Architect Joey Pruett specializes in modern residential architecture and design.

Top American modern architect got his start in the Swiss Alps

March 11, 2024

American residential architect Joey Pruett runs A21 Architecture and Design firm in Denver, Colorado. His work, influenced by contemporary European architecture, offers a fresh take on 21st-century living. We sat down with Joey to talk about his professional journey.

What informed the decision in the young you to become an architect?

As a child growing up outside Atlanta, I spent a lot of time exploring in the woods and building tree forts with friends. There was something magical about how light came through the trees, hit the leaves, and created an almost ethereal woodland atmosphere. I didn't realize the magic of it then, but when I find myself in a similar environment today, those memories and experiences return with fond memories of how certain places and light can evoke certain feelings.

Throughout high school, my mind was almost solely on sports and I often found myself in trouble with my teachers for spending the class sketching stadiums and arenas instead of taking notes. As I moved into college I thought my love for sports would lead me to a career of coaching but that wasn't for me, so I dropped out and spent a few years working for a city planting trees as I tried to find my career path.

This experience helped me reconnect with nature, and I went back to school for Urban Planning & Design at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. It just clicked — I loved being in a studio environment in school, learning from architects, urban planners, and landscape architects. Towards the end of my Urban Planning & Design undergraduate studies, I saw how slow-moving the bureaucracies within cities are, and I wanted to be less in the policy making and more in the space making design side.

Stone cladding elevates this pool house with floor-to-ceiling windows and large overhangs protecting against intense summer sun. Concept by Joey Pruett, AIA for a client in Greenwood Village, a suburb of Denver.

Was that the moment when you knew modern architecture was your true calling?

That came a little later when I moved to Denver to pursue a Master's Degree in Urban Design at the University of Colorado. Through a few elective classes in architecture, I met teachers who left a lasting impression on me and I decided to continue my education with a second Master’s Degree in Architecture. 

After my first year of Architecture, I did a study-abroad program in Italy. I spent a month in Rome visiting all the classic buildings, but one day my teacher told me: "You must see the Therme Vals in Switzerland." It is a hotel and spa designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor — and I thought it looked interesting in the photos, but I didn't realize that one trip would change my life forever.

Quartzite stone slabs from the Vals Valley in the Swiss Alps provide the design foundation for the mysterious indoor pool at Therme Vals. Photo by Fabrice Fouillet.
Quartzite stone slabs from the Vals Valley in the Swiss Alps provide the design foundation for the mysterious indoor pool at Therme Vals. Photo by Fabrice Fouillet.

When I first walked into the building and saw how the natural daylight was hitting this rough, yet gleaming quartzite stone — all these light bulbs in my head starting going off on how architecture can be truly meaningful and evoke feelings, much like those experiences I had as a kid running around the woods. That day was a defining moment for me educationally and professionally.

The summer after my second year of architecture studies I met Scott Lindenau, co-founder of Studio B Architecture in Aspen, and was offered a summer internship followed by my first full time job after I finished up my graduate studies. Studio B specializes in high-end residential projects, and that experience set me on the path I'm on now. In my five years with Studio B, learning from Scott and his team, I practically received a doctorate in high-end residential design.

How important is it to find someone like Scott for a young architect? 

Scott was a mentor for me, a guiding figure: teaching from a collaborative lens what was expected to produce some of the best homes in Colorado, in the Mountain West. Having day-to-day exposure and mentorship from someone like Scott is extremely important and influential for young architects. I saw first-hand how Scott ran a successful architectural firm, helping me set the standards I later incorporated into my practice. Any driven person’s goal is always to surpass your mentor.

Do you have magazines or design books that reflect what you believe in as an architect?

Yes, I admire Peter Zumthor and his work. He wrote two influential books: Thinking Architecture, and Atmospheres. I found these books after my first trip to Switzerland, and I remember thinking: these ideas make sense in that he was putting words to all of those feelings I had as a kid or my first time visiting the Therme Vals. The role of light, connection to the site — all the things I felt inside but couldn't quite articulate were there. I return to these two books frequently, and guess what — I've recommended them to my clients before. They are easy reads, only about 90 pages, so you can get through them in an hour and a half.

Thinking Architecture is a book that delves into the essence of architecture I believe in. The book covers everything — it is not about a particular aesthetic style, place or time period in architecture, it talks about the big picture ethos of how to approach architecture as a process. It's a must-read.

Spa resort and hotel Therme Vals, designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, sits deep in the Vals Valley in Switzerland. The green roof softens the austerity of the quartzite natural stone, blending with the gray and green palette of the surrounding mountains. The hotel is now called 7132 Thermal Baths. Photo by Fabrice Fouillet.

You described three things that play a key role in your designs — site, light, and trees — which all come from site analysis. What decisions do you draw from site analysis?

First of all, I tell my clients: look, no two projects are the same. Some clients show me Pinterest boards of homes they like and that's great — but these pictures are other people's projects, other sites, constraints, and budgets that have resulted in what you see in those photos. Those Pinterest boards and Instagram images are nice as basic idea generators but I want my clients to understand that their site, budget, and goals are unique. Allowing us as a team - client, architect, and builder - to go on a journey of discovery together where we’re crafting a unique design response to their site I find results in a much better outcome. 

Wandertree Residence in Boulder, CO by Joey Pruett, AIA NCARB. The house with its floor-to-ceiling windows and doors was carefully sited to maximize mountain views. Photo by J.C. Buck.

I always start with a discussion about my client's goals and their budget. That allows me to come to the project site with some understanding of the scope and budget, and how to begin synthesizing those elements with the site opportunities. Remember, having a good builder on the team early on to give instant feedback on how pricing and the budget is tracking with design saves a lot of headaches during the process.

The site analysis allows me to understand both the opportunities and constraints of the site. Is there a fabulous tree, can I see a Colorado peak in the distance, does the light hit the property differently at 8 am versus 4 pm, is there a setback imposed by the permitting entity, is access severely limited? It's my job to take these site constraints and opportunities, marry them up with budget and client goals, and look for ways to maximize opportunities with design work.

Wandertree Residence - a modern home in Boulder, Colorado. Designed by Joey Pruett, A21 Architecture.
Wandertree Residence - a modern home in Boulder, Colorado. The window above the kitchen countertop was a result of conversations with the client to provide great views and plenty of natural light. Designed by Joey Pruett, A21 Architecture. Photo by J.C. Buck.

If you just picture in your head all these celebrated homes like the Stahl House by architect Pierre Koenig in Los Angeles, or the Sculptured House designed by architect Charles Deaton here in Genesee just outside Denver — those houses are spectacular but what makes them special is how they interact with the site. So it's not just about the house — it is about the house and the site, and how those work together. It all starts with understanding the site.

Joey Pruett runs his A21 Architecture studio out of Denver, CO. Photo by Daniel Jenkins.

Your early design drafts include a basic study of massing. Why is it important for your clients to see that?

We have to identify the opportunity and constraint zones of the site — they give us a basic diagrammatic understanding of the site. Only then we can start putting in these conceptual volumetric massings.

The site analysis is done in the initial stages of a project — the outcome is a comprehensive review of the location, site condition, topography, zoning regulations, traffic conditions, and climate.
Site analysis sets the baseline for understanding site opportunity zones and massing.
MCK Residence in Greenwood Village, Colorado — Site analysis sets the baseline for understanding site opportunity zones and massing.

I begin with 2D models where we just lay down questions like: in this opportunity zone, would it make sense to feature the mountain range view or a particular light, or would it be better to put a kitchen in that opportunity zone? So we ask very fundamental living questions; architects like to call them programmatic elements. From there we connect the dots of the program. 

Then the building starts emerging, and we begin to push and pull the massing in 3D. It's less coming up with something pretty, it's more a process informed by research from the site analysis and convos with the clients — the building almost designs itself. In this schematic design phase, I am just there to articulate the nuances. The building is starting to emerge but it's still very malleable. I believe it's critical to build a strong design foundation to guide the next steps of the process.

Architectural rendering of a planned modern mountain home in Conifer, Colorado. Design by Joey Pruett of A21 Architecture.

Do you go through multiple versions of massing? 

Yes, but think about it as a dialog between the architect and clients. I prefer to show multiple options for building massing because it encourages dialogue about priorities, preferences, and design aspirations. When clients actively participate in the decision-making process and articulate what resonates most with their vision for the project, magic happens.

Each massing option represents a different approach to addressing the site’s opportunities and constraints, and the ultimate goal is to arrive at a solution that feels deeply rooted in its context and aligned with the objectives and aspirations of the client.

Even in that conceptual phase, you still have to adhere to the local building rules. Which building code restrictions do you find challenging? 

It depends on where you are, some building codes are more open, others are more restrictive. Particularly at some rural mountain sites, I find some zoning regulations challenging, for example a hard height restriction where you can only build a 35-ft tall house. There's no real reasoning behind this restriction. Surrounding trees are 30 feet tall, we're in the middle of a forest but you can't get above those tree canopies to get amazing views of the Colorado mountains. I’m not asking to build a skyscraper, but couldn't we trade a bigger footprint for a smaller footprint that touches the land more kindly with less deforestation… but we get a slightly taller house that can take advantage of views?

Some form-based design standards in remote mountain sites are overly restrictive and—sadly—result in a one-size-fits-all design aesthetic based on a romanticized vision of mountain architecture with no cultural, historical, or regional context to the alpine environments of Colorado.

On the other hand, building codes recently adopted stricter requirements for insulation and building efficiencies, so the R-values of the building insulation are increasing. It's a move in the right direction, but it impacts the architecture and provides aesthetic challenges because roofs and walls are thicker. Clients are often asking for sleek wall and roof profiles but we can't do that, not with the building materials readily available or at a cost the client is willing to bear. Ultimately, the increased R-values and U-values lead to more energy-efficient, environmentally responsible, and longer-lasting homes, which is a good thing and the challenge of adjusting the architectural elements to the new insulation requirements is one I’m happy to take.

Architect Joey Pruett, founder of A21 Architecture, works in his Denver studio.
Architect Joey Pruett, founder of A21 Architecture, works in his Denver studio. Photo by Daniel Jenkins.

What are three things you can't live without?

  1. My wife Liz who is also an architect. Even though she works at a different firm, she understands what I go through on a day-to-day basis and is a true partner.
  2. My iPhone which lets me run my business and stay connected with my clients and the outside world. It's a guilty necessity.
  3. Our collection of stones from the Therme Vals in Switzerland. They give me memories of where I discovered how architecture can create intense feelings and emotions.
3D model of modern urban contemporary home on a large lot in Centennial, Colorado
3D architectural visualization of an upcoming residential project for a client in Centennial, Colorado


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