We desert rats living in the Mojave have a patented response to visitors’ questions regarding our summers: “Yeah, but it’s dry heat—and everything’s air-conditioned!”
If we lived in a more sustainable place we wouldn’t be relegated to the indoors 24/7 for most of June, July, August and two-thirds of September. But there are ways to live in harmony with the environment of Southern Nevada. People have been doing it for a long time.
Over the years, my wife, Jane, and I have developed a “Nevada room.” It’s our covered patio. We live mostly outdoors throughout much of the year. The barbecue and smoker are nearby, so many of our meals are also prepared outdoors.
The Nevada room has comfortable indoor/outdoor furniture, a small TV, numerous plants and our grandchildren’s art. Solar screens block the late afternoon sun, and a misting fan keeps us cool and comfortable until the August humidity skyrockets.
We’ve modeled much of our outdoor living area around concepts perfected by the Ancient Ones, the Anasazi, who lived sustainably in the desert Southwest for the better part of 2,500 years. Many Southern Nevada Anasazi settlements along the Colorado, the Muddy and Virgin rivers, and in Moapa Valley remained viable until the last half of the 10th century AD when the region was devastated by a severe drought far greater than the one we currently face.
The Anasazi lived outdoors as much as possible, working and socializing under the shade of the ramada. The ramada functioned as their covered patios, built from small tree trunks, large limbs and dead ocotillo stems. In fact, when driving across the Native American reservations today, you’ll notice that adjacent to the family’s hogan, the ramadas are still in use for shading modern-day outdoor activities.
We can borrow additional tricks for living comfortably today in the Mojave Desert from the ancient urban Egyptian settlements developed along the Nile valley in 3500 B.C. Urban townhouses there were built around central courtyards where the family’s water well was situated. Central courtyards provided a shady, protective outdoor area for living and served as a natural cooling and ventilation system, drawing moist, cooler air into and through the house and making interior spaces more comfortable. As interior air heated, it rose and exhausted into the atmosphere through high windows strategically placed along the house’s perimeter.
The design efficiency of these ancient systems has improved over time, but they are built on basic principles of physics that still drive simple technology in buildings being constructed all across the Middle East and Asia. In the desert, building design and placement are critically important to sustainable life. The surrounding Mojave environment has unique climatic and geographical characteristics far different from those found in Orange County, Calif., where most of our subdivisions and strip centers were originally planned and designed.
If you visit any area subdivision or retail center, you’ll notice that it’s common practice to face buildings west, which is a commonsense no-no for this environment because the west side of a building collects more solar energy, and therefore heat. Living here, we also learn that imported Southern California palm trees offer little, if any, shade throughout the year. Much of our environment was built to maximize profits for the developers, not to exist harmoniously with the surroundings.
Other than central courtyards, shaded outdoor living spaces, limited western exposures and shade trees, how do we transform this unsustainable sauna into an environmental haven where others come to learn how to live in a hostile-yet-fragile region?
It’s not rocket science. It boils down to simple principles and solutions. Existing buildings should be re-insulated to maximize temperature separations; we also need to create more shade in places like parking lots, which radiate heat, and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels which degrade the environment.
The more insulation and shade we provide, the more comfortable we are. Cooler interior spaces require less electricity for air-conditioning. Reducing electrical demands reduces the need to burn fossil fuels, which in turn lowers carbon emissions, reduces climate change and saves huge amounts of water necessary for generating electricity. Likewise, reduced carbon emissions lower outside air temperatures, and cleaner air improves everyone’s health.
By reinvesting in the built environment we’ll also create thousands of new jobs in the Valley that can’t be outsourced—jobs that raise expectations for educated knowledge workers.
Re-establishing how to live in the desert sustainably is a win-win situation that will once again make Las Vegas a “hot” international item. But this time around, we’ll be cool.
Robert Fielden is an architect, urban planner and commentator on urban ecology. Fielden received his doctorate in architecture from the University of Hawaii and practices in Henderson with Laura Jane Spina, his daughter.