.

The materials chosen for the house - metal siding on a wooden frame, a focus on large windows and openness - contribute to this adaptability. Both designer and client wanted something that ‘wouldn’t break’, was minimal and low-tech, and needed little maintenance. Cowboy modern may seem like an oxymoron of tough-meets-fussy, but here the interest of the client and designer led to a project that lives up to its description, proving that the cowboy spirit is alive and well.

Architect Lloyd Russell, San Diego, USA
Structural engineer Envision Engineering
General contractor PM Construction

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