Magazine article Sunset

Retreats from the Heat: Two Houses Show How to Dwell Comfortably and Stylishly in the Desert

Magazine article Sunset

Retreats from the Heat: Two Houses Show How to Dwell Comfortably and Stylishly in the Desert

Article excerpt

Two houses show how to dwell comfortably and stylishly in the desert

The Las Vegas Valley is awash in new homes - a tide seemingly flooding in (like so many of their owners) from California. Vaguely Mediterranean in style, these houses make little concession to their environment. All too often, house orientation is determined by the street, not the sun; stucco boxes substitute air-conditioning for sensitive design; and better means bigger (one casino's "See the 35-Foot Leprechaun!" billboard speaks volumes).

Granted, southern Nevada's climate is not moderate. The difference between summer highs and winter lows can be nearly 100 [degrees]. "The number of days with temperatures below the comfort zone is almost equal to the number ranging above it," notes Las Vegas architect Richard Beckman. "Yes, it's often hot and windy, but it can also be quite mild. Houses should respond to the climate, not shut it out" - a principle he stresses in his classes at UNLV's school of architecture. As the two houses on these pages show, courtyards, cross-ventilation, and other traditional features are once again being used to temper desert extremes.


Some of the town's oldest surviving buildings are made of adobe: the thick walls offer natural insulation, helping to keep interiors cool in summer. One couple has revived and updated this building tradition for their new home (shown at left), combining adobe bricks with a wall-topping bond beam (a steel-reinforced concrete collar) for extra structural strength. This is no mud hut - indeed, it required compliance with stringent building regulations - and yet the owners like the idea that one day their largely biodegradable home could return to the earth.

The sophisticated, multilevel structure includes 30-inch-thick exterior walls - two walls, actually, separated by a 6-inch space filled with vermiculite insulation; the outside wall is finished with two coats of pigmented stucco. The spine of the house is a two-story gallery that connects the front and back entrances. Hot air rises to the peak of the gallery before it is vented through electrically controlled windows and windows in the top of the adjacent three-story, stuccoed-cinder-block tower. This natural convection is assisted by numerous ceiling fans and three evaporative coolers. …

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