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A Prairie House Refreshed
Landscape Architecture by Colwell Shelor Landscape Architecture

A Prairie House Refreshed

Colwell Shelor Landscape Architecture was asked by a family friend of one of the Phoenix-based company's principals to serve as the design team to give this Dodge City, Kansas house, which was typical of the architecture in the area, a more modern aesthetic. That included this front vestibule, which gave the residence a much-needed protected entry, and an outdoor living room on the other side of the house. Both have extended shade structure canopies. A meadow of drought-tolerant grasslands was designated for much of the several acres of surrounding property. Native trees such as a willow, were also specified. The retaining walls are made of gray, poured-in-place concrete - selected to withstand the area's harsh winters.

Dodge City, Kansas, conjures up tales of the Old West when the frontier town served as a way station on the Santa Fe Trail, which became the Santa Fe Railroad. Buffalo hunts, cattle drives, Indian wars, cowboys, gunfighters and saloons, are just part of the imagery of this historic region set on the prairielands of the American Great Plains.

Today Dodge City, with a population of around 30,000 people, serves as a support center for the local agricultural industry while still holding on to its colorful past of cowboys and cattle runs with multiple art installments and its nickname as the "Cowboy Capital of the World."

About a thousand miles away in Phoenix, Arizona, a landscape architecture firm was about to get a request from a citizen located in that historic mid-American town to bring their (somewhat) little house on the prairie, more into the modern. This all came about because the homeowner was a family friend of one of the founders of that design firm, Colwell Shelor Landscape Architecture. The firm's co-founder, Allison Colwell, ASLA, LEED AP, picks up the story from here.

A Prairie House Refreshed

To harmonize with the brick of the house, the beams, columns and perforated panels are made from high structural steel that once installed, rusted naturally and quite quickly.

A Prairie House Refreshed

The shade structure canopies were designed to transition light quality from opaque to semi-transparent to full light, and to visually anchor the house.

"Michelle Shelor's dad was an architect and he designed one of (the homeowner's) houses. And so they asked us to do this for them. It was a house similar to a lot of houses in that part of the country and they wanted to make it as good as it could be. And they really wanted a more modern aesthetic."

As it was, the house on a couple of acres had a plain front door, a stoop off the back door and was surrounded by native prairie, with some tree-lined windbreaks. A long entry drive led up to an auto court that ended with a garage.

Started in 2009, Colwell Shelor is nearing its 10-year-old birthday and began when Allison Colwell met Michele Shelor at another firm. The landscape design company now has eight people including an architect, whose services come into play when structures are involved, as was the case on this project.

Describing the stimulus behind the design, Colwell says, "Inspired by the region's raw natural beauty with its extreme semi-arid steppe climate, and the historic, rural character of the site, (we) transformed what was once an exposed, conventional brick house on a hill, into a bold, contemporary residence and garden united with the prairie."

The firm designed two additions to the residence - an entry vestibule to the south, "giving the residence a much needed protected entry," and a living room to the north - both with extended shade structure canopies that protect the house and its residents from the extreme heat commonly experienced in the arid region.

"The uncomplicated composition floats within a meadow of drought-tolerant grasslands, serving to frame long views and establish an appealing, fluid entry sequence to the front door," relates Colwell. "The clean lines and restrained palette of rustic beams, slender columns and siding of varying widths, cast-in-place concrete, gravel and water create a contemplative, inwardly focused space in front, and a comfortable outdoor entertainment patio to the north."

As for the shade structures, they were made with steel and were implemented with the intention of rusting overtime in order to complement the colors of the house's bricks. Colwell explains that they are purposefully less transparent close to the house but "as they move outward, they become more open and that's all about adjusting the eye gradually, really improving that experience of going from inside to out" so you are not suddenly hit with glare.

Also included in the design is a patio with a water feature made from concrete and veneered with granite that Colwell calls a reflecting pool.

"We were trying to really get reflections as they have the most amazing clouds and real wide open spaces," she says.

A Prairie House Refreshed

The intent of the entry vestibule, which was also made of steel that rusted, was to create a more interesting walkway, protect the front door from weather and serve as a mudroom. It was tied in the giant shade structure to represent the style of the locale and also to better connect the entry into the house.

A Prairie House Refreshed

A Prairie House Refreshed

Poured-in place concrete that was stained with a beige color makes up the front patio. The accompanying water feature was designed as a reflecting pool to mirror the vibrant skies in the area. It is a cube of concrete veneered with granite. Water emerges from the center of the feature, which is near-perfectly level, and then flows over the sides into a pondless basin of gravel, then into an underground reservoir to be recirculated.

Colwell Shelor also handled the construction administration and she quickly discovered that there was not a lot of contemporary architecture locally, so finding someone that could really give it the attention to detail it needed was a challenge. But contractor Ric Marboeuf of Dodge City, Kansas, met that challenge and was able to provide the instruction and guidance necessary to make this project great.

As she was in Arizona most of the time during, construction administration from a distance entailed "a lot of phone calls and photos and back and forth to try to understand what some of the issues were," according to Colwell.

One of the interesting lessons that the firm learned about the structures was "how to detail for snow and cold weather," which the designers were not familiar with.

There were no site visits from the design team during construction but they made one early on in the design process and then met the client once in Santa Fe to talk about the issues. And as a friend of the family, Shelor had seen it prior.

Since the initial work, Colwell Shelor has designed another structure for the homeowners that uses the same steel siding construction and houses a sauna, shower and a little area for getting ready.

Winner of the 2015 ASLA Arizona Design Honor Award, Colwell sums up the results by stating, "This project serves to transform prevailing attitudes that look at landscapes as an abstraction, only to be viewed from inside, into one that expresses landscapes as a vital part of the whole."

As seen in LASN magazine, November 2018.

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October 17, 2019, 4:44 pm PDT

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