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Living with the desert.

Suspended over its saguaro-studded slope, this dramatic new house at the base of Tucson's Santa Catalina Mountains gives the living desert star billing. With broad window walls and sweeping decks sheltered from the sun by deep overhangs, the house acts as a strategically placed nature-viewing platform.

It is what Frank Lloyd Wright might have called a natural house: "...integral to the life of the inhabitants." It recently won an honor award from the Arizona chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

From the moment they first saw the 3-acre arroyo site, architect Les Wallach; his wife, Susan; and their son, Aaron, were captivated. They marveled at the saguaros, jojobas, acacia, and ironwood trees, the wide valley view, and frequent sightings of bobcat and deer.

Wallach recalls, "We knew we were not being rational, because the same arroyo that divided this habitat was also a conduit for runoff." He felt he could meet the challenge.

Topographic and aerial surveys helped determine salient site characteristics, and Wallach plotted the location of every saguaro. The site slopes from north to south, with the best views at the higher north end, nearest the road. This section of the site also had the fewest saguaros--only one was removed during construction.

"In the desert, however," says Wallach, "the sun tells you how to orient a building." Luckily, he found the best solar orientation to be in the same direction as the views.

To touch the site as lightly as possible and keep construction out of the runoff bed, Wallach designed the 3,300-square-foot house as a barbell-shaped bridge. The house turns away from the street toward the view, and it straddles the wash. Extensive overhangs shade the south and west facades--the roof covers more than 8,000 square feet--with cutouts to accommodate existing trees.

From the street, you enter the public end of the barbell, between the kitchen and the living area. Straight ahead, a hall-bridge crosses the arroyo to the bedroom wing. Every major room opens to a covered deck. All windows are double-glazed; low-emission glass in the bedroom wing minimizes the night heat loss.

To preserve the edges of the wash, house foundations are a combination of concrete-block perimeter walls and cantilevered concrete slabs. Wallach avoided creating an unsightly pile of excavated earth by compacting it behind the foundation walls.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Title Annotation:architect Les Wallach's house at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains, Tucson, Arizona
Author:Gregory, Daniel P.
Date:May 1, 1992
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