Two art collectors and dealers specializing in contemporary art and art of the American West decided to move from the arid high desert outside of Reno to a less remote site overlooking the city. They wanted a house that would both reflect the contemporary moment and be explicitly of the West.
The new site, a large lot located on a bluff in an established neighborhood, gazes off at the desert mountains in the distance, but otherwise offered little other inspiration. We joined the site in gazing off at the bare mountains and decided to think about the desert as a real environment as well as its ambivalent role in the cultural imaginary.
The American desert has a history of being understood as a place of lack, emptiness, or otherness. Framed as a barren wasteland, a kind of ‘no place’, the desert has been appointed the perfect test site, a place for all genres of experimentation – military, scientific, and social. The desert is rarely seen for itself, instead acting as a mirror for various projected fantasies: wilderness, frontier, and heterotopia. Enduringly mercurial, it is a sandbox that changes forms to fit the imaginations of the user, a space of ambivalence and uncertainty.
In our case, the flat, empty lot became a test site to reinstate the ecology of the Great Basin Desert into the generic sprawl of Reno. The desert shapes the project both as a specific environment and as an idea. We see the return of the desert as the return of the repressed, a resilient ground that drifts and surges to form both landscape and shelter. Invoking the desert as a shapeshifter par excellence, the project began by treating the ground as a fluid material that allows different forms to emerge, then flicker or dissolve into other forms.
Shapeshifter explores slippery form by seeing the ground as a mutable, protean material, an untapped unconscious. Inspired by desert topography, we reshaped the site into anticlines and synclines, dunes and blowouts, and gradually the form of the house emerged with the terrain. Then we hardened what was initially conceived of as a soft form into a regular mesh composed of planar faces. Every edge is entirely shared: no edges terminate in the middle of another edge. This results in a flow of space that supports extreme difference without discontinuities. Elements of the house slide into each other with shifting relationships of fractured symmetries, local axes, and embedded parallelisms. Topologically, the house is spatially slippery, a twisted torus with several secondary and tertiary bubbles of space.
The landscape is populated by native plants – grasses, desert scrub and wildflowers. The desert begins to reassert itself within the city – maybe it will spread. Historically, landscape form has been allowed to be more relaxed than architecture, but in this case landscape informs the architecture to the point that the two are inextricable: another desert mirage.
Shapeshifter provides a new model for ecological architecture. The project develops a synthetic ground to protect the house against its harsh desert landscape.
With this approach, site and landscape are inextricably linked. Formally, the house is carved from a thick shell, composed either of the natural ground or a two-foot thick, heavily insulated wall/roof assembly. Like a high desert creature, the house uses the thickness of the ground (both real and synthetic) as a buffer against the harsh desert landscape. The result is a high-performance passive structure which maintains a comfortable living temperature using only radiant heating and cooling.
Outside, the landscape is populated exclusively by native plants – grasses, desert scrub and wildflowers. This xeriscape flows around and on top of the house. This provides a habitat for native species while reducing the heat island effect and water usage typically associated with the built environment.
The following specific technical features demonstrate implement this new ecological model
1 NATIVE LANDSCAPE
A native species xeriscape provides a much needed return of habitat for local wildlife. This landscape mirrors the natural landscape visible in the distance rather than the artificial landscapes typical of the urban sprawl.
2 EARTH BERMS
Like a natural cave, the house is buried below sculpted earth mounds which provide extensive thermal mass aiding both heating and cooling.
3 THICK ASSEMBLIES
Both walls and roof are two-foot thick assemblies. This allows for thermal insulation of R-50+ throughout, extending the cave strategy above grade.
4 ZINC CLADDING
Zinc rain-screen provides 100% recyclable moisture barrier while providing a zero toxicant rain water run-off.
5 RADIANT HEATING AND COOLING
Highly efficient systems for delivering interior conditioning with large capacity to absorb and offset drawmatic swings in the outside environment. This system requires low energy consumption and eliminates duct loss. The high desert is an ideal climate for radiant cooling because of the relatively low humidity.
6 HIGH PERFORMANCE WINDOWS AND SHADES
Thermally broken window frames with performance glass (SFGC 0.23) minimizes heat gain. All openings have sensor activated roller shades to reduce energy demands.
7 GREEN ROOF
The planted roof provides excellent thermal performance similar to the earth berms at the perimeter walls.
8 NW PREVAILING WIND
Natural landform building does not disrupt existing wind patterns.
9 LOW PRESSURE ZONE
Three story open section allow for passive stack effect cooling.
Established 2004; Internationally published and exhibited; $10 million+ projects in construction.
Firm principals Luke Ogrydziak and Zoë Prillinger received BA and M. Arch degrees from Princeton University and have taught at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley.
OPA has been featured in publications including MARK magazine, The New York Times, Metropolis, Wallpaper*, Architecture, Architectural Record, and GA Houses. OPA has received numerous American Institute of Architects awards and the Architectural League of New York’s ‘Emerging Voices’ award.
At OPA, we believe in progressive built work, driven by ideas. We believe that architecture influences how we see the world and live in it. That architecture impacts our perceptions and emotions, and acts as a framework for thought. By organizing our bodies and experiences in space, architecture can transform us. Our strength at OPA is identifying and crafting spatial experiences that make that possible.