Embedded in a San Jacinto promontory that overlooks the flat and arid Coachella Valley in Palm Springs, Calif., the site that hosts the Palm Springs House is no stranger to extreme droughts. In the hot late-summer months, midday temperatures in the area soar to an average of 108 degrees F.
The project’s clients, who are also the owners of the Frederick Loewe estate—a midcentury modern showpiece just over the hill and now used for guests and as a wedding venue—had two major requests for the architects at Chicago- and San Francisco–based Booth Hansen: First, they wanted a vacation house that is as drought-tolerant and energy efficient as it is contemporary and bold to stand up to its architectural context. Second, they wanted to showcase a 42-foot-long Keiko Hara painting that the couple could not fit in their primary residence in Chicago. It helped that the designers were already familiar with the couple’s personal style—Booth Hansen also designed that Chicago residence.
To answer the particular concerns for the Palm Springs site, the architects created two offset, linear building masses and combined the living and dining rooms into an elongated rectangle that provides a place for the multimedia triptych painting along a stretch of whitewashed wall behind the dining table. Both volumes are finished in vast expanses of floor-to-ceiling glass, but “there appears to be much more glass than there actually is,” says principal Joseph King. “The transparency is geared toward the views, so where there are none, there is actually a lot of solid capacity.”
The custom-designed windows in the 5,600-square-foot residence are fully operable, allowing for cross ventilation and for natural breezes to flow through the entire house. Ten-foot-deep overhangs filter the summer sun away from its interior spaces and keep the house cool. And it works: The house was completed in September 2015, and “according to the owners, they haven’t operated the air conditioning unit yet,” says King.
Even through the heat, the house maximizes its indoor/outdoor layout. Naturally stained concrete flooring throughout both spaces minimizes the threshold between the inside and out. A continuous palette of cool blue hues visually draws the two spaces into each other, and flows out into to the infinity-edge pool that blends into the valley. And while the Frederick Loewe estate features stretches of manicured lawns, everything planted at the new house is drought tolerant: local plants, native rock gardens, and flowering cactuses adorn its grounds.
By embracing the landscape and all of its native vegetation, the architects were able to create a house that can open up to the outdoors in all but the hottest summer months. It gives the clients a place to escape from their busy lives in Chicago, and demonstrates that be it showcasing art or showcasing views, good design can create a relaxing oasis from daily life—even in the desert.