BY DAVID M. BROWN
Frank Lloyd Wright would have approved.
The architect of record for this 8,240-square-foot Contemporary home in Paradise Valley is Scottsdale’s Vern Swaback, FAIA, who incorporated many of the sustainable concepts that Frank Lloyd Wright espoused and realized in his work — long before LEED certification and “green” design and construction. Swaback was one of Wright’s last apprentices. About eight years ago, the four-bedroom, four-and-a-half-bathroom one-level was built on 1.7 acres by Salcito Builders of Scottsdale. The home celebrates Zen simplicity, serenity, and mystery, with multiple water features and remembrances of the owners’ many work and travel years in Asia, including Thailand, Cambodia, Burma/Myanmar and China. “Because it was designed and built prior to the program’s widespread acceptance, the home was not intended for LEED certification, but we wanted to make sustainable efforts in good design and material selections,” explains Mike Wetzel, AIA, design partner at Swaback. “Our goal for this project was to use simple architectural geometry to create strong linear elements, maintaining a low profile, yet giving volume to major spaces: Wright themes for his desert homes,” Wetzel explains. This the design accomplished by means of a structural steel and wood-truss frame and angled linear soffits that arch toward the sky — an architectural heliotropism thematic in both Wright’s and Swaback’s works.
In addition to requiring connectedness to the home site, Wright’s organic architecture stressed the use of indigenous materials. For instance, Taliesin West in Scottsdale, the National Historic Landmark which he began building with his students in 1937, incorporated stones hand carried from the base of the adjoining mountains with sand from the washes for use in the concrete, and area clay was used for mortar. For the exterior columns and interior details of this Paradise Valley home, Swaback called for Arizona-quarried Sedona brown ledge stone, anchoring the home to the desert. Similarly, the exterior terraces are Arizona sandstone. As the owners served as interior designers, they also called for a palette that celebrates earthiness and the flat colors reminiscent of Indian pueblos. Wetzel adds that, in this spirit of using indigenous materials, the standing-seam roof is copper, celebrating Arizona’s most significant native mineral. All-natural Tierrafino clay was used as a finish wall material on the interior and exterior.
Other sustainable elements include multiple high-efficiency HVAC units and highly insulated roofs and walls. The predominantly native landscaping is drip-irrigated, interior lighting is controlled via LiteTouch, and all exterior windows feature high-efficiency insulated glass.
Smart siting maximized views south and north, respectively, to Camelback and Mummy mountains and for energy efficiency. During the cooler seasons, clerestory windows admit natural light, with large roof overhangs providing shielding against the direct sun. More than 70 years ago, Wright used both strategies at Taliesin West, which served as his winter home. Growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, both owners were experienced with and appreciated Wright’s work there and nearby. Many may not know that Wright built and rebuilt his original Taliesin home in Spring Green, Wisconsin, which last year marked its centenary. He lived at Taliesin in the summer and began traveling to Arizona in the 1920s, enamored with the light, materials, colors and forms of the desert. He and his students caravanned each fall from Wisconsin to Arizona to build and stay at Taliesin West. In the desert, summer energy conservation is crucial, Swaback explains: “The more time you can minimize refrigeration, the more you cut down on energy use.” To accomplish this in the Paradise Valley home, he designed cross-ventilation through windows on the approach side and a floor-to-ceiling bifolding-door system that opens to the back yard. The result is a seamless transition between their major living areas and this negative-edge-pool area, where the owners entertain and enjoy the desert day and night. Together with the broad roof overhangs, cross-ventilation maintains a comfortable indoor temperature before artificial cooling is required. “What makes Taliesin West the ideal of living in the desert is that the interior and exterior are inseparable,” Swaback explains, noting that the home and architectural school originally had no glass, just canvas. Wright eventually installed glass because of its durability, as the fabric required periodic replacement as a result of deterioration from the harsh desert sun. Again, as with Taliesin, the Paradise Valley home maximizes daylighting from the winter sun. Swaback designed the home into two major zones, so that the guest section of the home can be closed off during the summer to avoid unnecessary use of air-conditioning. At the same time, the primary section of the home remains functional for the couple and their guests.
“What attracts people to live in the desert is the desert itself,” explains Swaback, who, like all Wright apprentices, spent time living in the desert at Taliesin West to understand its textures, colors and moods. “This exposure was a living lesson concerning the nature of the site.”
When you build a house in the desert without that understanding, you lose visceral connectivity. “The idea is to make yourself a little vulnerable, not hermetically seal yourself off,” he says. “The result is that the attraction of desert living becomes attractive at a gut level, appreciating the land’s power and beauty,” he continued.
Wright—Lead to LEED
While endorsing Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design certification, in which credits are awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council for sustainable design, construction, and operation strategies for buildings and homes, Swaback says that Wright went far beyond anything so easily measured, to a behavioral model for an ecological way of life. “LEED is well-intentioned, comprehensive and timely with respect to building systems and technological solutions,” says Swaback, who has written a number of books on designing sustainable communities and homes. “But houses are really about human behavior over great periods of time,” he adds. “They are, at best, about good design, smart siting, and the responsible use of materials.” For example, he notes that high-efficiency lighting and LEDs are admirable, but questions the use of excessive lighting fixtures when they aren’t needed, opting instead to site and fenestrate homes in accordance with the nature of the desert, which is light-suffused. The Paradise Valley home exemplifies this. “While human behavior trumps technology, there is no Moore’s Law in human behavior in how we relate to the land,” adds Swaback, referring to the prediction of Gordon Moore, cofounder of Intel, that the number of transistors on a microprocessor will double approximately every 18 months. In this way, Wright is now being called “our first ecological architect.” In the Paradise Valley home, the Swaback architects have striven to reaffirm Wright’s legacy of building “of” the land, not just “on” it, and building for those who appreciate that these concepts will heighten the experience of their daily lives. “What good architecture can do,” Swaback says, “is to encourage and make it easier for all of us to do the ‘right’ thing — pun intended.”