Maximizing the Minimal

With steel construction, bright orange sails, and outdoor showers, this new house brings innovative design to a classic Palm Springs neighborhood

Photography by Lance Gerber/Nu Vue Interactive

Glenn Troost and Brett Gilbert made their first visit to Palm Springs seven years ago. For three years after that, “We drove our real estate agent crazy,” Troost says. “It felt like we looked at every single home for sale in the entire city.” 

The New York couple favored the area around Ruth Hardy Park, a neighborhood characterized by large lots and a mixture of 1930s Spanish-style cottages and midcentury ranch-style houses. “We love the old Palm Springs neighborhoods like this one,” Troost says. “We found a house that needed very little major work, and we feel right at home here. The only drawback was the property next door. The house was in terrible shape and the trees and hedges had grown so tall, we could barely see the San Jacintos.”

They were patient — and pounced when that house came on the market. “The house was really a tear-down,” Troost says. “But the lot was absolutely perfect for us and what we wanted — a guest house and one we can also use for a short-term vacation rental.”

Friends referred them to o2 Architecture, whose work with Blue Sky Building Systems and vision for the property matched what the couple wanted. With the dilapidated structure gone and the hedges trimmed, the design went from bare ground to linen on the table in only four months.

“This is ‘old Palm Springs’ in a completely fresh, new way,” Gilbert says.

The long side of the lot is now the front of the house, facing the San Jacinto Mountains and opening to a long pool and outdoor entertainment area. A corrugated steel wall and ficus hedges border the back of the house, with a steel gate opening to the side yard of the main house. When the three-bedroom, three-bath house is used as a rental, Troost and Gilbert lock the gate for privacy.

They open the gate when they have an overflow of guests, and everyone troops back and forth. “Having these two places gives everyone their own special spot to hang out,” Troost says, noting the two outdoor showers — a universal draw, even for guests staying in the main house. “We love those showers. How many places in the world are there where you can enjoy a hot shower in the open, with hummingbirds and flowers all around you?”

Steel beam overhangs with canvas inserts let in light and air and shield the interior from the intense western sun. Pale gray concrete — rough for the pool deck and walkways and polished for the interior — provides a neutral foil for a simple color palette that mixes orange canvas and painted steel, deep green ficus hedges, and a turquoise pool. Desert marigold, delicate red-tipped grasses, and towering palms set in pale crushed stone are architect Lance O’Donnell’s idea of “minimal landscaping that’s party-friendly: We don’t want any guests falling into cactus or getting lost in the foliage,” he says.

The house is essentially a big shell, with bamboo cabinets providing storage and dividing the living and dining area and the bedrooms. Incandescent lighting, glass-tiled showers, brushed nickel hardware, and even paint colors were part of O’Donnell’s master design.

Two shades of white are used on the walls, separated by a barely perceptible horizontal indentation a few feet beneath the ceiling that helps anchor the line of sight. This “datum line,” O’Donnell says, “visually extends the ceiling up through the high glass windows at the top of the walls and out along the lines of the steel overhangs.”

Troost says, “That little trick is one of the things that makes this home special. You would never notice it unless someone pointed it out to you, but it makes the space feel much larger. This absolutely doesn’t feel like a 1,700-square-foot place.”

Troost is especially smitten with the fact that the home has no traditional windows or doors. Every door is a slider that opens up to the outside, and the few windows are fixed, rather than cranking open. “That means that the mountain view and the pool and the light are part of the house, not separate at all. It’s very energizing.”

Quality is in the Details

Blue Sky Building Systems uses light-gauge steel studs embedded in EPS foam for the walls and galvanized, high-strength, light-gauge steel for the frame.

Walls and frames are precision-engineered, factory built, and designed for quick assembly on site.

The post-and-beam construction eliminates the need for load-bearing walls and bracing, so architects can design doors, windows, and rooms in any configuration. 

The basic unit is a square or rectangular box or bay that can be as large as 30 by 20 feet and cantilevered as much as 10 feet.

Building with only a few touch points to the earth results in smaller foundations and less excavation than traditional construction. This is ideal for steep slopes and environmentally sensitive areas.

Architect Eyes Sustainability and Efficiency

Lance O’Donnell’s firm, o2 Architecture, has designed almost two dozen projects in collaboration with Blue Sky Building Systems — including several that overcome the challenge of steep, uneven hillside lots. The first was a 2009 project in Yucca Valley. Built with only six supporting steel columns, the house went up in eight weeks, cost $270 per square foot, and left the rocky, boulder-strewn surroundings almost untouched.

“Today, the keywords [of construction] are sustainability and energy efficiency,” says O’Donnell, a lifelong desert resident. “The market for innovative design here is picking up. There’s a realization that building new is a better investment in the long run than buying old and spending time and money to maintain and repair aging structures.” 

O’Donnell recently completed a hillside house for his family and says it has the potential for LEED Platinum designation, the highest possible.

The Gilbert-Troost house sits on a long, narrow lot, a characteristic that O’Donnell says was ideal for the project. Gilbert and Troost appreciate that the long side faces west to the mountains rather than south to the street. “The traditional view of building on this kind of configuration is to plop a yard in front, a house in the middle, and a pool in back,” O’Donnell says. “That cuts up the flow and actually makes everything seem smaller.”

Blue Sky Building Systems

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