YUCCA VALLEY PRO/CON / YUCCA VALLEY / CALIFORNIA
SITE: Existing CMU “ruins” on sloping terrain in the middle of nowhere
PROGRAM: Vacation residence: PRO/con units, housing bedroom suite, kitchen, library/office; living space in fully glazed space between; traveling roof deck; all arranged on dunnage above existing ruined basement walls
SIZE: 1,600 sq. ft.
COMPLETION: Winter 2005 (design)
NOTES: PRO/con units; weathering steel framing and dunnage; existing CMU “ruin” foundation walls; double-glazed G+U sliding door system; weathering steel stairs, railings, decks sunshade structures; painted corrugated metal exo-skin sunshade surface
PROJECT TEXT: A young couple without kids is building a vacation house in the desert north of Palm Springs. He is the principal of an advertising firm based in Santa Monica, she is a fashion designer. Beyond any predisposition toward topicality evident in their professions they share a passion for the design of the Southern California modernist heritage, but feel that the Palm Springs version of it has become too polite and sedentary. They challenged J,P:A to create an inexpensive house that is modern in spirit rather than in fashion, with the edginess appropriate to life in a harsh natural environment.
The first decision was no pool. The second was to “borrow” as footings some CMU walls from an earlier, failed inhabitation to act as foundations. A system of steel wide flange dunnage spans across the tops of these ruins, carrying the new structure free from the desert floor. From its lightly supported perch it surveys a desolate landscape of elemental beauty. The third, consequent decision was to leave the new house out there in this exposed portion of the site, doing nothing to tie it in to the landscape or mitigate its presence. Access to the site is by a seasonal trail, a dirt road that wears out and wanders, and the parking area is just where the four-wheel-drive vehicles stop driving. The advertising principal enjoys the authenticity it earns for his Land Rover.
This is more than value engineering, though. It is a statement of opposition to the environmentally expensive comforts of Palm Springs. The clients want to know they are no longer in town when they occupy this outpost. They want to be in the desert, with nothing around, nothing to do but service the solar collectors and traverse the roof on the rolling deck. The program includes an office space, as well as living and sleeping areas, a kitchen-and-dining area, but the office is not connected to the mother ship. It has computers but no internet connection. The clients of course have cell phones, so the fact that there is no land line is less remarkable, but it helps emphasize that they are away.
The design is an example of the PRO/con system, developed by the architects to take advantage of the structural capacity and extensive infrastructure of the ISO standard shipping container. This particular version embodies the system’s mobility, flexibility, and discipline. The containers arrive at the site with their program elements already built in—typically those with more exacting constructional requirements that benefit most from construction in a factory setting, such as the bathroom and kitchen. The containers provide the primary vertical structure and are consequently highly structured spatially. Spanning between the widely spaced containers is the site-assembled horizontal structure, which provides the floor and ceiling of larger open areas. These open areas are more loosely programmed for living and sleeping. This system of “loose modularity” makes possible a greater range of spatial dimensions than would be possible in a system based solely on containers yet retains the discipline inherent in the module by maintaining a strict proportional affiliation between the two types of space. Special features and modifications that adapt the standard model to the extreme desert environment include deep glazing hoods on the south elevation and a loose vented exo-skin that prevents sunlight from striking the surface of the container.