Last week’s heat dome caught me by surprise as I was visiting with family in California’s Wine Country. Temperatures climbed to 111 degrees, but I managed quite well with air conditioning in the car and home and a pool in the backyard. But it got me thinking back to the days before air conditioning and how we managed, so I’m inspiring you to think about how living in the upper Sonoran Desert could be possible without a thermostat to turn down.

Frank Lloyd Wright designed a 5,000-square-foot home for Harold and Mary Lou Price in Paradise Valley Arizona, outside Phoenix, in 1954. It was one of his larger homes, and he had already completed his only skyscraper, the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, for Harold Price. The couple wanted a home for hosting and entertaining their grandchildren.

Wright Price Home
Photos by Scot Zimmerman.

In a style similar to North Africa and Spain, the center of the home is a courtyard. In this case, Wright termed the 1,000-square-foot outdoor living area the central atrium, intended also as a shady place where the grandchildren could play. An interesting feature are wooden shutters that close when it’s windy and stormy. Eugene Masselink, Wright’s assistant and an artist, produced the colorful three-dimensional design. The courtyard is shaded but open in the center, and the rare rains are collected in the disc-shaped copper fountain set on a grate and lit from below. The floors are poured concrete, and the mass retains the temperatures from the desert’s cooler nights. The pillars are concrete block in a reverse pyramid shape that repeat throughout the home. Atop the pillars, a thin steel bar decorated with tile supports the roof, making it appear as if the roof is floating above. 

Wright Price Home

The home is elongated along one axis, like a train. On one side of the courtyard are the living room, dining room, and beyond the fireplace, the kitchen. The windows placed between the concrete block pillars rise to just the height of the pillars and open. Above is a clerestory. The sensation of the floating roof is even stronger here. Wright designed the furnishings and selected the turquoise color, using a gemstone from a ring to match the color. The ceilings in the atrium and throughout the home are an excelsior made from concrete and straw for insulation.

Looking the opposite direction in the same area, you can see the detailing of the ornaments, furnishings, and bookshelves. At the far end, through the glass, is the central atrium. To reach the long bedroom wing, one walks through the atrium.

Wright Price Home

There are four bedrooms and the master suite on this end. (Two guest rooms are located the other direction, near the carport.) With the compact size and built-in furnishings, Wright’s bedrooms consistently remind me of cabins on a ship.

Wright Price Home

Next to the children’s bedrooms is a lawn for playing.

Wright Price Home

In contrast, the rest of the home interfaces with the desert scape. 

When I photographed the Wright Price home, air conditioning had been installed. However, the central atrium was cool and shaded. The roof overhang shades the clerestory windows all day, and the larger windows have the least solar exposure. The ventilation flow draws air from the shaded atrium. Wright had experimented with design and building techniques from his own school and residential complex at Taliesin West, near Scottsdale. 

My conclusion: I still love air conditioning, especially when temperatures soar above 100, but I have profound respect for how well the sun and heat can be managed through good design. It makes me think that more designs of this nature would keep the bills, energy use, and carbon footprint much lower. There are some efficient designs, but why aren’t we doing more of it?

Tour more Frank Lloyd Wright homes here.

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