Building Desert Friendly Architecture

Posted by tpan on 1 March 2018 | 0 Comments

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Have you been thinking about building a desert friendly building?


The desert is one of the more fragile environments for construction projects. With annual rainfall of less than 10 inches per year tire marks and construction equipment can scar the land easily—marks can be seen for years as the land takes much longer to heal, whereas more moist climates can repair quickly with plant growth and precipitation smoothing out the scars left.


I’d like to share a remarkable personal experience with you.


While studying architecture in my master degree program I had the opportunity to build in the Sonoran desert at Taliesin West—architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio. It was a remarkable experience.


Unique to the school is the opportunity to design and build a desert shelter. Rather than teach students about architecture and design on paper, they give you the chance to prove yourself as a designer & builder.


The assignment is basic.


You design a small space for you to sleep and relax; think of it as a stand-alone dorm room. There are accommodations for showering and personal care, and there is a community kitchen. This means the space you design has no utilities. The students only live in Arizona from October through May, so the high heat is not experienced—just beautiful Arizona winter & spring.


These desert shelter projects are just that—shelter.


They come in many shapes and sizes. How the student builds says a lot about their values. For me, I wanted to leave a minimal imprint on the land. This was accomplished with wheelbarrows. All material was wheel barrowed in leaving only a walking path from the existing roads that have long been in use at the school.


Below are some core ideas of how to build desert friendly architecture based on my experience at Taliesin West.


 3 Desert Way: designed by Trevor Pan at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, AZ.


Minimize Scarring on the Land:

By minimizing the scarring on the land the building took on a quality like it has always “been” there. For me, a building should look like it belongs to the land—the same way a beaver dam looks natural. All creatures make a mark of some sort on the earth. I believe your mark ought to be as graceful as possible.


One way a contractor can minimize scarring is to demand the crew preserve plants, and natural outcroppings of stone and earth features with the crew. If everyone is on the same page about being gentle on the land this can lead to less impact on a given desert site.


Other methods, like how I built 3 Desert Way, can cost more by requiring more manual labor. If a crew has to wheel barrow items, versus driving a backhoe or skip loader, then obviously it will take more man-hours to complete a task.


The rewards for this approach, in my opinion, override the cost. But in these cases, I’m not paying the bill—you are . . . or a client is.


Minimize Removing Trees, Shrubs and Cacti:

In the case of my project, 3 Desert Way, snuggling the structure in between some existing Palo Verde trees was a top priority. The trees take decades to grow. Respecting their lives and working around the trees gave the final design a look of permanence, or as noted above looking like it’s always “been” there.


Minimizing the removal of natural trees, shrubs & cacti is one way to build desert friendly architecture.


Only a few brittle bush were killed in the process. To me, being respectful of plant life is a critical aspect of building with care.



3 Desert Way: designed by Trevor Pan at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, AZ.


Mimic the Desert Forms Nearby:

Looking at this picture you can see the structure is the larger form. To the right the closest mountain is in the foreground. This building is “mimicking” the natural environment.


In the center of the picture are some concrete forms that rise up gently and are angled—similar to the way the Thompson Peak in the background does.



3 Desert Way: designed by Trevor Pan at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, AZ.


By using flat faces of concrete with flat planes of canvas and The sculpture wall, an artful piece of concrete, fades out to a point at the left. You can see the McDowell mountain range fades out to the alluvial plains to the left (west).


Complement Desert Shapes with Abnormal Texture:

Looking at the desert scene in this image you see the cacti have a dotted line, or spines, going up and down their ribs. The rocks are sharp and angular—even the mountains are stark.


Repeated tiles in the concrete (dotted line) the architecture blends in complementing the natural textures of the desert.



3 Desert Way, patio: designed by Trevor Pan at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, AZ.


To Recap:

Building desert friendly architecture is challenging, can cost more, but in the end leaves the best impact of humanity on the desert. Most of what is written in the post is common sense, but the peculiar thing about building in the desert is that it is full of scars.


When average people, contractors & those who commission projects don’t make it a point of minimizing damage damage occurs. How can we get people to be more respectful of this fragile environment?


One project at time.


(Read more about 3 Desert Way and here)

Thank you.


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