The hot summers and cold winters in the desert require a type of building rarely seen in homes built in regions with moderate temperatures. While most homeowners think of the hot desert summers, with temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, in a high desert like the Mojave, winter temperatures can drop to 8 degrees F -- with high winds adding a wind-chill factor.
Homes built in a desert climate should reflect heat in summer and keep the cold out in winter.
Types of Homes
Many homes built in the desert regions of the U.S. are standard tract designs, ranging from ranches to contemporary styles, that incorporate air-conditioning systems to make the temperatures bearable. While increased insulation and air-conditioning make living in the desert possible, there are other building methods that save energy while accommodating summer heat and winter cold.
The Traditional Adobe
The traditional building material in the Southwest and other hot climates is adobe. The thick walls are made of adobe blocks -- a mixture of clay, sand, straw and water -- which were originally dried in the hot summer sun. The heavy walls provide a thermal mass that slowly absorbs heat during the day and radiates it at night. In winter, corner fireplaces release heat into the rooms. The thick walls hold the heat in and keep winter cold outside.
Modern builders add emulsified asphalt or Portland cement to increase the strength of the blocks and improve water resistance. A tile or metal roof that reflects the sun's heat away from the building and a deep overhang and porch, especially on the south side, help keep the building cool and protect the adobe from winter rains. Stepping from summer heat into an adobe building provides rapid relief from 100 degree-plus temperatures.
The house style known as Pueblo Revival incorporates the low, thick walls of the adobe, although the house may be built of adobe, concrete, stucco or mortar. Heavy wood features, including doors, ceiling beams and porch supports, contrast with the smooth surface of the exterior. The rounded corners of the building reflect traditional pueblos.
The house usually has an inner courtyard or sheltered patio where family and friends can gather and socialize.
The Mediterranean-style home known as Spanish Colonial or Mediterranean Revival also incorporates thick walls and tile roofs. The white walls may be built over a standard framework of wood studs, locally obtained rock or adobe covered with textured stucco. As in adobe homes, the walls are thick with small windows that open to allow the breeze in while keeping the hot sun out. Most Spanish Colonial homes are one story, with an inner courtyard.
Modern Desert Homes
Architects continue to develop home designs appropriate for the desert climate. In addition to the traditional thick walls, courtyards and covered patios or porches, the orientation of the home allows the architect to plan for protection from the sun in summer but allow for sun penetration into the interior in winter. Concrete, stone or tile floors provide a cool surface in summer. When the low-slanting rays of the winter sun reach deep into the south-facing triple-pane windows, the floor retains and reflects the warmth through the house.
While roof materials include tile, metal and 10-inch-thick SIP panels, one innovative development in modern desert homes has been used for years by owners of old mobile homes. Adding a metal roof over the top of the entire building prevents the sun's rays from beating down on the house all day, while allowing air circulation under the reflective roof and over the house. Add deciduous, drought-tolerant trees on the south side of the home for shade in summer, and conifers or other evergreens to the north side to block winter winds.
Adding a cooling tower to a desert home allows warm air to enter at the top; it passes through damp pads, cooling to a comfortable temperature by the time it enters the home through vents. It's similar in principle to an evaporative cooler, also known as a swamp cooler.
Solar power panels provide power, while a solar water heater saves energy. Gathering the small annual amounts of rainwater into a cistern and using gray water to water the minimalist landscape makes the desert home an oasis in the dry terrain.