Desert City House by Marwan Al-Sayed Architects



Marwan Al-Sayed Architects have completed a house in Paradise Valley, Arizona.


Bedrooms and bathrooms are located on the ground floor in two separate, one-storey, cast concrete structures, which are partially sunken into the ground to provide privacy and shade.


The upper floor spans these two volumes and comprises living, dining and cooking spaces, as well as outdoor decking.


The following information is from Marwan Al-Sayed Architects:


Located on a relatively flat one-acre parcel in Paradise Valley, Arizona, within the Phoenix metropolitan area, the site is opposite the Arizona Canal with panoramic views to the Squaw Peak Mountain reserve to the north and Camelback Mountain to the east.


This house is conceived as an archaic thick mass casting, with the two one story volumes defining the entry courtyard and acting as a base for the plaster volume upper story, which houses the main living, dining and kitchen spaces, as well as outdoor dining decks. This "reverse" living plan makes sense in the hot dry desert climate of Arizona. Bedrooms and bathrooms on the ground level are semi sunken into the earth, affording privacy, shade and immediacy to the desert floor which surrounds it - rooms stay cool and intimate - while the upper public level affords the spectacular views of the surrounding topography, as well as participates in the constant light show of vast sky, clouds and colors that so typifies the urban desert experience.  Additionally, the raised living room volume which spans between the two concrete masses creates a large shaded outdoor living room, that is cooled by the water feature and opens to the natural desert foliage while cutting off views to the non-descript suburban houses that surround it.


Protruding and in deliberate contrast from the lower mass volumes are mysteriously proportioned glass Light Monitors which serve to drink in the abundant sky and sun, and simultaneously, will act as a draw for ingeniously placed fresh air intakes that allows the house to naturally cool during the shoulder seasons. At night, these Monitors surreally glow against the desert sky.


The palette is kept deliberately monotone to help accentuate the subtle grays, silvers and green casts of the desert landscape. Integral white cast concrete walls (20" thick) lend an almost classical, Mediterranean effect, while helping dissipate and reflect heat gain, the “albedo”-effect. Plaster volumes are also rendered in shades of white, the overall effect, with the addition of the translucent, white glass light monitors creates a subtle white-on-white tonal range, accentuated internally with small subtle shades of green, green yellow and black through the use of tile and wood.


Urban desert living made simple, graced by strong apertures in thick walls, slightly inflected and with proportions more commonly found in ancient cities than the cities and homes that surround us today.


Sustainability Criteria:

Site: Urban/Suburban infill. Thick mass concrete walls shield east and west exposures.


Landscape: Only indigenous desert vegetation utilized with xeriscape principles (low water use plants and irrigation system)


Indoor air quality: A fresh air intake system draws fresh outside air, filters it, and runs it through large underground ducts to the house and releases it where it flows and is drawn up the large light monitors, which act as solar chimneys, where at the top a series of automated operable glass louvers vent the air to the outside. This passive cooling system is used in the shoulder seasons of spring, fall and winter and eliminates the conventional needs for air conditioning in the shoulder seasons.


Materials and resources: Material palette is kept to a minimum of materials that are maintenance free and have a long life. Thermally insulated operable glass louvers provide natural ventilation throughout the house.


Energy and Resources: Ancient principle of thick mass walls with thermal lag effect common in desert climates. Also with use of white concrete and plaster, the “albedo”-effect is achieved which is the incidence of reflected sunlight off an object’s surface, thereby reducing solar heat gain. This is a principle common to ancient desert cities and is rendered here in a contemporary way.


Homeowner’s awareness: Clients initially requested a “cutting edge” design in terms of environmental impact. Original design was utilizing cast earth walls (a mix of earth and gypsum), which was abandoned due to lack of qualified sub-contractors to execute this material. Original house design, carried through construction documents, was to employ a fully capillary tube radiant cooling system in lieu of conventional air-conditioning systems, but this was also abandoned due to lack of local contractor’s experience and thus over inflated pricing for the system.  Working with our engineers, the goal was a net zero energy house which ultimately could not be achieved with the budget and lack of available contractors for untried systems. What remained were the passive cooling strategies of the solar chimneys and the thick mass wall construction.


Innovation and Design Process: Innovative materials such as cast earth, radiant cooling, solar chimneys, and solar energy were researched, mocked up and in some cases utilized in the final product but in other cases abandoned due to either lack of local expertise, costs, or lack of single source responsibility (i.e. controls for the radiant cooling system). Thus, this project typifies that despite the best of intentions on behalf of the clients and the architects and engineers, it is still difficult to afford or execute complete sustainability solutions at such a small scale of the single-family residence.














Posted on Sunday December 7th 2008 at 2:24 pm by . Copyright policy | Comments policy

  • OLGV.

    God save the concrete and let us use it forever :D

  • Bruce

    Awesome; makes me want to move to the desert.

    Great, complete post!

  • Johannes Pohl

    Wow, excellent! I’m a stern lover of concrete!

    Would love to call this project my home =)

  • Fling

    “We wanted to use fully capillary tube radiant cooling system in lieu of conventional air-conditioning systems throughout but the engineer had trouble tying his shoelaces that morning and had to stay home because the dog ate his schematics and there was no more room on the bus and Barry stole my lunch money”.
    Budget was so tight on this house, not only did they ghave to abandon consideration for the earth, but the residents can only now afford to eat 2 different shades of blancmange.

  • Tyler

    Absolutely breathtaking!

  • Leedah

    dont know what to say! but i wanna say something cause i love it
    very relaxing atmosphere .. would love to call this my home

  • ana paula

    Great design and great finishing!! Does any one know what kind of material was used on the kitchen floor?

  • K. Rimane

    fantastic on all counts.

  • Gabriel

    At last one good post with floor plans!
    great work on concrete and natural lighting
    Thanks for posting this great work

  • yimyim

    yeah, if we all discussed what we wanted to do and then what the local conditions & budget allowed…. you would be reading for hours! very funny!
    nice pics!

  • Matt

    Dead right Fling. “It is still difficult to afford or execute complete sustainability solutions at such a small scale of the single-family residence.” This is small scale? I know what they mean but perhaps all those involved in that project need a little perspective. How many families could really live in that house? I get the feeling the ‘eco components’ were thought of as a good idea for re-sale value. Next time be q lit5urehsd hcd gc v etwyr ur

  • Matt

    Next time be less selfish when making sacrifices. After all that I hate to say it, but it’s a beautiful project and I’d love to live there.

  • Ben

    nice project but when describing it don’t bother to say that there were thoughts of having it built with sustainable elements because if you built a huge, non compact home, in the middle of the desert, with a garage for 3 cars (probably hummers because what else can survive in the desert?) there is nothing you can do no more to make it sustainable …

  • John

    Nice job! This is a great commission for a residence. The plan is nice as well. Perhaps better choice of light fixture could have been made like Nulux or something minimal like that.

  • g

    The detailing is very tight! Great work all around…

    Good point Ben – tho i’d still applaud the effort in what was clearly a thorough and rational process…

  • the architect is a genius. it is clear he designed this house not with a pencil but with his soul. well done Marwan.

  • Chris

    beautiful- truly- but would love to see the original budget and the final cost- all these systems are so wonderfully energy saving yes ,but how many decades for the expense to be paid off. Also suprised they went with dark wood in kitchen-(was prob the clients unfortunate choice as the rest of the design is teriffic!) we should take a note from current japanese architects offering light filled kitchens that have plywood and MDC cabinetry.

  • peridotprince

    mohamed – I need a good laugh today, thanks :)

    Maybe its the photographs, but it seems a rambling mess of itself. A few buildings adjacent? Not sure – doesn’t feel whole.

  • saif

    Great Design…Great Workmanship….is it for sale?

  • Joel DW

    By far one of the best I’ve seen on this site. There are other “superstars” who’s efforts are really just computer generated massing.But this is “ol’skool” planning and design.

  • jim

    The efficiency and detail of the plan is admirable, however the material and massing interaction is very aggressive. The desert (in local context) hasnt a chance to develope vocabulary with the architecture, except to say that it relates as butter to a knife. The concrete as contrast for the desert life? Ive heard this time again with other projects. The deserts flora has evolved for survival, i.e. leaves on a Palo Verde tree, spines upon a cactus. This is eco process that invite elegance through the minimal. The featured architecture combats principle of origin rather than embracing it. Again contrast in lieu of comparison. In literature the former is aggressive, the latter passive. Brings to mind the developments of the 70’s: corporate mass in pastoral settings. Is personal statement more important than environmental inflection for resolve?

  • re:jim
    the feel of concrete in the sonoran desert is actually akin to the feel of the desert itself, not combative, but the hardness of the desert put into form like a cave. also, not just a concept, but the thermal, heat sink properties of concrete in the desert, with hot days and cool nights, is very important. the slabs can appear to be brutal, but when spending a long time in the harsh desert take on more of a sense of strength in a hard place, not against the environment, but transforming it like sculpture. in the same way the thermal properties of concrete actually conduct the environment and compress its highs and lows rather that typical tight insulation.
    anyway beautiful, love the ancient city apertures.

  • Wes

    As the builder of this project I can say that Marwan designed a truly unique and beautiful work of architecture! His involvement through-out the building process was invaluable.
    If you can believe it this home is currently on the market.
    Contact Greg Kilroy at Keller Williams / Scottsdale 480.767.3021

  • Yes, this property is currently for sale. You may see the website for additional photography (great to see how the landscape has matured) and a video of a walkthrough by the builder. Please call to set an appointment to view this home – 480.235.4312.

  • Guillermo Macias

    I've always been curious, how do these houses obtain electricity?

  • alvin

    It's a waste of good concret you could use it for footing for a few more houses and then some

  • BaRa

    Making an argument about the sustainability, but all the while integrating an outdoor pool in the design. I thought water was scarce in the desert? Next time try NOT using a pool.