The West Basin House
The first home completed in West Basin is that of Fred and JJ Milder, New England transplants who also served as the general contractors on the project.
Aside from sweeping views of its uninterrupted surroundings, the West Basin house’s principal design makes oneness with nature inevitable: 5,000 square feet are spread across three separate buildings, requiring the occupants to traverse covered outdoor pathways to get from bedrooms to the kitchen, the kitchen to the bathroom, etc. While the high elevation means the homeowners must be willing to withstand some cold moments throughout the day, “their goal was to embrace the experience outside and inside,” says Bill Harris, principal of Signer Harris, the Boston-based architect on the West Basin house.
“It makes you totally aware of what’s going on around you all the time, the animals and the plants and the wind,” Fred Milder says, noting that the quality and fragility of the landscape attracted the couple back to the area after a 30-year absence and fueled their desire to build a home that walked the walk.
To accommodate the tread-lightly principles of The Preserve, the home is replete with typical green features—including solar panels, solar hot water, passive solar design, and water collection. But going green was never the outright goal, instead the natural benefit brought on by a mission to integrate with, live off of, and protect the surrounding land. “It was not intended nor designed as a green home first,” says Harris. “It was first to be a home that was in keeping with the landscape from a design perspective. … It was to be a place where they could experience the outdoors seamlessly.”
The home’s primary design feature is its orientation, Harris says, with the placement and number of windows and skylights well-thought-out to ensure light, views, and ventilation without overheating the house; covered porches provide natural shadings. Absent of air conditioning, every space has windows on opposite walls to promote circulation; there are no hallways except for outside the children’s room, which is outfitted with clerestory windows on the hallway wall for ventilation.
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Most of the home is built with autoclaved aerated concrete (AAC). A natural thermal mass that eases the temperature fluctuations of the desert climate, the AAC absorbs sunlight during the day and radiates it during the desert’s cooler nighttime hours; as an added bonus, the look lends itself to the traditional adobe style of the area. Rammed earth is use on another portion of the structure.
Covered walkways between the buildings are not merely paths, but experiences, outfitted with sitting and eating areas that create natural transitions from building to building. And while the multiple structures inherently connect the Milder family with the outdoors, it also allowed Signer Harris to experiment with and mix of three native styles—adobe, territorial, and pueblo. The result is a historic look of a home that appears to have been added to over time.
In addition to PVs and solar thermal, the home’s other eco-friendly features include rainwater catchment for irrigation and the pool (potable water is supplied by an on-site well), a blackwater recycling system, low-flow fixtures, CFL light fixtures, and Energy Star-rated appliances. Fast-growing wood was used for framing the windows; pallets were recycled on site for use as siding on the secondary buildings. The house also includes a propane-fueled backup generator, whose waste heat is recovered for use in the house, and a backup furnace.
And living in harmony doesn’t mean living like hermits. “If you came here and you didn’t know we were off the grid, you would have no idea that we were,” explains Fred Milder. “We have our toaster and our microwave and our satellite TV … it’s a totally modern life. We didn’t give up anything. It’s absolutely no different than anywhere else. The various technologies have come a long to a point where you don’t know the difference if you don’t want to know the difference.”
Indeed, the Milder’s West Basin house is a showcase of how a homeowner’s design desires, modern conveniences, and environment preservation can go hand in hand. “I think it’s good for people to see,” says Harris, “ … that it’s possible to think about sustainability and green design not as something separate from but rather integral to other design and lifestyle strategies.”
Katy Tomasulo is Deputy Editor of EcoHome.