Amid towering red-rock formations, a groundbreaking architectural enclave is rising in Sedona. Jaime Gillin admires the view
Photography by Bill Timmerman
Something fresh has sprouted amid the red rocks, new-age crystal shops and so-called energy vortexes of Sedona, Arizona. The Aerie is a 178-acre private development in the Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness, completely encircled by national forest land. It’s perhaps the most otherworldly landscape you can find this side of Mars.
Beyond the terrain, though, what makes The Aerie so compelling is the development’s audacious plan, which aims for more than a return on investment. Its goal is nothing less than architectural greatness.
The land had been slated for development into a golf course and hotel, but a bolder plan emerged. “As a team, we believed the land was too important to be graded into another ubiquitous golf course,” says John E. Sather, an architect and land planner at Swaback Partners. “We needed to create a community that celebrated the land and its world-class views through its architecture.”
Sather developed The Aerie’s master plan, identifying homesites “where the home and the land could become one, and not fight each other,” says Sather. “The topography and the trees needed to be deeply understood so in the end the land would ‘win’ and the house would sit comfortably integrated into it.” Swaback Partners also helped draft an 83-page document that spells out the development’s architectural principles and also balances specific guidelines — such as allowed construction materials and the orientation of garages — with the goal of “inspiring the architects and owners to do their finest work.”
So far, the vision seems to resonate; all but 15 of the 42 development sites have sold to date. Six houses are complete, and one more is under construction. Immersing potential homebuyers in the beauty of The Aerie, and helping them envision its architectural potential, is The Perch, a modern, guesthouse-style sales office that offers a scaled-down model of what’s possible at The Aerie.
The 900-square-foot structure sits on a ridgeline, capturing mountain views to the north through its custom floor-to-ceiling sliding window walls. Two-foot-thick rammed-earth walls, which were made from dirt excavated from the site, are both thermally efficient and visually striking — the clearest, most literal expression of a direct connection to the land. Other materials used in the project, including the hot-rolled steel exterior panels, the roughly textured Douglas fir walls, and the slab-on-grade concrete floors, remain in their raw, natural states.
“There’s an honesty and integrity to what we’re building here,” says Andy Byrnes, co-founder of The Construction Zone, which built and designed the home. “We’re not plopping a Santa Barbara or Tuscan house down. We’re creating an appropriate regional architecture that makes sense.”
The material selection is in line with these values. “We tend to use natural materials that express themselves as they are,” Byrnes adds. “Unfinished steel and rammed earth are materials that will age and get their own patina, like how tree bark ages. The goal is to make it feel like it’s always been there.”
More recently, the Scottsdale firm PHX Architecture completed a modern home that takes full advantage of The Aerie’s dramatic views. The clients, empty nesters who love the outdoors and own several vacation homes, wanted “a hangout spot — a place they could entertain guests and get together with family,” says PHX principal Erik Peterson.
The firm responded by designing a house that lives lightly on the land, thanks to solar panels on the garage roof and architecture that hardly disturbs the site. Four pavilions — consisting of a guest wing with bedrooms, a master suite, a main living area, and an exercise suite and pool — are linked by bridges and elevated on narrow columns over the landscape, allowing water to flow beneath them when it rains. “I wanted the house to appear to float above the ground,” says Peterson, “as if it was just gently set down on the lot and didn’t disturb anything.” Each pavilion has one stone wall, one stucco wall, and two walls with floor-to-ceiling windows angled to spotlight the distant rock formations.
Four years after completing The Perch, Construction Zone returned to The Aerie to build a 5,800-square-foot, open-plan spec house. Like The Perch, it’s built from rammed earth, glass, steel and Douglas fir (and has since sold to a pair of doctors, who use it as a vacation home). The long, linear structure needles through the existing piñon pines and 100-year-old oaks; it was built without tearing out a single significant tree. Every room has a large sliding or pivoting door that opens onto a deck and to the panoramic views beyond. Perched atop the pool house/yoga studio is a roof deck, offering 360-degree views of Sedona’s famous red rocks.
“When the sun moves over the top of the mountains, the rocks just come alive,” says Byrnes. “I’m not a super touchy-feely person, but the sun is a very powerful thing, and the way the mountain changes from morning to evening is incredible.”
By using the same materials and color palette in his architecture as appear in the surrounding landscape, Byrnes is simply taking a page from nature — and that’s exactly as The Aerie’s founders intended. “You can’t compete with that landscape architecturally — it’s too powerful,” Byrnes acknowledges. “The architecture needs to be in the background. You’re just fooling yourself if you think anything you build can stand up against these unbelievable cliffs.”