Prefab Units Cluster Together in This Off-the-Grid Guesthouse

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By Zachary Edelson
Sustainable features keep this prefabricated building, designed by MOS Architects, cool and energy-efficient despite its New Mexico desert surroundings.

Located 120 miles east of Albuquerque, it's not hard to see why this building—titled the Element House—needed to be self-sufficient. Designed by MOS Architects, the residence was commissioned by the Museum of Outdoor Arts to host guests visiting a nearby installation: artist Charles Ross' Star Axis, a massive outdoor stellar observatory. The aluminum-clad structure consists of several prefabricated units joined to make a three-bedroom residence, complete with a living room, dining room, and kitchen. The 1,543-square-foot project was built to Passive House standards, meaning it's hyper-efficient in insulating from energy loss (or in this case, energy gain from the desert heat).

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Each prefabricated unit is covered in aluminum but built from SIPS (Structurally Insulated Panels) that consist of thick insulation sandwiched between plywood panels. These high-performance panels keep the interior protected from the desert's ambient heat.

Each prefabricated unit is covered in aluminum but built from SIPS (Structurally Insulated Panels) that consist of thick insulation sandwiched between plywood panels. These high-performance panels keep the interior protected from the desert's ambient heat.

The Element House stands on pylons, creating the illusion of it hovering over the desert floor. Nine thermal chimneys, one of which can be seen right, channel hot air out from the interior living areas.

The Element House stands on pylons, creating the illusion of it hovering over the desert floor. Nine thermal chimneys, one of which can be seen right, channel hot air out from the interior living areas.

The Element House is powered by solar panels, seen right.

The Element House is powered by solar panels, seen right.

A small airspace separates the building's aluminum skin from the wall underneath. The aluminum acts like a heat sink during the day: it absorbs heat but remains thermally separated (by the narrow gap) from the Element House walls.

A small airspace separates the building's aluminum skin from the wall underneath. The aluminum acts like a heat sink during the day: it absorbs heat but remains thermally separated (by the narrow gap) from the Element House walls.

Sunlight permeates the interior thanks to skylights within the thermal chimneys. A single common area, comprising a kitchen, dining, and living area, links all the three bedrooms.

Sunlight permeates the interior thanks to skylights within the thermal chimneys. A single common area, comprising a kitchen, dining, and living area, links all the three bedrooms.

The Element House also features eight balconies, two of which (seen left) border the living area.

The Element House also features eight balconies, two of which (seen left) border the living area.