Blog by Beebe Cline

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Moments of Meditation in a Utah Buddhist's Retreat

A week after seeing one of Imbue Design's projects in Salt Lake City, the head of a local nonprofit that develops low-income housing hired the company — composed of Christopher Talvy, Hunter Gundersen and Matt Swindel — to design a retreat for her on a dramatic site between Capitol Reef and Boulder Mountain. In addition to running her business, she is a practicing Buddhist of the Tibetan sect, and her retreat consists of a residence (completed) and a studio (under construction). We'll take a tour of the residence and see how the architects created a place that, as they put it, "spiritualizes the daily tasks of living."

Houzz at a Glance
Who lives here: A practicing Buddhist with two Chihuahuas
Location: Wayne County, Utah
Size: 1,350 square feet
That's interesting: One leg of the Y-shaped residence is built of gabions, rock-filled wire baskets normally used for retaining walls.
One element that makes the house interesting is the use of gabions for exterior walls. Gabions are wire baskets that are filled with stones, broken concrete, and/or gravel; they are often used as retaining walls. When used in buildings, gabion walls give the impression that a building rises from the land; in the case of this Buddhist retreat, the stones filling the baskets were actually gathered from the property, combined with gravel from nearby.
It's easy to see why rooting the building to its place would make sense in this part of Utah. The immediate site (about 7,000 feet above sea level) has a steep drop and distant views under the expansive sky. "Tying the project to its environment literally and figuratively," as the architects describe it, allows the house to be a place of calm and stability in the context of desert, mountains and lots of juniper trees.
In plan the house resembles a lowercase "Y," with the long bar covered in gabions intersecting at an angle with a two-story volume covered in standing-seam metal panels. These volumes relate respectively to the living area and the bedrooms. Here we see them flaring off to capture views to the east (living area) and north (bedroom).
The glass expanses on the ends and the primarily solid end walls are accentuated in this photograph taken at dusk.
About half of the long rectangular plan defined by the gabions is exterior storage, tucked under the roof as it merges with the rocky site. The gabion walls' "growing" from the site really comes across in this view toward the exterior storage. An opening on the other side (toward the view in the first photo) allows passage under this part of the building.

Note the railings atop the gabion walls; more on this soon.
It's worth pointing out a couple of things about gabions: The stones need to be larger than the grid of the basket (the mesh at the bottom enables a more solid base with gravel), and gabions are not a weather-tight construction, given the spaces between the stones.

Imbue Design used the gabions as a facing in front of a solid wall but took advantage of the stones' ability to absorb heat during the day and radiate it at night, creating a means of passive heating appropriate to the place.
Another very interesting aspect of the retreat is how it is almost invisible on approach. Here is a view from the driveway, where some boulders keep cars off the roof of the gabion-covered volume. As the architects describe the approach: "The design grows from the site. When you arrive at the project, you are introduced to a 93-foot-long deck made of resilient ipe wood."
They add that "93 feet later, you find yourself perched on top of the architecture with a mind-blowing 360-degree view of Capitol Reef, Grover Valley and Boulder Mountain."
From the roof, access to the house proper is via a stair that brings one to the outdoor space between the gabion walls seen earlier.
The front door is aligned with the stair. From here we can see the three materials that make up the house's exterior: metal panels, gabions and wood. We can also see how the gabions and wood cladding work together to make a thicker wall assembly.
The entry aligns with the large window that faces east, so immediately one is reminded of the surroundings, even when inside. The glass wall that we saw near the beginning slides open to connect inside and outside. The floor, walls and ceiling extend past the sliding glass wall to create a small outdoor zone and aid in shading the living room.

Access to the main bedroom, which angles off on the short leg of the lowercase "Y," can be seen at left.
Turning 180 degrees, we're now looking toward the entry (frosted-glass door on the right) and the open kitchen. The spiral stair heads to the roof and the home office on the second floor.
The windows that are cut into the side walls are selective and suited to the interior. In the previous photo we saw the low window above the kitchen counter and stove, and here the dining table and window work together (it's as if the table dropped down from the wall, like an ironing board) to frame a view perpendicular to the large view through the sliding glass door.
Here we are in the main bedroom, looking toward the living area (opening at left) and master bath (hallway at right). We finally meet the owner's two Chihuahuas, which the architects even considered in the design: Note the low windows on the way to the bathroom. (Yes, the windows may also serve to ventilate the spaces, but I like the idea of their giving the dogs their own view outdoors.)
Our last view of the house is from the second-floor home office and its view to the north.

While the soon-to-be-completed separate studio will be more basic than the house in terms of amenities (as it will be geared more toward enriching meditation), the house's orientation, terraces and simplicity offer what the architects describe as "moments for meditation." A calmness and sense of belonging are evident with the house inside and out.