Magazine article Sunset

Living with the Desert: Smart Design in Arizona's Homes and Gardens

Magazine article Sunset

Living with the Desert: Smart Design in Arizona's Homes and Gardens

Article excerpt

At first glance, it may seem that Arizona's take on desert living features sprawling, air-conditioned Tuscan-style villas, a sea of red-tile roofs, and miles of characterless block garden wails. But look closer and you'll find that the desert here has always inspired innovative architecture and landscape design. It began, of course, with Native Americans, who utilized local materials and cultivated hardy plants, and continued with Frank Lloyd Wright and contemporaries such as architects Eddie Jones and Will Bruder and landscape architect Steve Martino. In fact, an increasing cadre of design professionals is building homes and creating gardens that embrace the desert and its harsh conditions. On the following pages you'll find the key elements of desert living at its smartest--ideas to inspire your own fantasy or to help you feel right at home in your own piece of the hot, dry West.

Desert architecture

The meeting of indoors and out

RELATED ARTICLE: Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the first modern designers to make the surrounding landscape a full partner in the building process. The architect's tour de force, Taliesin West, was designed to blend into the desert above Scottsdale in form and material. The collection of buildings, which is open to the public, was Wright's winter home and studio from 1937 until his death in 1959. The low, ground-hugging structures of native stone and concrete are sited to capture breezes and block summer sun from the south and west; they're linked by patios, pathways, and pergolas. As Wright intended, the layout gently nudges visitors outdoors as they travel between living quarters, studio, dining room, and theater.

Wright continues to be the touchstone for many of today's architects. In Tucson, Paul Weiner likes to connect rooms and sections with covered breezeways or shaded patios. At his own home, he's blurred the line between indoors and out by furnishing patios as a living area, a dining room, and even a sleeping space.

Les Wallach, whose most visible public project is the restaurant complex for Tucson's ArizonaSonora Desert Museum, outfits his desert homes with broad, overhanging roofs. "I try to have the roof area double the indoor floor area," Wallach says. The formula works to establish shade next to the house, keeping hot summer sun off windows and walls.

Weiner, Wallach, and other desert architects use materials that stand up to the harsh climate and are energy efficient--adobe, rammed earth, cast earth, Integra blocks, and Rastra. Metal, rock, stone, and concrete are often used for architectural details. Weiner used scored, colored concrete for his home's flooring, both indoors and out. Says architect Will Bruder: "A desert home needs to be built of tougher, textured materials, such as concrete and masonry, that anchor it to the landscape."

Lessons for the home


Position a new home to take advantage of breezes and views and to block the sun's rays. Keep the structure low, and cantilever the roof overhangs to cool the house and create shady outdoor areas.


To merge indoors and outdoors, use covered breezeways or shaded patios to link rooms. Furnish patios as living spaces--even as dining and sleeping areas.


Use energy-efficient building materials: adobe, cast earth, rammed earth, straw bale, Rastra.

Desert gardens

Colors and textures of nature

Landscape architects design gardens for outdoor living, in the spirit of the way Wright enjoyed picnics in the desert at Taliesin West. "I like to think of a house as a pavilion in the garden," says landscape architect Steve Martino. "The garden should be regarded as the biggest room of the house."

"So many people just look at the desert from their windows," says Phoenix landscape architect Christine Ten Eyck. "I like to get people immersed in the landscape. …

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