We’ve talked before about ‘modern’ architecture and the things that go along with that school, that era of design and construction, and for us, the new, true modern architecture needs to be one thing: sustainable. It needs to be responsive to its environment.
Sustainable Design & Construction
It starts with the design. Speaking from our own experience, that means looking at the environments we are designing for. Is it somewhere far removed from the bustle of city life? Is it at the foot of a mountain where the air will flow in a specific way? Understanding our environments and site let us design with them in mind, to leverage the available, existing environmental phenomena to make for a comfortable, livable space. We have thought deeply about being responsive since our first commission almost a decade past.
Tucson Mountain Retreat – The Ethos in Practice
Tucson Mountain Retreat, completed in the summer of 2012, is located in the Tucson Mountains, adjacent to Saguaro National Park West. The environment it inhabits is studded by Saguaros, Creosotes, Sage, and more.
The house sits between two major outcroppings, an extension of the living space, and adjacent to a major wash and riparian corridor. This mountain region’s history is rich with cultural artifacts and the remains of human habitation and petroglyphs of past civilizations. Its geological history is rich with volcanic activity, a mash-up of rocks known as the Tucson Mountain Chaos. The geologic makeup ranges from Rhyolite Lava, Pink Granite, and Quartz, to Granite and Gneiss.
It’s a home where a ‘house’ doesn’t seem to fit, the traditional comforts one might expect aren’t there… At least, not at first glance. The Tucson Mountain Retreat was designed from the beginning with those challenges, the lack of air conditioning or water availability, in mind.
Our precedents were the vernacular row house found in the barrios. Shared mass walls, orientation, and use of vegetation for shade, and space planning of buffer zones to mitigate the heat. While it does have the luxuries of a well and mechanical heating and cooling, the basis of the design was that it would perform if those conditions were not available. That’s taking the ethos of sustainability and building with that spirit so that on a hundred-degree summer day in the sun with the doors open, one can find the temperature in the opened living room twenty degrees cooler with a breeze. Passive solar design, thermal mass, and cross ventilation allow for temperature regulation that is possible without expending additional energy.
Approaching the challenge of water accessibility meant looking past a simple well. The water in the well was tested and discovered that it hadn’t been replenished in the range of 350 to 750 years, as well as having high levels of arsenic and alkaline. Given the finite potential of the well, something had to be built to ensure the home was livable past that point. We looked to the size of the roof and annual average rainfall – a solution: a 30,000-gallon water collection storage and filtration system built in to offset the use of groundwater. It is enough water for a family of three to use moderately a year. Greywater was planned for surrounding vegetation and future solar tie-ins.
By looking to the surrounding environment, the existing landscape, and the ways cultures have naturally constructed previously, we can design and create structures that will last.
Sustainable architecture is more than keywords and green products. It is more than technical performance standards and technological advancements that tell us how sustainable our home is or should be. It should reflect our cultural values and the human spirit. For us, it comes down to our own perceptions of the world, and that thinking and building sustainably shouldn’t be a right or privilege, but an obligation as humans to leave the place better than when we inherited it. With the climate as it is, sustainability is no longer a possible choice, it’s a necessary goal for us to rethink how we live, consume, and dwell to create works that speak of beauty in their time and place.