Building the West

Coffee-table books from two of the country’s top architectural firms show off an array of innovative projects that elevate the built environment of the West.

Building the WestPaahaa Ranch (Lake Flato) — Exterior: Originally a homestead built in 1875, the property in Canyon Lake, Texas, has a two-story limestone main house, smokehouse, and wood barn. The linear flat lawns that once provided the original owners room for their lambing now defines the site and provides plenty of wide-open space for family activities. The barn was salvaged and repurposed as an outdoor living room with sliding barn doors made of slatted wood on all sides. It’s centered around an elevated trough-style swimming post — a nod to the water troughs frequented by horses and cattle back in the day.

Architecture has always been a marriage of thoughtful design, sustainability, and enhancement of the land. But when it comes to designing what Montana-based architecture firm JLF calls a “legacy home,” the terrain becomes all-important.

In a quest to strike the right balance of rugged and refined, design can become positively transcendent. When it’s successful, inspired silhouettes blend into surrounding mountain ranges and still somehow remain uniquely grounded. Steel-and-glass construction feels like it’s always been built into the West Texas landscape, and reclaimed wood-clad farmhouses feature hallmarks that will continue to weather time, traditions, trends, and generations with practical grace.

After designing the best in the West for more than three decades, two top architectural firms — JLF and Texas-based Lake Flato — are opening their files and offering an inside look at some of their most stunning properties via a pair of coffee-table books from Rizzoli. Lake Flato Houses: Respecting the Land (November 2021) and Foundations: Houses by JLF Architects (May 2022) feature an abundance of beautiful photographs, the stories behind some of their most complex and compelling projects, and invaluable insights when it comes to combining artisanal craftsmanship and Old-World techniques with the most modern sustainable technology.

While there’s no go-to formula, these are six pillars that must be considered when building a Western retreat that will last through the ages.

Paahaa Ranch (Lake Flato) — Living Room: Inside, the walls of the living area are crafted from squared cedar timbers and rough-sawn timber that were salvaged from the original structure. Hand-cut limestone walls make for a cozy attic bunk room. While visually stunning, every inch of this home is meant to stand up to the rigors of lake life. With durability top-of-mind, concrete floors and steel railings were installed, and wood-bordered glass sliding doors provide rugged-yet-refined frames for the lake views.

The Past

The architects at Lake Flato say it pays to study the structures of yesterday, even when they’re designing the most modern of manses.

“A home should celebrate the materials and craft of the area and be constructed in a manner that leverages its unique condition. To better appreciate the climate, materials, and solutions crafted to these elements, we look to the earlier architecture of the area, conceived by people who ‘could not afford to get it wrong.’ [There’s a lot to] learn from the efforts and those practical considerations.”

Courtyard House (Lake Flato) — Exterior: The concrete walls of this El Paso property tie the old with the new and create privacy from the neighbors. The newly constructed structure of  Corten steel and glass connects public rooms seamlessly with the internal court. The functionality of the sunken 7,000-square-foot courtyard and surrounding rooms acts as storm-water retention for those rare but significant rains while also offering activities via the pool, orchard, outdoor kitchen, pavilion-like garage for working on vintage cars, gym, office, spa, and plenty of room for alfresco entertaining.

The Present

According to JLF, it’s also important to get specific about what you love about the land today and the things you need from your home on a daily basis.

“What speaks to you about this place? So often the answer is not just about the mountain view. Instead, it is about connection. To relate with a breathtaking vista, yes. But it is also about connection to what that vista represents — a life spent outdoors and time spent with people who love this place. It’s about finding a sense of place in nature, in history, and in a house that encapsulates all of this.”

As writer John Heminway so beautifully puts it: “[The aim is to build a home where] inside and out, you will feel better, be better. If your office lies elsewhere, here you will do your finest work. If you are an artist, here you will float. If you need nature, here it surrounds. If you are a family, this will be the home of the heart.”

Courtyard House (Lake Flato) — Primary Bath: The property features generous 8-foot overhangs that make for shady porches, along with a variety of large and small courtyards that provide a much-needed respite from the harsh El Paso climate. An outside shower and a private courtyard off the bathroom are enclosed by tall gabion walls that shut out the suburban landscape beyond their confines, leaving the expansive sky and clouds as the main view.

Ishawooa Mesa Ranch (Lake Flato) — Exterior: A family in Cody, Wyoming, asked for a new residence that connected to the existing ranch infrastructure but that also maintained privacy. The resulting compound places a barn opposite the house, with a small central courtyard in between. Allocating one space for a softer landscape heightens the impact of domestication in this extreme landscape. The one-and-a-half-story stone residence sits heroically on the edge of the wild and connects to the barn via a sod-roofed porch. Part of the ethos of creating a family house was to evoke the atmosphere of camp, favoring shared experiences versus isolated ones, and heightening camaraderie especially as time together for this busy family becomes more infrequent and thus more precious. The stone farmhouse also reflects materials used in local construction that are durable enough to withstand extreme winter weather.

The Land

To optimize a structure’s setting, never underestimate the potential of a car ride. The team at Lake Flato advises that it’s often more beneficial piling into a car with clients than meeting for a formal presentation in the office.

“It’s where we talk about how fast the spring rains roll in and how the sun sets through a particular saddle in the distant hills during the right time of year. [We’ll talk about a] cold northern wind that may need to be buffered and spot the scorched piece of earth that yearns for shade. Placed correctly, new structures can work in concert with the land. They can mend something that is broken; they might connect to some earlier structures, or edit them out. We’re not normally ones to value time in the car, but many of the architectural solutions that have made their way into our projects have been spotted through an open window on the way to the site — stone patterns are revealed in the geology exposed by a road cut or cliff face. Reading the land is as integral to our process as the more architectural efforts that follow.”

Highland Homestead (JLF) — Exterior: More than a replica of a vintage building, this ultra-efficient structure of broad expanses of steel and glass is a departure from the utility of a traditional cabin. Breaking up the mass of the buildings, multiple rooflines alternate and convey a sense of history … buildings joined together over time. Framed iconic mountain views from both outside and in punctuate the high-elevation perch of this modern homestead. Hewn timber, stacked Montana stone, and distressed Corten steel combine to echo the regional vernacular buildings of Wyoming. Exchanging walls for windows, the design makes the landscape accessible from every angle of the house.

The Materials

While reclaimed materials are having a moment, JLF has been championing sustainability since 1979.

“Our first project began with a cabin on a Montana ranch and a challenge to match existing log structures on the property, which had been homesteaded nearly a century earlier. … Standing amongst those ruins of 80-year-old log buildings with wood that was still usable sparked an idea to reuse the old materials. Out of resourcefulness and creativity, those renewed materials harmonized an antique cabin and contemporary life. Reclaiming the wood and rebuilding it into a new form kindled a movement in American architecture. Harnessing not only the beauty of the materials, but also the pioneering spirit that settled the West within the framework of a building was an uncommon practice at the time. The organic nature

of the cabin resonated with more clients. By word of mouth, that first log cabin led to other projects — bunkhouses, writing studios, ranch restorations, and ultimately, new construction.

“We don’t use salvaged materials as ornaments in our designs. [We] incorporate these elements with authenticity. A stone wall isn’t a veneer of rocks, but a wall made of hand-selected stones stacked to be structurally sound. Massive timbers that once supported an industrial warehouse a century ago now span a modern living room with integrity to hold up the roof. Ancient chestnut planks from a threshing barn are repurposed into a floor that absorbs the footsteps of today and tomorrow.”

Forest Edge (JLF) — Living Room: The serenity of the forest emanates from the materials, settling like a breeze through the trees. The design quietly maximizes views of the Snake River valley with industrial steel-framed walls of glass that are anchored by stout stone relics and reclaimed timbers. Stone walls designed to resemble crumbling relics add a playful visual interest. Diverse natural materials transform into contemporary shapes and deliver a subtle impact in the approachable and comfortably elegant seating area.

Forest Edge (JLF) — Primary Bedroom: Reverence for the Rocky Mountain location, reclaimed wood, and stacked stone come together in the design. The building honors the woodland haven by featuring a restored homestead cabin as the primary bedroom suite and running wide-plank chestnut floors reclaimed from a foundry throughout the house. The room is an homage to log cabins of the past but lightens the concept with a window wall and a whitewashed ceiling for contrast.

The Engineering

All architecture requires extensive planning, but building a legacy home in mountainous terrain requires real expertise, says JLF.

“Naturally, the climate and characteristics of a mountain slope require expertise in design and construction. The extensive planning and skill to implement an architectural vision is often what goes unseen. The engineering feats required to construct a solid foundation that will resist shifting, sliding, or leaking are elaborate. Considerations for seismic activity, snow load, wind force, and sun exposure often determine the practical design decisions as much as aesthetic ones.”

Fieldstone (JLF) — Exterior: Stepped into the hillside, the multilevel main house minimizes its footprint on the property but achieves maximum functionality with space for guest sleeping quarters and entertainment areas. Bound by the regional materials that reflect the Mountain West — native fieldstone, hewn timbers, reclaimed barn wood — the structure fuses the past and the present with hints of modernism and the refined lines of steel-framed windows and a metal roof. A later addition continues the rugged framework of stone and timber with modern touches. Matching the stone and reclaimed timbers, as well as creating the patina of the metal roof, allows the seamless blending of new elements with the earlier structure.

The Big Picture

When everything goes according to plan, the architecture and landscape should become one, says Lake Flato.

“Outdoor rooms and courtyards become as important as the enclosed interior spaces. Often these interior spaces give way to the outdoors, establishing a hybrid space that blurs the distinction between indoors and out. … It is not always about choosing the most beautiful site or maximizing a particular view; it is also about aligning these two, sometimes conflicting, perspectives — the natural and the man-made — to create the most successful living experience both within and outside the house.

“Light, overhanging roofs keep direct sunlight out of windows and can also be designed to collect rainwater or solar energy. Massive stone walls help absorb radiant energy, keeping interiors cool during the day and warm at night. We increasingly use building performance simulation software to optimize energy use, such as solar heat gain. While emerging technologies help provide additional layers of science, our initial concepts are often based on a passive climatic response inspired by the vernacular architecture of the region.”

Fieldstone (JLF) — Staircase: This three-story home was inspired by 18th-century stone buildings the owners encountered during time spent in England. The rugged framework of stone, steel, and timber stands up to the weather and exposure of Wyoming’s four seasons. Inside, the design is a convergence of romance and rusticity, even while it diverges from the traditional with modern facets like the precision-engineered glass staircase, which takes center stage as a dramatic architectural component.

Lake Flato Houses: Respecting the Land, by Oscar Riera Ojeda editor, Helen Thompson contributor.

Foundations: Houses by JLF Architects, by JLF Design Build and Seabring Davis, photographs by Audrey Hall.


From our August/September 2022 Issue

Building the West