Desert dwellers live with extremes. Summer heat easily escalates to triple digits and nighttime temperatures slide precipitously into sweater weather. It's a tough assignment to conserve energy under these harsh conditions. But, fresh from architecture school with a business newly minted as “vs. design,” Ken Vermillion and Michael Song wisely looked to the past for help battling the elements. Their biggest lesson was to prioritize passive cooling, and to balance its accommodations with the modern taste for indoor-outdoor living and low-maintenance materials.

“I feel that, in this profession, you can't help but be aware of the environmental impact as part of the design,” Vermillion says. “In this case, we suggested a Trombe wall as an effective method to increase both cooling and heating efficiency.” The three-foot-thick wall bisects the floor plan along the east-west axis, absorbing due-south rays during the day and radiating them back into the house once the mercury drops at night. For maximum benefit, primary living spaces are organized around the exposed concrete monolith, and polished-concrete floors underscore the quotidian cycle of cooling and heating.

“Providing natural air movement drops the temperature 10 degrees to 15 degrees,” explains Song, who also teaches sustainable design at Los Angeles Harbor College. The designers studied prevailing wind patterns and used those results to locate the pool to maximize evaporative cooling. And if the winds change direction? Then the nearby guesthouse reaps the benefit. In the main house, raised ceiling heights near the center of the plan and electronically operable transoms help vent hot air and drive refreshing cross-ventilation. When daylight dims, artificial illumination is doled out through a central lighting-control system that adjusts each fixture by degrees to conserve every possible kilowatt.

One energy concern was the broad expanse of roof, which had been dictated by the client's single-floor program. “We used rigid insulation on top of the traditional stuff as well as a reflective white roof liner,” says Song. “That allows the roof to absorb far less heat.”

Sustainable due diligence didn't stop with energy conservation. Materials chosen for environmental friendliness, including integrated-color stucco, raw concrete, maple-faced MDF, and Galvalume, also tend to be low- or no maintenance and are, therefore, client-friendly as well.

The designers also looked for ways to make outdoor living comfortable year-round. A courtyard layout tucks pocket terraces into undulating exterior walls. “This way, even in the height of summer, there's always somewhere to escape to where the sun isn't beating directly down,” Vermillion says.

The sun was certainly beating down one summer afternoon when Vermillion and Song went to visit the clients in their completed home. As they were touring the house, the husband leaned over and told Vermillion in a conspiratorial whisper that he didn't even have the air conditioning on. It appears the team's effort to build for a more sustainable future is already paying off, one electric bill at a time.

Vista Dunes Residence, Rancho Mirage, Calif.
designer: vs. design, Los Angeles—Ken Vermillion, Michael Song, and Roderick Villafranca
general contractor:
Nubank International, Palm Desert, Calif.
structural engineer:
Stricker Engineering, Cloverdale, Ore.
landscape designer:
Bohemian Designs, San Bernardino, Calif.
project size:
5,500 square feet
site size:
4.9 acres
construction cost:
$229 per square foot
Benny Chan/Fotoworks