Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page PRE-WEB ARCHIVES:
No. 28, Spring/Summer 1989
Desert Architecture

Desert House: Water and Energy Conservation in the Sonoran Desert

By Richard G. Brittain and Martin M. Karpiscak

"...conservation can occur at both home and community levels with no significant impact upon present lifestyles."

Desert House model
Thumbnail link to Desert House model, ~16K file

A number of interested parties have joined forces to design and construct a house that will serve as a model of water conservation and energy efficiency for the general public, developers, homebuilders, the business community, and government officials. Desert House will be occupied by a family and will have a public demonstration and education center attached. The house is to be located at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona. The conceptual design phase has been completed and fund raising has begun for the subsequent phases.

Desert House will demonstrate that water- and energy-efficient features can be incorporated aesthetically and economically into single-family homes without reducing their sales appeal and residents' quality of life. Commercially practical concepts, methods, materials, and equipment will be used in the design, construction, and operation of the house and its landscaping.

Current participants in the project include the city of Phoenix, Salt River Project, Desert Botanical Garden, Valley Partnership (a consortium of development and related organizations in the Phoenix area) and the University of Arizona's Office of Arid Lands Studies and College of Architecture.


Water Efficiency

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The water efficiency goal of Desert House is 107 gallons per capita per day (gpcd). Present Phoenix residential water use is approximately 180 gpcd. Features of the Desert House would, therefore, reduce both indoor and outdoor water use by almost 41 percent.

Strategies for water conservation include the following:

  • Outdoor
    Xeriscape landscape design that incorporates the use of:
    • low-water-use plants
    • efficient irrigation systems with seasonal control and moisture sensors
    • contoured yard, patios, and walk ways directing rain to plants
    • rooftop rainwater harvesting for direct use by plants or for storage and later irrigation of plants
    • experimental graywater reuse for subsurface irrigation
  • Indoor
    • 1-gallon-per-flush toilets using municipal water
    • 2.75-gallon-per-minute or less low-flow showerheads
    • 1.5-gallon-per-minute or less faucet aerators
    • hot water loop
    • sewer discharge limited to toilets, kitchen sink, and dishwasher

Energy Efficiency

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The energy saving goals are to reduce the overall energy consumption of Desert House and to shift its peak energy demand (i.e., run equipment during evening/early morning hours, 10 pm to noon in summer and 10 pm to 7 am in winter).

The following strategies have been selected to accomplish these goals:

  • thermal mass
  • landscaping, porches, and outdoor living spaces adjacent to the home to provide optimum shade for the structure and maximum outdoor living area
  • high-efficiency heat pump
  • in-line solar hot water preheater
  • hot water supply loop to all faucets
  • hot water tank and pipe insulation
  • cost-effective and energy-efficient appliances
  • double-glazed windows/doors
  • sun screens
  • orientation
  • appropriately sized windows and skylights for daylighting and passive solar gain in winter
  • vented roof
  • insulation


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Desert House includes a public information center featuring an orientation slide presentation, brochures, detailed signs, and scheduled guided tours. User-friendly computers will enable visitors to obtain specific information on water- and energy-conservation aspects of the house, and to explore alternative strategies.

Desert House information brochures will offer simple, practical approaches in a how-to format, emphasizing the positive aspects of water and energy efficiency, its costs, and its application to the visitors' residences.

Project Goals

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Desert House is intended to raise the water and energy conservation awareness of builders, landscapers, suppliers, the business community, government officials, and the general public. Through the use of commercially available, cost-effective technologies, the project intends to demonstrate the positive aspects of conservation. Desert House will demonstrate that conservation can occur in an attractive and comfortable residence without major expense or change in lifestyle. It will present ways to decrease overall water and energy use and also demonstrate means to offset peak water and energy use in an urban setting. The project will demonstrate that conservation can occur at both home and community levels with no significant impact upon present lifestyle.

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Author information

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UA College of Architecture assistant research professor Richard G. Brittain specializes in resource conservation in desert architecture. Martin M. Karpiscak, associate research scientist in the Office of Arid Lands Studies, specializes in water conservation in residential and agricultural settings.

Additional web resources

Desert Botanical Garden "Desert House" Project
Since original publication of this article in 1989, the Desert House has been constructed as planned at the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix, Arizona. These web pages provide current information about various aspects of the Desert House project.

Credits and copyright information

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