Designer's Notebook

Features - Designer's Notebook

A look inside a job at Saguaro Vista in Tucson, Az., where a home in the desert is transformed into a paradise residence for the homeowner.

October 11, 2012
Lawn & Landscape

Saguaro Vista
Tucson, Arizona

The homeowner contacted me to create a planting plan for their new home. The architect’s plans for the pool, spa, driveway, patios and walls had already been approved and accepted. The pool and spa installation were well underway and the building contractor was scheduled to begin construction on the rest of the hardscapes in a few weeks. However, after reviewing the architect’s plans, I suggested to the homeowners that they let me create a new set of plans to provide a comprehensive design that would better meet their goals.

A before shot of the newly constructed home. Plans were already drawn up but Paul Connolly convinced the homeowners to let him start fresh.

This was a new home, essentially a clean slate within the building envelope. Beyond that was natural desert. The property sits on a narrow ridge line that slopes drastically down to shallow canyons along the front and back of the house. I wanted to create a design that incorporates elements of the house and elements of the natural surroundings to seamlessly meld the house into the desert.

The hardscape design incorporates patterns, shapes, colors and textures from the architecture that reach out into the desert. Taking advantage of the elevation change, I designed retaining walls and imported soil to create a sort of negative-edge landscape. The softscape design incorporates patterns, shapes, colors and textures from the desert that jump into the landscape and flow organically and informally through the rigid geometric contemporary architecture.

This play and interaction between the natural and architectural elements allows the landscape to transition harmoniously from house to desert. Most of the plant selections are low shrubs and groundcovers, not exceeding 30-inches high, allowing unobstructed views. Native species of saguaros and ocotillos were strategically placed to provide vertical interest without blocking views.

Three cisterns collect and store a total of 5,100 gals of rainwater, which is then used to irrigate the landscape year-round. The tanks are hidden off the master bedroom patio, underneath the new landscape. An evapotranspiration irrigation controller measures temperature, humidity and wind; and automatically adjusts the watering schedule daily. A rain-sensor will shut the controller off during rain. The plant selection consists of mostly native species and some species from other deserts which are well adapted to our Sonoran Desert. Plants were carefully chosen and placed so their mature growth size would fit the space, greatly reducing maintenance. The only maintenance is minor pruning of winter damage, periodic fertilizing and occasional clean-up of leaf litter as desired. – Paul Connolly, APLD, Sundrea Design Studio, Tucson, Ariz.

The hardscape design incorporates patterns, shapes, colors and textures from the architecture that reach out into the desert.


When is enough enough? This can be a difficult line to determine for a designer. I believe every design requires creativity balanced with constraint. Saguaro Vista is a beautiful example of really knowing and understanding when enough truly is enough.

This space speaks of the beauty of the desert and highlights the glory of the views beyond the space of the home. I appreciate the use of a native plant palette that also is low-growing and blends into the muted colors of the desert beyond the private space. The fencing is purposeful in that it is extremely minimal and visually disappears.

The elements in this design are carefully considered in such a way that the architecture and the landscape have a singular purpose. The title of this work – Saguaro Vista – is truly what Connolly intends to create, and does so in a delicate and beautiful way. – Kathryn Prideaux APLD, Allied ASID, Prideaux Design, Tucson, Ariz.

Both the architect and landscape designer
have had an innate understanding of how to blend both building and garden into the landscape. It’s the considered choice of materials and colors as well as the textures of the rough against the smooth that bring a sense of place to the project.

It is always a tough challenge for a designer to replicate the wild, but Paul Connolly’s use of native flora has managed to achieve this artfully. His use of simple yet large earth-toned slabs helps anchor the house into the immense landscape with that huge sky. The plantings of native plants through gravel takes the eye seamlessly straight to the natural desert beyond blurring the property boundary and thereby extending the garden. What I really appreciate from this design is its strong architectural structure. There are no compromises here, which is in perfect concord with the wide horizon beyond. An excellent, harmonious design. – Sally Court, FSGD, APLD, CGD Landscape Design, Richmond upon Thames, England.

This project is an exquisite example of a beautifully integrated landscape design with the residence. The various levels of the walls take your eye from the pool up to the large russet wall on the house. Pulling the walls out into the garden extends the feeling of the house into the garden, especially when the materials match.

Connolly used layers and textures of plant material to enhance the design. The use of the vertical cacti emulates the shape of the vertical windows on the house. Even the yellow calylophus flowers blend with the yellow orange pillows on the furniture. In the front of the house you have an excellent view through the glass doors to the pool beyond, inviting one to want to explore what is beyond. In landscape design you want to enjoy how your eye travels up and down and through the garden and this project has accomplished this beautifully. – Katherine Stokes-Shafer, APLD, Garden Graphics, Cleveland

Left: Plants were chosen carefully and placed so their mature size would fit the space. Right: Cistern tanks are hidden below the master bedroom patio.