How do you mass produce hundreds of homes in the sweltering desert on a fixed budget and still make them aesthetically appealing and energy efficient? You get creative.

That’s the approach Silver Spring, Md.–based architecture firm Torti Gallas and Partners took when tasked with planning the sites and designing the homes for two new developments within Fort Irwin, a 1,000-square-mile Army base and training center in the eastern California desert, which is fairly remote and where temperatures can soar well into the 100s.

The architecture firm set out to find new ways to make Fort Irwin’s climate a little more comfortable for its residents. “You can’t air condition your way out of that situation,” says Neal Payton, AIA, a Torti Gallas principal. “It’s a question of inhabitation and making a comfortable place to live in the middle of what is a very harsh environment.”

Step one was to convince the Army to keep the homes close together—not an easy task on a project with expanses of space on which to build. Torti Gallas’ argument that a tighter site plan would let the homes shade each other and would help create walkable neighborhoods and a stronger sense of community won out.

Solar orientation was the next challenge, as each house could not simply face the same direction nor be individually customized. The company devised three different interchangeable façades for each of the four sides of the houses. Roofs, overhangs, and windows were selected for each façade for north, south, and east/west orientation. (See diagrams, right.)

Torti Gallas then began putting together a giant puzzle, determining which façades were to be used for each side of each house based on lot orientation and also taking into consideration privacy and the ability to shade the yards of neighboring units. Homes included front-, rear-, and side-courtyard layouts.

What this also created is the illusion of variety despite the mass production and the fixed budget.

Contributing to the community appeal is a new town center with restaurants, retail, and apartments. A town square adds a patch of green to the area’s color palette of brown and tan.

The square also features a cooling tower, which makes the outdoors a little more comfortable by forcing hot air up and out and cooler air into the sunken courtyard below.

The neighborhoods’ appearance—with a variety and an aesthetic that bucks the common perceptions of base housing—and the broader feeling of community brought by sidewalks and an accessible town center are all part of making base life more attractive to families. The 715 new houses at Fort Irwin, which replace 385 that were torn down, are part of the Army’s Residential Communities Initiative, an effort the organization describes as “making our Army installations safe, attractive, and modern.”

“One thing you need to make an argument for as an architect … is why this extra dollar that you’re proposing is money worth spending. You can’t just say it looks better,” says Payton. “To be able to develop a real strategy that has measurable benefits and that also looks better and will, in the end, save money and make life for the families that live there better: that’s what this program of the Army is about, to increase retention and increase the quality of life for the soldiers and their families.”

Torti Gallas is working on several of the Army’s rebuilding projects, including revitalizing Fort Belvoir in Virginia with new homes and a mixed-use town center.

Torti Gallas created interchangeable facades that could be mixed and matched to accommodate each home's solar orientation and relation to other houses.

Torti Gallas created interchangeable facades that could be mixed and matched to accommodate each home's solar orientation and relation to other houses.

Credit: Torti Gallas & Partners