Olson Kundig is a Seattle-based design firm led by Jim Olson, Tom Kundig, Kirsten Ring Murray, Alan Maskin, Kevin Kudo-King, and Hemanshu Parwani. Founded in 1966 by Jim Olson, the firm is based on the essential ideas of buildings serving as a bridge between nature, culture, histories, and people, and that inspiring surroundings have a great positive effect on individuals. With a strong focus on sustainability, the studio believes the performance of a building to be driven by its people, place, and program. With their architecture, the firm intends to blur boundaries between inside and outside, enabling individuals to actively engage with their surroundings even when they are inside. Defining research and development as ‘little r, big D’, the practice focuses its research efforts on developing ideas into built projects. The firm actively participates in creative exchange via fellowships, internships, speaker series, and mentorship. In this article, we will discuss Sawmill, a family retreat designed by the firm in California’s harsh high Mojave desert.

Sawmill by Olson Kundig: A Self-sufficient Home - Sheet1
Sawmill. Tehachapi, California_©olsonkundig.com

Project Profile

Design Completion: 2013
Project completion: 2014
Gross Conditioned Floor area: 3,458 sq ft
Gross Unconditioned Floor area: 808 sq ft
Stories: 2
Site Area: 1,677,060 sq ft
Occupancy: 6
Design Philosophy

The design approach was driven by a scavenger mentality, seeking always to do more with less, including using salvaged and recycled materials whenever possible,’ -Olson Kundig.

Offering a new model for sustainability, Sawmill stands out as a net-zero single-family home operating completely off the grid. With a focus on minimizing disturbance to its remote surroundings, Olson Kundig emphasizes and acknowledges the desert for being harsh and fragile at the same time. Sawmill can be seen as a building connecting people to the place. The client wanted their house to give back to the land rather than take from it noting the site’s history of mining and logging.

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Context Plan_©olsonkundig.com
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Neighbouring Context_©olsonkundig.com

Planning, Style and Concept | Sawmill

With the traditional ideology of tents around a campfire, the house has three wings connected by the central hearth in the living area. The outdoor patio transforms itself as a fourth tenth around the fire with the help of a 12 X 26 feet retractable window wall. Designed to stand up to the severe climate, the building channels canyon breezes in summer and captures heat in the winters. The landscape is left as is and acts as a natural defense against wildfires. It is allowed to regenerate itself after years of mining and logging. The permeability of the gravel also helps reduce the impact of the runoff from the nearby stream. The window wall, which is the sliding facade of the family living area, engages around the surrounding site to establish a phenomenological experience. Other glazing frames are strategically placed with respect to views of the neighbouring mountains.

Sawmill by Olson Kundig: A Self-sufficient Home - Sheet3
Conceptual Planning_©olsonkundig.com
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Site Plan_©olsonkundig.com
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Main Level Plan_©olsonkundig.com
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Section looking north_©olsonkundig.com
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Exploded Axonometric Illustration_©olsonkundig.com

Materials and Construction

25 tons of structural steel was obtained from a decommissioned cement plant which led to a 13% reduction in the building’s carbon footprint. Wood was found on-site in an existing barn used for stair-treads, doors, and the dining table. Olson Kundig critically opted for the natural beauty of the materials used. It was specifically redesigned to incorporate the structural steel salvaged from the cement plant nearby. The use of CMU blocks instead of cast-in-place concrete walls lowered costs, saved energy, and reduced carbon footprint by 33% from the original design. The building is designed to keep the case of a seismic event in mind by using self-bracing forms contributing to enhancing safety. The completely openable fireplace acts as lateral shear bracing, strengthening it further.

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Night View Gabe Border_©olsonkundig.com
Material Palette_©olsonkundig.com

Innovation and Technology | Sawmill

Implied Technology_©olsonkundig.com

Olson Kundig envisioned the building as a union of high design with high performance. The massive concrete fireplace becomes a focal point that harvests the hot air by sending it down before running up through the chimney. This enables heat exchange into the basement and living area through radiation. The fireplace along with the window wall is crucial in blurring boundaries between inside and outside.

Fireplace, Hearth of the house_©olsonkundig.com
Fireplace, Hearth of the house_©olsonkundig.com
Fireplace, Hearth of the house_©olsonkundig.com

All portable water is obtained from an on-site well which is pumped using solar energy. The rainwater is collected in a storm drain which then returns back to the ground water table given the sporadic annual rainfall. Wastewater is filtered through a septic tank before being released into the leech field.

Water System_©olsonkundig.com

The design adopts net-zero passive design strategies to be able to operate completely off-grid. The fireplace works as a lateral bracing where the air passed through maximizes heat extraction. Thermal loads are primarily met with a five-ton ground source heat pump. Large overhangs reduce solar gain in the summer while it acts as an open-air pavilion in temperate weather.

Resource and Material Conservation_©olsonkundig.com

Adding to its complete self-sufficiency and survivability, all energy is produced on-site with a backup battery. During stress or shock or natural disasters or blackouts, it operates on a 14 KW backup propane generator which is also available on non-solar days. A backup boiler system is in place in case of ground source heat pump failure.

Olson Kundig highlights its philosophy of architecture serving as a bridge between people and place through this project. The client being an integral part of the process also participated in the post-occupancy evaluation of the building. Sawmill has received multiple awards for its minimalistic and holistic approach and for creating a positive impact on the energy landscape of the United States.  


  1. Olson Kundig (n.d.). Olson Kundig — Sawmill. [online] olsonkundig.com. Available at: https://olsonkundig.com/projects/sawmill-canyon-retreat/ 
  2. www.aia.org. (n.d.). Sawmill – AIA. [online] Available at: https://www.aia.org/showcases/185631-sawmill 
  3. Erin (2018). The Sawmill House By Olson Kundig. [online] Contemporist features great ideas from the world of design, architecture, interior design, furniture, lighting, and art. Available at: https://www.contemporist.com/sawmill-house/ 
  4. HomeWorldDesign. (2017). Sawmill Retreat / Olson Kundig Architects. [online] Available at: https://homeworlddesign.com/sawmill-retreat-olson-kundig-architects/ 
  5. ArchDaily. (2018). Sawmill / Olson Kundig. [online] Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/896181/sawmill-olson-kundig 

Prachita Rijhwani is an architecture graduate and a passionate musician. A keen observer and a curious learner, you will always find her exploring a new hobby. When it comes to design, she believes it to be the best medium to express innovation and logic together.