Beyond the Stucco Box

Architect Eric Strain re-envisions desert architecture with The House in Two Parts

From the peaks of Summerlin to the valleys of Henderson, Las Vegas is a murky sea of Tuscan and desert contemporary architecture. Stucco dominates, rocks meld the terrain and color … well, it doesn’t really factor. Sadly, a city that was once a younger playmate to Palms Springs—another desert community possessing era-defining design—has become somewhat of a faint bleep on the residential scene. In part, architects are continually challenged by the tight guidelines set forth by community management associations controlling the look and feel of every structure within their bounds. The rulebooks say there can be little variation. Or is that really case? Can an architect design a home that breaks all norms, meets all the guidelines of the association and still walk away with his integrity intact?

Eric Strain of assemblageSTUDIO recently answered these questions with the completion of a residence that has been in the works for more than four years, The House in Two Parts, located within Redhawk at The Ridges. Resting on the dictum that as a city we don’t have to be victimized by what already exists within our sight line, Strain conceived a home that defies current labels.

The story starts with a married couple in their 50s who bought a plot of land in The Ridges with panoramic views of the Strip. They have two college-age daughters who don’t spend much time at home. They want to keep their family tight yet still downsize from their current house. They hire assemblageSTUDIO to design the new abode. The result is a perfect fit: a series of stacked boxes, no internal connection points and two separate houses on the same lot, totaling 6,000 square feet. We asked Strain to explain the rest:

“The original idea was a main house for the owners and then a guesthouse for their daughters when they come home from school. They could come and go as they want without walking by Mom and Dad. When the kids finally leave altogether, it would be about the time the owners’ parents would be needing more assistance and they could move in. What we ended up with is two separate houses with no internal connection points. The main house only has the master and a guest bedroom, and the other house has three rooms plus a media room. Each has its own garage and entrance.’’

What if it rains? How do you get back and forth between the houses?

“It’s almost like when it does rain we should go out in and actually experience it since it doesn’t happen that often. And the distance between the buildings is 20 feet. In this case, you don’t have to be exposed to the weather at all because each house is self-contained. This concept starts to open up opportunities of living in the desert.  Everybody’s been so afraid of heat but if you build in such a way that you use the structure to protect large expanses of windows, we can actually benefit from the amount of sun we have.’’ People will call it modern or ultra contemporary. How do you characterize it?

“Everybody thinks they know what modern is and what contemporary means, so we like to use the words “desert regionalism,” something that is more environmentally connected—not contemporary, modern, traditional or Tuscan.’’ The materials are striking against the landscape. What was used?

“This house uses all insulated concrete masonry units. All the insulation is contained within the block and with that you get a high level of protection. It’s smooth on the outside, so it looks like granite. The rest of the house is copper treated with black acid so it will darken instead of turn green as it weathers.’’  Why do you think such an edgy project was approved with such ease?

“It actually meets all the guidelines. It’s a smaller home than what we could really build on the site, so that’s been one of the advantages. The size gives us the latitude to play within the setbacks and we can get clean, straight lines inside of the pitch roofs. We haven’t asked for a lot of variances. Everything we’re doing, it’s a new form, but it fits right in with the guidelines of The Ridges.” What has the reaction been from the community?

“The association came out and toured the house. It’s exactly what we thought—love or hate. It’s not a house that inspires lukewarm feelings. They said they’re glad that it’s there because it’s different from everything else, and it adds the variety they want in the neighborhood, it’s just not their particular style. But the red tile—everybody so far loves the red tile. From the community at large, it is really starting to spark some interest. You don’t have to live in a stucco box anymore. You can live in something that works within the environment that is made of interesting materials.”