Located within the 180-acre Springs Preserve campus near downtown Las Vegas, the Desert Living Center is a public outreach and applied research facility designed to “promote sustainable life in the Mojave Desert.” Designed by Lucchesi Galati Architects, the complex opened in 2007 and includes space for exhibits, classrooms, offices, and gardens that explore sustainable solutions to environmental issues. Each of the five buildings in the complex was designed to focus on a different sustainable practice. Because the project is intended celebrate its desert environment, the architects employed several traditional strategies for desert living and paid close attention to the use of local materials to achieve a distinct sense of place. The Desert Living Center's mission is to educate the public about environmental stewardship and sustainable living.
General Design Strategies: The architects studied techniques used by traditional desert cultures such as the Anasazi of the Mojave region as well as those employed traditionally in the Middle East. As a result, each building was carefully oriented to take advantage of passive solar design and natural light. Thick walls help to insulate and maintain consistent indoor temperatures, even when outdoor temperatures reach extremes. To further reduce the need for active heating and cooling, portions of the building are bermed, or sunk into the ground, using the earth as a natural thermal insulator. The building envelope consists of straw bale or rammed earth construction.
Straw bale walls are used for non-loadbearing walls and provide good thermal insulation for the building envelope. Straw is a natural, renewable building material and this technique is well suited to the dry, desert environment of Las Vegas. The center has the distinction of being the largest straw bale construction project in the U.S.
Rammed earth construction is also used extensively on the project. Indigenous peoples in the region such as the Anasazi and Hopi used this technique. Construction of rammed earth walls is somewhat similar to concrete in that a wooden formwork must be constructed. Layers of earth are then alternately added and compacted. For this project, a mixture of sand, gravel, clay, and concrete was used. Because the individual earth layers can comprise slightly different material mixtures, rammed earth walls will often have a distinctive, stratified appearance. The solid rammed earth walls can be used for some load-bearing applications. They have a very high thermal mass and are used in conjunction with passive solar design for storing and maintaining consistent indoor temperatures.
Another key strategy used on the project is the incorporation of cool towers. This ancient technique has been used for centuries in the Middle East where a similar desert climate can create extreme diurnal temperatures. The cool towers extend well above the roof of the building and are positioned to catch prevailing winds and force the cooler air down into the living areas. As the cool air enters the building, warmer/stale air is simultaneously exhausted. This technique naturally cools and ventilates the building without supplemental energy. Four of the five buildings in the Desert Living Center employ cool towers to supplement mechanical cooling systems.
Wastewater for the complex is treated on-site through a water collection and bio-filtration system. The complex contains an elaborate system of gardens and bio swales where indigenous plants filter and treat both gray and black wastewater, which is then reused for non-potable applications.
The complex makes extensive use of renewable energy. A large photovoltaic array covers the parking area. This array not only helps to supplement the center's energy needs but also significantly reduces heat island effect over the parking area and improves visitor comfort.
The project serves as a compelling example of how good design can allow buildings to touch their ecosystems lightly and serve their communities effectively, even in the most extreme of environments.