Building Green

The Architecture Week home tour focuses on sustainable designs

When a couple of New Yorkers wanted a second home in Tucson, they decided to go up--into the desert sky.

"We recommended a one-story house," says architect Miguel Fuentevilla, hired to design the new place along with his partner, Sonya Sotinsky, of FORS Architecture + Interiors. "Indoor-outdoor is important in Tucson. But the clients said, 'Openness and vistas are important to us.' They made us believers."

The new house, named the Sawtelle Residence for its location on Sawtelle Avenue just south of Elm Street, is as small as architect-designed houses go, just 1,600 square feet. But fully 1,000 of those feet are on a boxy second story. The main living spaces--kitchen, dining and living rooms, master suite and deck--are in the second-floor aerie. A wall of windows along the long north façade opens up to views of the Catalina Mountains.

The homeowners "also see rooftops and power lines, but they're New Yorkers," Sotinsky says. "That's what they're used to."

The second floor overhangs a much smaller first floor. Just 600 square feet, the lower level has an exercise/guest room, bathroom and a carport shaded by the house above.

Interesting as the design is, it raises a question about infill construction in existing neighborhoods all over this low-lying town. It's more economical and more efficient to build up--in fact, the house is one of the "green" projects to be showcased on the Architecture Week home tour on Sunday, Oct. 21--but second stories often block out the mountain views prized by their lower-slung neighbors.

In this case, the neighbors didn't mind, Sotinsky maintains. "They were wonderful." And the new place, as it happens, is just east of an already-existing two-story condo complex. Located in a lot sliced off from the backyard to the north, the Sawtelle Residence is almost invisible from the street.

"It doesn't block the view," Fuentevilla says. Eventually, plantings on the east and west will soften its stark modernist lines soaring up above the neighbors' sloping roofs.

Add Sotinsky, "There are a lot of efficiencies in two stories. There's less roof and less solar gain. You're doubling up. A sprawling house is worse."

In fact, "Growing Beyond Green" is the theme of Architecture Week. Multiple lectures focus on ways to design sustainably in the desert, and the home tour, the endpoint of nine days of architecture activities, illustrates the principles in cinder block and mortar.

Most of the housing units on the tour go to two stories, suggesting that growing green is beginning to mean going up, for better or for worse. Rob Paulus' Indigo Modern, on Third Street just west of Alvernon Way, has 22 single-family houses, tightly spaced on the lots. And each long, narrow house soars up two floors.

Paulus specializes in fitting multi-housing units into marginal sites. The architect of the award-winning Barrio Metalico and the Ice House Lofts, along the tracks east of downtown, Paulus also designed Silverado Flats, a two-story, 12-unit apartment complex on the tour. It's located on Belvedere Avenue, south of Speedway Boulevard and west of Swan Road.

Halcyon House, another single-family house on the tour, is on Whitman Street in the Poets' Corner neighborhood. The 2,700-square-foot family home of its architects, Robin and David Shambach, is more conventional than the Sawtelle Residence in one respect: Its first floor is bigger than its second.

A modern adaptation of the historic courtyard house, it has its public rooms in a broad two-story box at the front, and three bedrooms arranged along a narrow spine in the back. But the second floor does not overwhelm. It consists only of a family room and guest bath in an open loft atop the living room and kitchen, and a big mesquite in a neighboring yard helps screen it.

A fifth building, a Sam Hughes guesthouse by Andy Powell and Jason Gallo in Sam Hughes, breaks the high-rising pattern. The single-story Back 40 House, as it's called, is sunk partly underground, an old-time desert technique to keep a place cool or warm, depending on the season. (The UA College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture will also be on the tour, to show off its new addition by Jones Studio Inc.)

The Back 40 House is traditional-looking rammed earth, but the other tour projects share an affection for gritty modern materials. The architects revel in functional-industrial elements, from the raw steel railing on the Sawtelle House to the concrete block of the Shambachs' place to the corrugated metal punctuating Paulus' designs.

Despite their widely varying sizes, uses and costs, the projects share common "green" design principles. They use renewable materials wherever possible--bamboo, harvested from a fast-growing plant, is often used on floors. So is concrete. To reduce energy costs, the architects order up thick walls and insulated windows, and situate the windows to promote ventilation, capitalize on natural light and reduce electricity costs.

Properly orienting a house "doesn't cost a cent," David Shambach says. "It's about recognizing the reality of where you live. ... This is a design approach we've always used: Respond to the context, and understand the environment."

For instance, a garage on the west side of his house wards off the fierce afternoon sun. A porch shields the south-facing living room, and a large mesquite shades the east-facing windows.

Sotinsky and Fuentevilla went one step further. Like the Shambachs', their design is long and narrow, but they've rotated their rectangle in a different direction. Its short walls face east and west, to minimize exposure to the heat, and the long walls face north and south, to maximize light.

"This house is all about orientation. The big thing is solar orientation, using passive techniques," Fuentevilla says.

In fact, that's the point Architecture Week is trying to get across, says American Institute of Architects member Joseph Maher. These structures are up-to-the-minute contemporary, but they take a lesson from Arizonans of the past who built homes to mitigate the desert heat. The Tohono O'odham built ramadas of saguaro spines, and Mexicans built thick-walled adobe rowhouses. Modernists like Arthur Brown were experimenting with passive solar features as early as the 1940s.

"Environmentally friendly and energy-efficient architectural design has been part of our architecture for decades," Maher says. "It's just now coming to national focus since we can save millions and reduce oil usage with minimal effort and cost."


Lectures (free):

• "Sustainable Design." Visiting architect Robert Harris of Lake Flato Architects, San Antonio, Texas, gives the keynote address, at 4:30 p.m., Friday, Oct. 12, UA Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Building, Room 202, 1130 N. Mountain Ave.

• "Architecture and Water: Exploring Innovating Designs." Architect Roel Krabbendam and Ilene Grossman of Tucson Water, 7 p.m., Monday, Oct. 15, Murphy-Wilmot Library, 530 N. Wilmot Road, 791-4627.

• "Home Design for the Desert." Architects Evan S. Eglin, Alexandra Hayes-Murphy, Michael W. Franks and Ronald Robinette, 7 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 16, Bear Canyon Library, 8959 E. Tanque Verde Road, 791-5021.

• "How to Be a Good Client." Architect Raymond E. Barnes, 7 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 17, Dusenberry-River Library, 5605 E. River Road, No. 105, 791-4979.

• "Living Large in Small Spaces." Frank Mascia, 11 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 20, Himmel Park Library, 1035 N. Treat Ave., 791-4397.

Reception (free):

5 to 7 p.m., Friday, Oct. 19, Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St.

Exhibitions (free):

• Kidstruction Student Design/Build Contest. Middle school students display their designs, constructed of business cards, toothpicks and glue, 9 a.m. to noon, Saturday, Oct. 13, Tucson Children's Museum. Judging from 9 to 11 a.m.; awards ceremony, 11:30 a.m. to noon. The exhibition then moves to Foothills Mall, 7401 N. La Cholla Blvd., where it will remain on view through Sunday, Oct. 21.

• Work by 24 local architects on display through Saturday, Oct. 13, at Foothills Mall, and Oct. 14-21 at Park Place, 5870 E. Broadway Blvd.