Desert living has long been characterized as a lifestyle that requires considerable intervention to be sustainable. Still, at least one team of architects and designers believes that the secret to living comfortably in the desert is already there – in two unlikely sources: desert plants and prehistoric dwellings. Binary Design Studio, made up of Dale Clifford, Jason Vollen, M. Gindlesparger, and Eddie Hall, is a unique kind of architectural design firm that is looking critically at the conditions present in the desert and trying to create a site-specific methodology for building sustainable homes.
Binary Design Studio is involved in a variety of projects, including a home called the Steel Butterfly. Instead of a traditional foundation, the house sits on steel struts to minimize soil disruption. The elevated positioning of the home also allows cool air from neighboring mountains to flow though the separated “wings” of the house- a method of passive cooling. The design of the home is a modern take on building techniques historically used in the desert by the Hohokam, who separated family modules with breezeways that acted as wind tunnels.
Steel butterfly house
The team has also created what they call the seed(pod)- a home that is geared towards families purchasing starter homes. Like many prefab homes, the seed(pod) is based upon the idea that families can purchase a smaller home and then add on to it with modules as they need more space.
Their emphasis on materials comes through in their current work, where they have partnered with Carnegie Mellon University and Rensselear Polytechnic Institute to research and analyze better building methods. The firm is also developing concrete blocks that are modeled after the capillary root systems of desert plants and will help with passive cooling.
Even though the emphasis of Binary Design Studio is on developing appropriate materials and building techniques, that doesn’t mean that the design of the home has suffered. In fact, some might say that their approach strives to achieve balance between form and function. Looking beyond using eco-friendly materials and sustainable building techniques, Binary Design Studio seeks to push the envelope by developing architecture that is a reflection and response to its surroundings.
“Our approach is quite different: depending upon a combination of vernacular and high tech strategies that engage a specific site, we might open the house up and bring the outside in, resulting in a home that is sensitive to the changing environment of that particular location, such as we did with the Steel Butterfly. It’s a different way of living. As much as possible, we’re using passive principles like natural ventilation, orientation and overhangs, augmented with the technology and materials that make the building more efficient.” -Dale Clifford