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Builder John Gurley Believes Perfection is All in the Details

2022 MASTERS of the SOUTHWEST Award Winner - John Gurley

With more than 100 custom homes crafted all over the Valley, this Scottsdale builder believes that perfection is all in the details. John Gurley

By Nora Burba Trulsson

On an unseasonably warm morning, builder John Gurley pushes open the telescoping glass walls at a contemporary Wickenburg home he’s remodeled, pointing out features such as the home’s floating butterfly roof, the pivoting mesquite front door, the newly added lower level and the waveless lap pool, specially installed for the homeowner, who’s a competitive swimmer. 

“This was a basic 1970s slump block house that we expanded,” explains Gurley of the project that he worked on with architect James Moffatt, interior designers Holly Ogden and Michael Marlowe and landscape designer Jeff Berghoff. “It had a great location. We raised the roof and opened everything up to the views. One major challenge was salvaging the original slump block during demolition and reusing it to create new walls. You can’t get this kind of block anymore.”

This attention to detail and the hands-on minutiae of construction is what has made Gurley one of the most sought-after residential builders in town, putting him in charge of building more than 100 abodes—including eight in Wickenburg—since he joined his father’s construction firm, R.J. Gurley Construction, in 1994. During the past quarter century, he’s worked with architects and interior designers such as Erik Peterson, Jon Poetzl, Ron Brissette, Craig Wickersham, Brent Kendle, Elizabeth Rosensteel, Wiseman and Gale Interiors and others to craft homes to their design standards and to please the homeowners.

Not bad for someone who admits, as a youth, he was a tad ambivalent about the hard labor part of construction. Gurley was born in in Santa Cruz, Calif,, where his father owned a moving company. “I grew up moving furniture,” he recalls, “but my dad built his own house, so I helped him with that. I wasn’t that crazy about the digging and the sweeping, but I liked the tangible result at the end.”

Eventually, Gurley’s father, Robert Gurley, moved to Arizona and became a builder, starting with spec homes before launching into build-to-suit projects. The younger Gurley also came to the desert, landing at ASU in 1988 with the intent of studying architecture. “I soon discovered I was not an artist,” Gurley confesses with a laugh. “Also, the good times at ASU got the best of me. I realized that I just needed to get a degree—in political science—and get to work.”

1. As viewed from the entry, the home’s great room features the drama of a new soaring butterfly roof and glass walls that take in the Wickenburg landscape. “When we first walked through the existing house, I could see a lot of potential,” says Moffat. “I wanted the home to become open and airy, with the main roof to visually float.” 2. Marlowe created the pick axe sculpture as a focal point above the living room fireplace. Furnishings were chosen to reflect the modern desert architecture. 3. A dropped ceiling above the kitchen’s cooking area and island neatly conceals lighting and HVAC elements. The rift oak cabinetry was given a deep charcoal stain to contrast with the pale block walls.

After joining his father’s construction firm, Gurley learned by doing and helped the company grow, with many projects in North Scottsdale. “In the beginning, I knew nothing about how to build a house from the ground up, but I found out fast,” he recalls. “The first house I handled from start to finish was in 1999, at Desert Highlands. The clients were very nice and patient with me.”

After a few years, Gurley’s father, now 78, handled fewer projects and let Gurley take the lead, growing the company’s reputation for quality, responsiveness and not leaving any detail to chance. Over the years, Gurley has come to relish a construction challenge. “It’s easy to build a basic home on a flat lot,” he notes, “but I love a hillside home with unique materials and precise architecture.”

Design professionals love working with him. “Our clients hire an architect and an interior designer for a reason,” Gurley says. “I have opinions and express them, but I am not the designer. I am not the homeowner. I am the builder.”

“I built my own house. I wrote the checks. It made me better understand my clients and how the building process feels to them. It became personal.”

—John Gurley, builder

1. As seen from the street, the expanded home features the original slump block construction, but is made modern with the new roofline and glazing. Landscape designer Jeff Berghoff used desert plantings and new hardscape to lead visitors to the front entrance. 2. Moffatt remembers that originally, the homeowners wanted only a new lap pool because the husband is a competitive swimmer, but the project expanded to include a complete remodel and the addition of not only the pool, but also the upper-level cantina, cantilevered deck and lower-level wine cellar and bunkhouse, all on the right. 3. At the back of the home, the original slump block walls are a prominent architectural feature. Gurley saved the blocks from some walls during the home’s demolition process to reuse in the renovation because the 1970s-era blocks were no longer being manufactured. 4. The new angled roof floats on steel posts, allowing clerestory windows to add more light to the interior.

Architect Jon Poetzl, who has worked with Gurley on several projects, including the builder’s own Arcadia home, appreciates that approach. “John is a builder with a keen passion and eye for design,” observes Poetzl.  “I love working with him because he comes to the table with suggestions rather than roadblocks.  He is a true team player.”

Adds architect Ron Brissette, another collaborator, “John is a solid team player with an outstanding sense of process and attention to detail. He has executed some great projects for me and makes every one shine.”

Interior designer Elizabeth Rosensteel also heaps praise on Gurley. “As design professionals, we try to impart as much information through our drawings and construction documents as humanly possible,” she says.  “Unfortunately, sometimes even that is not enough. Without someone like John who understands the necessity of precision and has an eye for accuracy, the only way these details are articulated is by his perseverance. John is never one to back down from any of our challenges.”

1. Builder John Gurley’s work on the renovation and expansion of a Wickenburg home included the addition of a cantina, designed by architect James Moffatt and interior designers Holly Ogden and Michael Marlowe. The space is made lively through colorful Mexican cement tiles and comfortable, striped club chairs. 2. The home’s mesquite front door, designed by the architect, opens to a windowed alcove. The flooring is reclaimed cathedral stone. 3. Yucca and cactus frame the front of the house. 4. The curving block wall is original to the house. The architect stripped away dividing walls and doors so that the curve becomes a key element to be seen from the kitchen, dining and living areas.

Residential challenges are not the only ones that Gurley has tackled. He’s done commercial projects over the years, including architect Jack DeBartolo 3’s modernist Bicycle Haus store in downtown Scottsdale. Gurley’s work in Wickenburg has also led him to handle renovations and updates for the storied guest ranch, Rancho de Los Caballeros, which was recently sold to new owners.

But the project that moved Gurley forward the most professionally was his own home, which he worked on with Poetzl. The project started out as a remodel of an Arcadia home, but morphed into a new build—at 3,400 square feet, modest in size, but midcentury in influence. The smaller size respected the vernacular of the neighborhood, and Poetzl didn’t mind when Gurley took a few liberties with the architectural design. “I built my own house. I wrote the checks,” says Gurley of the experience. “It made me better understand my clients and how the building process feels to them. It became personal.”

Back at the Wickenburg house, Gurley starts locking up, turning out lights and making sure all is in place. Though he and his team of eight are headquartered in Scottsdale, Gurley climbs into his truck, calling it his rolling office, to check emails and project progress.

“There are so many great builders out there,” he says just before turning on the ignition. “But I always try to put myself in my clients’ shoes and give them a first-rate, well-built home. When I give them the final bill, I want them to be happy with their home and happy to pay me.”

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