Celebrating the desert

A Tucson home finds inspiration in nature and the neighborhood
Peter O. Whiteley

“Earthy color” isn’t just a description, it’s the reality of Wendy and Davitt Cunningham’s new 1,700-square-foot home in Tucson’s historic Barrio Santa Rosa. The design, materials, and color palette all celebrate desert-oriented Southwestern architecture. It’s a house with a strong sense of place.

Inside, subtle desert hues dominate, from the buckskin tone of the hydronically heated concrete floor to the weathered tans and browns of the recycled barn wood used in the ceilings. The C-shaped house wraps around a south-facing patio that’s divided into two areas by a double-sided fireplace. One side, under a canopy also made of recycled wood, is for sitting; the other, open to the sky, is a dining area. The patio also makes a safe and sheltered play space for the couple’s two young children.

The street front tells the rest of the story. Eighteen-inch-thick adobe-like exterior walls are made of integrally colored rammed earth (a mixture of native soil, cement, and a little water pneumatically compressed in forms). “The walls aren’t just there for their looks. Their mass slows heat gain in summer and blocks noise from the street,” points out designer-builder Tom Wuelpern, who developed the color palette with wife Heather and the Cunninghams. The simple, blocky façade ― animated by a rust-colored mailbox, projecting scuppers (called canales), a wine red door and windows, and dusty olive trim ― is a crisp, contemporary take on the Sonoran cottage architecture found in the surrounding area.

Design: Tom Wuelpern, Rammed Earth Development (520/623-2784); Heather Wuelpern, Before & After Design