Wasatch Back Residence | Utah, USA | Design Workshop

The sandstone escarpment defines the physical boundary of the courtyard and offers a sheltered area for the family to gather. (Image Credit: D.A. Horchner / Design Workshop, Inc.)

The Wasatch Range rises majestically from the Salt Lake Valley in northeast Utah and is highly regarded for its access to backcountry skiing, mountain biking and hiking. These recreational opportunities enticed a family of outdoor enthusiasts to realize their dream of creating a four-season, recreational “basecamp” for themselves and guests.

Emerging from its mountainous setting, the Wasatch Back Residence derives its inspiration from the geological processes which shaped its current environment. (Image Credit: Design Workshop, Inc.)

At 8,800’ in elevation, the 20-acre site rests within the Wasatch Back, a distinctive geological sub-formation of granitic intrusions and eroded sedimentary patterns, shaped by winds and freeze-thaw frost cycles. As miners settled the region in the early 1900s, numerous quarries emerged through the bluffs to excavate highly valued sandstone. Resting upon the northern slope of one such bluff, the property offers commanding views across agrarian landscapes and distant peaks. The architecture is a trio of contemporary pavilions, which respond to the expansive panorama and geologic landform. The individual structures divide and organize living areas into two, splayed wings, extending from a central entertainment space, linked by glass bridges.

To integrate the predominantly one-story structure on the sloped site, excavation created “cut” condition, revealing a 400-foot-long sandstone vein. Original plans proposed conventional retaining walls. (Image Credit: D.A. Horchner / Design Workshop, Inc.)
The landscape architect conceptualized a bold, alternative vision where the character of the geologic formation would be retained, serving as a dynamic and sculptural backdrop. (Image Credit: D.A. Horchner / Design Workshop, Inc.)
At 8,800’ in elevation, the 20-acre site rests within the Wasatch Back, a distinctive geological sub-formation of granitic intrusions and eroded sedimentary patterns. (Image Credit: Summit County, Utah GIS Database)
As miners settled the region, quarries were established on bluffs to excavate sandstone. The home rests upon one such bluffs. (Image Credit: Summit County, Utah GIS Database)

The landscape architect was introduced to the project after the shell of the home had been constructed. In order to integrate the predominantly one-story structure on the sloped site, the prior excavation process left a severe and unresolved “cut” condition uphill from the home. Original plans proposed a series of costly conventional retaining walls to resolve this condition, which would have required additional site disturbance. While preparing to construct these walls, contractors revealed a 400-foot-long sandstone vein running parallel to the home.

A model for gardens in the Intermountain West, the design cultivates a spirited indoor-outdoor living experience during all seasons. (Image Credit: D.A. Horchner / Design Workshop, Inc.)
A suspended concrete plinth emphasizes the nature of the architecture’s elevated entry. The design facilitates a passive stormwater runoff strategy under the bridge. (Image Credit: D.A. Horchner / Design Workshop, Inc.)

Eyeing its potential, the landscape architect conceptualized a new vision where the geological formation would be celebrated. The feature – a sculptural backdrop and physical boundary for the domesticated landscape – offered the opportunity to create a sheltered outdoor living environment. To confirm this vision, the landscape architect sought guidance from geotechnical engineers, who researched and confirmed the structural stability. Over a period of weeks, the design team worked in close collaboration with the contractor, engineers and surveyors to successfully expose and record the stratified layers of bedrock. Through specialized equipment and craftsman-like hand excavation, contractors carefully sculpted the raw escarpment into a dynamic feature. Beyond, the native landscape remained intact and undisturbed. The resulting effect, when juxtaposed to the architecture, offers a dynamic experience during all seasons.

Over the period of several weeks, designers worked in close collaboration with engineers, contractors and surveyors, to successfully expose and process layers of stratified bedrock. (Image Credit: D.A. Horchner / Design Workshop, Inc.)
The planting design leverages the challenges of a sloped site and organizes layers of plantings on tilted landform planes, resulting in greater visual depth. (Image Credit: D.A. Horchner / Design Workshop, Inc.)

A meandering driveway parallels the escarpment and terminates into an autocourt, strategically elevated to be hidden from interior spaces. A low stone wall, set amidst meadow grasses, demarcates the passage into the garden. Oriented toward the front door, a series of gracious steps descend through a tilted plane of grass. As terrain continues to recede, a suspended concrete plinth provides access to the entry. The design emphasizes the floating nature of the architecture’s elevated entry and facilitates a stormwater runoff strategy hidden below the bridge, reducing the need for a collection system in the rocky terrain.

The excavated bedrock, when combined with a sophisticated palette of native species, celebrates the indigenous materiality and flora of Utah. (Image Credit: D.A. Horchner / Design Workshop, Inc.)

Conversations between the landscape architect and family revealed a common appreciation for water conservation and an untraditional landscape derived from the conditions of the site. The seemingly boundless and untamed landscape served as inspiration for two distinct planting strategies.

Along the bedroom wing, a series of more intimate spaces are linked together by a meandering stream, which offers white noise, movement and reflected light. (Image Credit: D.A. Horchner / Design Workshop, Inc.)

For cultivated areas, the landscape architect curated an abstracted palette of grass and perennial species. With only 74 frost-free days annually, plants were chosen with proven adaptability to dramatic climate swings, rocky soils and variable snowpack. In contrast, and for all areas disturbed by construction, the landscape architect restored the sage-scrubland areas to pre-disturbed conditions, requiring irrigation only until establishment. This strategy, when compared to nearby landscapes of surrounding properties, represents a model for other Western gardens for how to reduce long-term water consumption and reinforce the family’s values to enhance the inherent beauty of the Wasatch Back.

A low stone wall, set intentionally higher than the finished floor of the home, strategically eliminates the presence of vehicles from within the home. (Image Credit: D.A. Horchner / Design Workshop, Inc.)
Boundaries between the landscape and architecture are blurred, emphasizing one’s experience of living in nature. (Image Credit: D.A. Horchner / Design Workshop, Inc.)
The landscape architect would strategically integrate the family’s program between the escarpment and the residence, leaving most of the property undisturbed. (Image Credit: D.A. Horchner / Design Workshop, Inc.)

Project Credits

Landscape Architecture | Design Workshop, Inc. – Aspen, Colorado
Mike Albert, ASLA (Principal)
Darla Callaway (Project Manager)
Colten McDermott (Design Staff)

Architecture | RKD Architects
Jack Snow and Sally Brainerd
Civil Engineering | JVA Consulting Engineers
Lighting Design | David Craige Lighting Design
Contractor | GoWest Development

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