Bionic Houses – Smoke Tree House

Nicole Borgenicht Real Estate


Architect Suzanne Zahr Fleming, who designed a house on Smoke Tree Lane in Palm Springs, suggests going green simply means good design. “The most effective way to promote energy efficiency is to design a house that takes full advantage of natural light, passive solar energy, shading, cross-ventilation, and efficient space planning,” she says. “Doing so — by studying sun angles, prevailing winds, and general site orientation — reduces the overall energy load required to live comfortably. Once these fundamental architectural moves are established, design and specification of artificial lighting and interior climate control enhance the overall efficiency.”

Fleming uses all cellulosic materials to ensure durability and to eliminate the threat of termites. Concrete masonry walls with stone veneer and concrete floors absorb heat when it’s warm and release it when it’s cold. Solar photovoltaic panels capture energy for the annual electrical load, yielding a net-zero energy house.

The roofing product, called eco-shake, is made of 100 percent recycled tires and visually draws a comparison to weathered cedar shakes.

The house participated in the LEED for Homes Pilot Program with the U.S. Green Building Council. The program requires third-party verification that ensures the design meets stringent standards. Although it’s a costly proposition, the savings in energy and resources typically returns the owner’s investment in five to seven years.

• Indoor air quality using HEPA filters and sealing air ducts
• Energy-efficient lighting (including occupancy sensors)
• Nontoxic pest control
• Environmentally preferable products
• Site orientation
• Thermal mass walls and floors
• Saline pool and spa
• Kiva fireplaces
• Sustainable landscaping

Ready, aim, fire! The phrase almost trivializes the tedium architects endure when designing “smart” houses in the desert. After homeowners declare themselves “ready” to build with sustainable materials and energy-efficient features, architects “aim” the structure, accounting for the angles of the sun and the direction of the wind during the season. Then they “fire” up construction with autonomous features.

These bionic houses sometimes come at a bold price (but they don’t have to), and they begin paying back through eco-conscious features, such as tankless water heaters, solar photovoltaic panels, and energy-efficient lighting.

We visited three houses — two in Palm Springs and one in Pioneertown in the High Desert — whose owners are committed to preserving and conserving and asked their architects to talk about their designs.