Building a comfortable self-sufficient dwelling is no easy task, especially when in a harsh climate. But when Seattle-based firm Olson Kundig was tapped to design an off-grid home in the high desert in California, the architects rose to the challenge and delivered an elegant, net-zero dwelling known as the Sawmill House. Located in Tehachapi, California, the Sawmill House serves as a family retreat that weathers the harsh climate with durable materials and sustainable strategies.

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exterior house view

living room with hearth

Completed in 2014, the Sawmill House is named after the valley in which it resides—a scrubby and remote landscape that had been used for mining, ranching and logging. In a departure from the site’s past, the homeowners wanted a family retreat with minimal environmental disturbance that would “give back to the land, rather than take from it.” With that guiding principle in mind, Olson Kundig crafted a self-sustaining, net-zero vacation home that maximized connections between the indoors and outdoors.

aerial view

living room door open

Spread out across 4,200 square feet, the Sawmill House is built mainly of concrete blocks, steel and glass, materials chosen for their durability against the harsh and fire-prone landscape. The living space with a central hearth marks the heart of the off-grid home and features a stunning 12-by-26-foot window wall that completely retracts with a few turns of the wheel, opening up the interior to the outdoor patio. The three bedrooms are housed in the three wings that branch off from the central living space. The longer wing, which houses the master bedroom, also includes the kitchen and dining area.

exterior house view dusk

dining room table

Related: Floating Olson Kundig home makes way for Washington wildlife

“Tough as nails, Sawmill is made from durable materials that can withstand the harsh climate, where fires are a major hazard in summer and winters are extremely cold,” says Olson Kundig Architects. “The design approach was driven by a scavenger mentality, seeking always to do more with less, including using salvaged and recycled materials whenever possible.” The home is powered with a photovoltaic solar array and comes with backup propane and generator; water is supplied by an on-site well.

+ Olson Kundig

Images by Gabe Border and Kevin Scott / Olson Kundig