Case Study: Wabi-Sabi House by Sparano + Mooney Architecture

Wabi-Sabi, a house for a young family tucked into Utah’s Emigration Canyon, could also be called Yin-Yang. Yes, it revels in the earthy imperfections of nature, but it also balances the opposing yearnings of the human heart—one for stimulation and one for repose. It strikes the perfect poise between urban house and rural escape—just 15 minutes from Salt Lake City and a world away. 

Designed by Sparano + Mooney Architecture, the house taps into its site opportunities with two cantilevered volumes, one oriented to peaceful mountain views and one trained on Salt Lake’s kinetic cityscape at the undulating canyon’s base. The domestic program occupies the mountain view volume, located to the north and arranged on an east-west axis. The public volume steps down with the hill and splays southwest toward the lights of the city.

Mountain Blend

As careful as the house is to capture views for its occupants, it also does its best to preserve the views for others. “It’s not a canyon that’s heavily traveled, but quite a few hikers do go by,” says Anne Mooney, AIA. “We did try to reduce the mass of the house and embed it in the site. Those cantilever volumes float off the ground, but we were careful to ensure that sightlines were preserved and that we did not build on a ridgeline. It’s such a spectacular place.” 

The street above the house sits on the ridgeline, but hikers who might gaze down from the road would see Wabi-Sabi’s vegetated roof camouflaging the volumes as they mimic the surrounding terrain. Cedar cladding stained black and glazing shaded by screens help the house recede into the shadows of the canyon walls.

The firm’s design targets LEED Gold and complies with Architecture 2030 goals. “LEED is nice because it hits different areas of sustainability and water conservation,” says Anne, who is LEED accredited. In keeping with those benchmarks, the architects took great care to reduce construction waste by dimensioning materials in standard sizes. As architect Nate King, AIA, explains, “We worked with our wood supplier pretty early on to determine the height of the home and reduce overall waste. We ultimately chose Select-Tight-Knot cedar for its tighter knots and longer lengths.” 

The high-performance building envelope comprises a 12-inch-thick double-framed wall assembly with a thermal break, closed cell insulation, and blown-in blanket insulation. The roof assembly combines 6 inches of rigid insulation and 16 inches of cavity insulation. Glazing is strategically placed to reduce heat gain and facilitate natural ventilation. And the firm worked in symbiosis with the site to maintain the natural flow of stormwater runoff.  

“It was about nestling within the natural site and almost being one with the landscape,” says Nate. “The two volumes are the same proportion and there are integrated pathways along the natural topography. The whole idea about indoor-outdoor relationships was a critical way of thinking on the project.” John Sparano, FAIA, concurs. “Living outside is an integral part of building in the intermountain west.”

Mind the Pets  

Concrete patios form the key outdoor entertaining spaces on the hilly property. Off the great room, a southern patio captures vistas from canyon to city, with a custom blackened steel firepit for cool nights and a board-formed concrete dog run to protect the family dog from predators. “There are coyotes, bobcats, and mountain lions in the canyon,” Anne observes. Another west-facing patio tucks beneath the cantilevered primary bedroom suite, providing shelter from the sun and privacy for a hot tub. 

The patios also serve a more essential purpose—as a fire break. “There are fire issues up here, and, although the house is clad in wood, it’s designed to resist fire,” says Anne. “There are no overhangs except for the cantilevers, the base is concrete, and the wall assembly has a fire rating.” 

“We worked with the fire department to incorporate defensible space,” Nate adds. “We curated the landscape within 50 feet to be less prone to fire danger and added natural irrigation to keep the site less dry. It is fairly remote up there.” There are sprinklers inside the house as well.

Originally, the plan was to wrap one volume in zinc and one in shou sugi ban, which would have also added fire resistance, but budgetary constraints came into play. Instead, the stained cedar cladding achieves a similar look. At the front of the house, the cedar morphs into a screen as part of an entry procession punctuated by glimpses of the panoramic view. A “mudroom” bench tucks into a niche along the way, addressing the view. 

“You can sit on the bench, take your shoes off, and elongate that threshold experience before you go in the front door,” says Anne. “We wanted the entrance to be an orchestrated experience—to see the cladding dissolve from a solid mass into a screen and to acquaint the visitors with the view.” Once inside, guests are drawn down the stairs of the public volume toward the great room and cityscape beyond. Family, however, can follow the level path straight to the private bedroom wing, terminating in the mountain view. 

Materials on the main levels are bright and warm—white walls, white oak flooring, and white Caesarstone surfacing. Tile floors in the hallways were laid out to reduce waste. “Every end cut is on the opposite side,” says Nate. “We try to select materials pretty quicky after we have the schematics,” Anne adds, “so we can alter to accommodate certain products rather than cut to fit.” 

Below the primary suite, a workout space with a powder room shares the exterior’s board-formed concrete walls and concrete flooring, handy for trips back and forth to the nearby hot tub. Inside, the floors are radiant.

The original plan for the house was to run the gantlet of LEED Gold certification, but the COVID pandemic set the timetable back. Even if the glittering goal falls by the wayside, the firm is unfazed. “The standard is embedded in our process whether our clients ask for it or not,” says Anne. 

With LEED the metrics are clear, but what it doesn’t calculate is the value of designing a custom home that lives like two houses—a primary dwelling and a vacation escape, negating the need to build both.


Emigration Canyon

Salt Lake City, Utah

Project Credits

Architect: Anne G. Mooney, AIA; John P. Sparano, FAIA; Nate King, AIA; Jun Li (renders); Drew Olguin (model builder), Sparano + Mooney Architecture, Salt Lake City

Builder: Living Home Construction, Salt Lake City

Interior Designer: Sparano + Mooney Architecture (in collaboration with the client)

Engineering: McNeil Engineering, Sandy, Utah; Structural Design Studio, Salt Lake City

Landscaping/Sprinkler Systems: Kappus Landscape Sprinkler LLC, Salt Lake City

Project Size: 4,000 square feet

Site Size: 9.96 acres

Construction Cost: $400 a square foot

Photography: Matt Winquist (exteriors); Lucy Call (interiors)

Key Products

Cladding: 1×6 western red cedar 

Entry Door: Iron Door Works

Fasteners: Hilti; Simpson Strong-Tie

Faucets/Showerheads: California Faucets

Fireplace: Heatilator

Garage Door Opener: LiftMaster

Home/Lighting Control: Control4

HVAC/Humidity Control: Bryant Heating & Cooling

Kitchen Appliances: Thermador

Paint: Benjamin Moore; Tnemec

Roofing: TPO; green roof/rock ballast

Sinks: ROHL (kitchen); California Faucets (primary bath); Lacava (utility)

Skylights: Aladdin Industries

Toilets: Duravit

Tub: Dornbracht

Underlayment/Sheathing: AdvanTech by Huber Engineered Woods

Ventilation: AprilAire Air Cleaners 

Washer/Dryer: Asko

Windows: USI Supplier; Weather Shield

Window Wall Systems: Weather Shield