San Diego-based design firm Studio E Architects has given an affordable housing development a climate-responsive renovation while strengthening the multiplex’s sense of placemaking in the desert of La Quinta, California. The 11-acre, tax credit-financed project, which was completed last year, comprised the redesign of Washington Street Apartments’ 72 existing units and the addition of 68 units on an adjacent 5.2-acre undeveloped plot to serve very low-income seniors and farm workers. To stay within a tight budget, the architects employed sustainable, low-tech strategies, such as deep sun shades and thermal chimneys, to promote natural cooling in response to the harsh desert heat.

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angled yellow roof eave over a pool area

Set on a desert plain in Coachella Valley, the newly expanded Washington Street Apartments occupy an L-shaped site with the newly constructed units to the east of the renovated and redesigned existing units. To encourage relationship building, the architects inserted a series of community amenities throughout the development, including buildings and pools, shared laundry facilities, courtyards, lawns and an arbor and allotment garden.

Related: Mirror-covered ‘Mirage’ house disappears into the California desert

aerial view of yellow and tan housing units with extended roofs
yellow and tan homes with small fenced patios

This public realm of courtyards and paseos are made more inviting with the architects’ environmentally responsive design that mitigates the desert heat. Sustainable, low-tech strategies include high solar reflectance roofs with extended eaves that bounce light while protecting the outdoor gathering spaces from unwanted solar gain. Deep overhangs supported by thin steel columns — a nod to the winter tents of the Indigenous inhabitants of Coachella Valley — are strategically designed so that summer sunlight can be blocked while allowing in low winter sunlight.

tan houses with orange and yellow doors
walkways and gardens between rows of housing units

The new residential buildings are oriented east to west to minimize exposure to late afternoon sun while openings are strategically placed to take in prevailing breezes and to promote thermo siphoning, a natural phenomenon that pushes hot air up and out of the building. The buildings have also been equipped with high-performance insulation and HVAC systems.

+ Studio E Architects

Images via Studio E Architects