Desert Design

February 16, 2012

Regional differences should be greater.

This past weekend I traveled to Phoenix. In comparison to Chicago, the Southwest geography and climate could not be more different. Despite enjoying a mild winter in the Midwest, we still were very pleased to wear shorts out in the 80-degree Arizona sun. One day we went hiking and learned about the different types of cacti that populate the Sonora Desert. On another day, we drove through the Tonto National Forest en route to Bartlett Lake.  We rented a pontoon party boat and enjoyed the afternoon – a far cry from icy Lake Michigan.

Lake Bartlett

And yet, on my return from vacation, I’m once again thinking about how unnaturally similar Phoenix is to the Midwest. Last night, we had dinner at the Olive Garden. When our daughter caught a cold, we made several trips to Walgreens to get the needed remedies. If it weren’t for the more carefully crafted storefront appearance ordinances, commercial Phoenix would look the same as any other city in the American monoculture.

The similarities extend beyond the stores. Much commercial and home construction closely mirrors the styles of more temperate climates. High rises are glass clad. Residential properties have large windows. Air conditioning makes the 120-degree summers bearable. Solar panels also seem not to have caught on as one might expect below the desert sun. I question the sustainability of these communities if energy prices rise and water resources become even scarcer.

Taliesin West

Notable exceptions to conventional North American design exist. The most famous example is Frank Lloyd Wright’s southern home, Taliesin West. Mr. Wright, as he is respectfully known by the tour guides, embraced local materials and applied sensible architecture to fit the environment. Although the buildings are not air conditioned, each room remains comfortable throughout the year. Windows and skylights are smartly placed and sun shades are built-in to control temperatures. The ceiling heights are modest, but careful variation gives greater prominence to congregating rooms. There were no doors planned, until Mr. Wright’s wife complained of desert critters inviting themselves in.

Cosanti, Scottdale, AZ

The utopian experiment at Arcosanti is another more radical attempt to design to the environment. Conceived in the 1960s, Arcosanti is the culmination of futurist Paolo Soleri’s vision for arcology – the fusion of architecture with ecology. Artist-residents make a living by selling their pottery, paintings, and installations to visitors. Arcosanti intends to present an alternative to urban sprawl. Communal living helps reduce resource use. The buildings have a quasi-futuristic quality reminiscent of the Tatonoie huts from Star Wars – certainly unique to the region.

A more conventional approach to desert architecture can be seen on the way from Scottsdale to Bartlett Lake. The Sincuidados gated community is one such development that smartly applies lessons from historic local construction to high-end living. Sometimes known as Santa Fe or territorial architecture, homes in this style are characterized by flat roofs and straight lines. The designs are inspired by native Pueblo architecture and sometimes employ decorative rough-hewn lintels and wooden corbels in order to appear older. Although construction methods have changed, and may not be as truly local as the original adobe construction, the design is inspired by a response to the local environment. These multi-million dollar houses show that regional design can be efficient and elegant.

Regional building construction should be more adaptive to the environment. There are several case studies that cater to a select few. Hopefully more building designers and developers will implement the lessons learned by these examples to make desert living more sustainable for all.

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