An Energy-Efficient Hybrid Prefab Keeps Cool in the Palm Springs Desert

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By Erika Heet / Published by Dwell
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Drawing from the laws of nature, an architect devises a way to beat the heat in the California desert.

With temperatures that climb to 110 degrees in summer, the California desert town of Palm Springs offers challenges for year-round residents trying to keep cool. One local couple, both of whom are in the health-care industry, lived under the blazing sun for years in an inefficient Spanish-style house, enduring electric bills that reached into the thousands per month. Fed up, they contacted Los Angeles–based architect Whitney Sander, who drove out immediately with his wife, Catherine Holliss—with whom he runs his firm, Sander Architects—to meet with them. "I said, ‘I want a house, and I don’t want anything in it but concrete, steel, and glass,’" the wife recalls, "and Whitney said, ‘Oh yeah, I want to work with you.’"

A lap pool runs alongside the west facade of a hybrid prefab home in Palm Springs by Sander Architects. "Our version of prefab," explains architect Whitney Sander, "involves the use of building shells that are the ‘heavy lifting’ parts of any house: main structure, secondary  structure, and (often) building skin."

A lap pool runs alongside the west facade of a hybrid prefab home in Palm Springs by Sander Architects. "Our version of prefab," explains architect Whitney Sander, "involves the use of building shells that are the ‘heavy lifting’ parts of any house: main structure, secondary structure, and (often) building skin."

The first step was to maximize energy efficiency. The couple were set on tearing the existing house down and building anew, so Sander studied the site, particularly the magnificent views of the San Jacinto Mountains to the west, while acknowledging that playing up those views would require a fully glazed facade, leaving the house exposed. Inspiration came from the property’s desert flora and fauna. "I love the idea of layers used to protect against heat," says Sander. Just as cacti utilize layers to protect their precious cores, so too does this house: For the solid exterior walls, Sander devised a "sandwich" of eight-inch-thick expanded polystyrene ("what coffee cups are made of," he says) and high-tech reflective foil-and-foam wrap (he calls this the "space blanket"). This is topped by eight more inches of structural insulated panels, or SIPs—making the house, with its 17-inch-thick walls, hyper-insulated against the heat. Further protection comes in the form of a deep, fixed overhang that, in some places, extends about 20 feet out from the glazed window wall, to help offset solar gain. 

In the kitchen, which faces west to capture views of the San Jacinto Mountains, a large red work by James Jensen punctuates one wall. The induction cooktop is from Gaggenau; the sinks were sourced from Blanco.

In the kitchen, which faces west to capture views of the San Jacinto Mountains, a large red work by James Jensen punctuates one wall. The induction cooktop is from Gaggenau; the sinks were sourced from Blanco.

"The roof extension reminds me of Mesa Verde—it’s like the overhanging rock protecting the pueblo boxes beneath," the architect explains.  

A Mah Jong sofa by Roche Bobois in the living room lends a colorful counterpoint to the custom water feature that runs alongside it.

A Mah Jong sofa by Roche Bobois in the living room lends a colorful counterpoint to the custom water feature that runs alongside it.

Like the envelope, the roofline nods to its surroundings—Sander modeled it after the ridgeline of the nearby mountains. For the building’s cladding, inspiration came from farther afield. "I was walking along the beach in Venice one day and noticed, when the beach is sloped at the appropriate angle, water creates these long diamond patterns in the sand," says Sander, who took pictures of the pattern and called upon Configur8, in Los Angeles, to replicate it in tiles—4,000 square feet of them—to cover the facade. "We really love to play with the skin of a building," notes Holliss. "We didn’t want just flat stucco for this house, and this created the effect we were all happy with. It plays with the idea of erosion."

Configur8 tiles provide distinctive cladding for the exterior.

Configur8 tiles provide distinctive cladding for the exterior.

Beneath the roof canopy, which covers some 10,000 square feet, the 6,200-square-foot house is made up of a series of living pods, roughly divided into living, guest, and master zones—the latter two accessible only from the outside. Like much of Sander’s work, the house was built using a hybrid system, with the exterior walls and lightweight steel beams prefabricated and trucked to the site—the core of the house went up in just two months’ time—supplemented by on-site customization: poured-in-place concrete walls and floors, exterior pathways, and a custom kitchen. 

Cloe chaise longues from Myyour surround the pool.

Cloe chaise longues from Myyour surround the pool.

The wife, whose father and brother were both contractors and who was among only a handful of women taking drafting classes in her school, was very hands-on with the interiors and finishes, furnishing the house with pieces from Roche Bobois and Ligne Roset. "You can’t go wrong with anything French or Italian," she says. She chose all the artwork, mostly by friends, and made it the center of attention in every room.

In a dining area, Metropolitan chairs from B&B Italia provide seating at a circular Syntaxe table from Roche Bobois.

In a dining area, Metropolitan chairs from B&B Italia provide seating at a circular Syntaxe table from Roche Bobois.

The couple, who are very active (he is an avid surfer, and she is a hiker who has twice trekked 8,500 feet up Mount San Jacinto), asked for the house to abut the street side as much as possible to make way for a narrow lap pool off the rear facade and a long patch of grass where their German shepherd, Kona, could run free. Inside, the lap pool is echoed in a low-slung, rectangular water feature in the living room, an antidote to the dry climate. A wall containing a natural-gas fireplace sits perpendicular to the water. 

A collection of Miss Petra chairs from Myyour are next to the pool; all lighting for the house is by Skip Yeknik.

A collection of Miss Petra chairs from Myyour are next to the pool; all lighting for the house is by Skip Yeknik.

From the nearby entrance, guests descend shallow concrete stairs flanking the water feature into the living room or the family room, the former containing a colorful Mah Jong sofa by Hans Hopfer to temper the concrete-dominated space. "I hoped people would walk in and want to almost throw themselves on the cushions," says the wife. "And when people come over, they immediately want to go to that sofa."

A Boffi tub is a defining feature in the master bath.

A Boffi tub is a defining feature in the master bath.

Now in the house three years, the couple say that their home has gone beyond fulfilling its purpose as a more energy-efficient hangout. Friends and family come around often to stake a claim on the two guest rooms, which are full each spring during the Coachella music festival. Huge electric bills have all but disappeared, thanks to the solar array on the roof. "Since we’ve been in this spot so long, everything, from the back wall to the ficus to the view, is familiar," says the wife. "We moved into a better house and were right back home again."

All fixtures and faucets are from CEA.

All fixtures and faucets are from CEA.

In the master bedroom, a Droog Milk Bottle lamp hangs next to a Fluttua Bed designed by Daniele Lago. An artwork by Brooke Westlund hangs over a custom pet door for the client’s dog, Kona.

In the master bedroom, a Droog Milk Bottle lamp hangs next to a Fluttua Bed designed by Daniele Lago. An artwork by Brooke Westlund hangs over a custom pet door for the client’s dog, Kona.

"We didn’t want just flat stucco for this house." — Catherine Holliss, designer

"We didn’t want just flat stucco for this house." — Catherine Holliss, designer

Desert Canopy House Plan

Desert Canopy House Plan