The Desert

I was watching a story on The Science Channel last night, about a place I’d heard of before. An architect designed a community (rather like a commune), which IIRC is near Tucson. Could be wrong about the location, though. It was designed to be self-supporting and efficient. Cars are not allowed, the community grows much of its own food, chickens are used to get rid of insects in the compost instead of using chemicals, etc. Parts of the community are underground.

That got me to thinking about the efficiency of a desert environment, as opposed to other environments.
[ul][li]Solar and wind energies are abundant[/li][li]Building rooms below the surface maintains comfortable temperatures in them[/li][li]Given enough water, many edible and useful crops can be grown[/ul][/li]First, energy: When I lived in the Mojave Desert, we cooled our normal house with a ‘swamp cooler’ (an evaporative cooler). The cost was very low compared to refrigerated air, though it did raise the humidity in the house and it required periodic cleaning of the water delivery system. Aircraft designer Burt Rutan designed, built, and lived in (I assume he still lives in) a house that is largely underground, features composite construction like his airplanes (lots of foam), and uses a heat pump to maintain comfortable temperatures. From what I’ve heard, it’s very efficient.

By contrast, my house here in the PNW needs only fans to keep it cool in the hottest part of summer. On the other hand, winter is very cold and requires the expenditure of hundreds of gallons of expensive propane to heat. But then, my house, built in 1934 and designed mostly for summer use, is not very efficient.

One thing that cannot be counted on in these northern climes is reliable ‘green’ energy. Clouds cover the sun very often. Winds are not very strong. Energy needs to be made the olf-fashioned way for the most part. Sun and wind are almost always available in deserts.

Next, home construction. No matter where you live, I’m sure that less heating and cooling energy will be used if you build partially underground. The earth is a good insulator. Up here, there’s water all over the place. Water collects under houses. If you don’t live on the crest of a hill as I do, how do you exclude water from a basement; let alone build most of your house underground? The desert also gets water. It’s very easy to see where it goes, when viewed from the air. But it’s very much easier to find a ‘dry spot’ in which to dig. It seems to me that fewer resources are needed to build an efficient house in the desert.

Then there is water. That’s one thing we have a lot of. It’s harder to come by in the desert, but it’s there. My grandparent’s place in Oregon had a spring. In the desert, you have to dig for it. My dad grew strawberries, tomatoes and peaches in his back yard. He also had luxuirious – wnd water-inefficient – lawns. There are lots of farms and orchards (mostly almond orchards) in the Antelope Valley (never saw an antelope there, though). Things grow well, given the water.

But you don’t need that much. My mom’s house in Phoenix was ‘xeriscaped’. Native or semi-native plants were featured, and the ‘lawn’ was attractive gravel. Her back yard had a grapefruit tree (sweetest grapefruits I’ve ever eaten!), tangerines, and various cacti. The prickly pear cacti have edible fruit, and the pads are also edible (sold as nopalito). The aloe vera have medicinal properties. There was a drip irrigation system that used very little water.

Back to the architects commune: The structure was built on a bluff, which frees the flat land below for farming. The rain that falls naturally flows onto the flats. Given intelligent planning, wells, and efficient irrigation systems, it seems to me that the desert is a logical place to live.

Getting away from the practicality of living in a desert compared to living in a wet place, the desert has equal charms to just about anywhere else you can imagine. For one thing, there is space. Lots of space. Many is the time I’ve gone to a high place in the desert and just… looked. I’ve mentioned in other threads that many people see deserts as drab and boring, and that that there is an amazing amount of diversity and colour for anyone who takes the time to look. Stargazing is spectacular. Away from large cities, there is less light pollution. And again, the skies are usually clear. Do you like to fly? Most days are excellent. Even on windy days (but not too windy!) the wind is generally steady and from a predictable direction. Cars are not as rust-prone (although the paint will suffer) as the climate is dry and salt is not used on the roads.

But it’s hot. I think I’ve made it quite clear in other threads over the years that I don’t like hot. But heat is different in the desert than it is in Los Angeles. It’s bearable. Maybe it’s the 20-knot (or more) wind that evaporates your sweat that does it. Maybe it’s just that ‘dry heat’ is more bearable than humid heat. Maybe the harsh environment, in its beauty, simply makes you forget the heat. I know that – heat-wise – I was more comfortable in the desert than I was in the L.A. summer; even though it was twenty degrees or so hotter. Some people might have issues with the abundant black widow spiders and the occasional rattlesnake though. (I never saw a rattlesnake in the 11 years I lived in the desert.)

“But, its a dry heat,” he said to the turkey on Thanksgiving. :smiley:

One thing you didn’t mention about the Pacific NW, is that much of our power is hydroelectric. More environmentally friendly than some other methods. Although, I understand, that friendliness has come into question, as it related to fishies.

Also, unless you live on near a river or tide flat, most land here is well above the water table, except during exceptionally rainy periods. Basements can be sealed well enough to keep the water. Ours had a couple places where it leaked when we moved in, we had them sealled, and have not had a problem since. So building all or partly underground here, isn’t as unfeasible as you might think. I know there are enviro-scaped houses here that use very little energy. I think there is one near North Bend, if memory serves.

The desert climate is bad for you skin. Even using sunscreen, you’ll end up looking like a driving glove in a few years, not to mention the increase risk of skin cancer.
Even having an efficent house, you still have to go outside. No matter how dry the heat, the interface gradiant is very noticeable.
So, ** Johnny**, you know you love it here, stop trying to convince yourself you want to leave! :smiley: :cool:

And snakes! I didn’t mention we don’t have any poisonous snakes here. [sub]I HATE snakes.[/sub]

Oh, yes! I love it up here! I’d rather my house were more efficient and better laid-out, but the location is wonderful!

If I had gobs of money, I’d replace this house with a more efficient one. I’d have a condo in L.A. (basically, a place to stay when I’m there), and a house in Lancaster. Of course I’d have my own airplane to get from here to there. :wink: :cool:

As I said, I never saw a snake in the wild in the Antelope Valley. (I did see a large number of sidewinders in Daggett, though.) The only time I saw snakes in the Antelope Valley was when I did a one-day ‘survival training’ class at Edwards AFB with the Civil Air Patrol. They were all in glass cages. (I finally got to see the legendary ‘Mojave Green’, and they even had a gila monster.)

Hey, Johnny! Until someone imported them, there were no palm trees in Palmdale! Someone was confused when they saw the Joshua trees there. And deserts aren’t bad when you don’t have a 40 knot breeze 24/7.

You just weren’t looking! I saw a diamond back in my friend’s folk’s yard in Antelope Valley. It was eyeing their pet box turtle.

Lancaster!?Ooo ahhh. Don’t they eat their young out there? [sub]no offense if anyone lives there.[/sub]

I wish some of the people here DID eat their young. [sub]Kidding (mostly).[/sub]

Johnny, was it Arco Santi you saw on the show? It’s more toward Cottonwood where my grandparents used to live, rather than Tucson, though. It’s a very neat place to tour and stay. I always buy a bell, they’re beautiful.

As for semi- subterranean houses, they’re not all that wonderful in the desert around here at least. Our neighbors did it and their home was beautiful-- featured in bunches of magazines-- and yes they didn’t have air conditioning even though temps could get up to 125 outside. Inside it was just barely okay if you sat naked and didn’t move. Then there was the fun of cooking outside since a kitchen indoors would heat up the house.

Our house used an evaporative cooler and I hated that thing. Noisy, gusty, damp, and the back rooms never got cool at night. We also buried pipe about six feet under the sand, where the temp is supposed to stay cooler and then had a fan hooked up to draw the air through the pipes, cool it, and then blow it into the house (I may be off a bit, I was maybe twelve when it was done). At best it took the edge off the worst of the heat so we could leave the a/c up really high while we were at work and the house wouldn’t be broiling when we got home. Not worth the effort really. Planting windbreaks and shade trees were at least as effective at reducing temps. Though I don’t remember having that much time to enjoy the cool since we were always outside unclogging the watering system since the very plants we were trying to water filled the pipes with roots. When mineral deposits hadn’t built up and clogged stuff. It was a neverending round of dirty, hard work living out there. Though I believe my mom still owns ten acres out there, and I bet she’d let it go reeeeally cheap, too…

Though I really like some parts of desert living, I can hardly wait to find a job somewhere up north. I’m crazy though-- I don’t think Oregon gets enough rain.

The desert climate is bad for you skin. Even using sunscreen, you’ll end up looking like a driving glove in a few years, not to mention the increase risk of skin cancer.[/QUOTE]

Not necessarily true. My theory is that there are two main groups of desert people when it comes to skin. Those who go outdoors and take no precautions to bake in the sun, for fun, work, whatever. And then there’s the rest of us who stay indoors and cover up properly when outside. You wouldn’t be able to pick me out of a crowd of Seattlites in mid-winter, I’m so pale and non-glovelike.

And you need more cats to keep the snakes away. We had eight or nine mean old toms who kept everything away. Nothing like watching a gang of cats herd a sidewinder off the property.

Yes, it was Arcosanti.

Re: swamp coolers. Ours had a central outlet in the hall. (Some other houses in the tract had ducts to all of the rooms.) Our strategy was to direct the airflow with doors and windows. The bathroom had a door in the hallway, and one into dad’s room. To cool dad’s room, the hall door would be shut and the bedroom door would be open. The bathroom window would be opened a few inches. My bedroom, opposite dad’s, would have the door angled so that the breeze would be directed to my bed. My bed’s orientation was changed a couple of times over the years, but it was always near the window. I’d open my window a few inches. This way, both dad’s room and my room would stay cool. The rest of the house would also stay cool, except for the spare bedroom, which wasn’t used.

When we moved into the house, the back yard was just desert. Sand and tumbleweeds. One of my after-school chores was to pick every weed in a given area of the back yard, rake the strip, and pick any weeds I missed. Eventually, the back yard was weed-free. Tons of fertiliser went back there, as well as efficient sprinklers. A concrete slab was poured for the patio, and a dad built a very stout patio roof. The west side of the patio had two 4x8 lattices for grape vines, which cut the sun by two-thirds. The roof kept the sun out of the dining room. This certainly helped to maintain a comfortable temperature. By bedroom window was on the west side of the house, so it got the hot afternoon sun. Dad built a rolling carport (a massive wooden structure on large metal wheels) that would be moved on the concrete slap he’d put in the side yard. By rolling it in front of my window, I had some nice cool shade.

The photo of me and my nephew on my homepage was taken on the patio. It was summer, but it was very comfortable there in the shade.

One of my favorite things about living in the desert is: no fleas! THere simply isn’t enough moisture in the air to allow fleas to live here. My cats loved it when we moved here from Florida.

I sure do miss those daily thunderstorms, tho.

While reading another thread, I noticed the poster’s location: ‘Watching the sunrise’.

I always enjoyed sunrise in the desert. Looking east from where I lived, things were rather flat. There were the San Gabriel Mountains to the south, and the Tehachapis and southern Sierra Nevadas to the north. I don’t remember the name of the western mountains – the ones that are home to Magic Mountain, Fort Tejon, Gorman, etc.

But to the east was the vast expanse of the Mojave Desert. There were some outcroppings here and there, scattered like islands int he sand; but mostly it was flat. These outcroppings tended, IIRC, to grow larger the farther east you go. These were below the horizon. So I’d look at the eastern sky, and what do I see? Shadows. Shadows in the sky. Though the hills/mountains/whatever were beyond the horizon, the sun was farther still below their horizons. Farther west, where I stood, I could see the shadows they cast in the sky.

It was beautiful.

Johnny Paolo Soleri envisioned Arcosanti back in the 70’s. Fortunately the earthy, colorful people inhabiting it then have inspired much the same type people to live there now. Having studied up there and at his place in Paradise Valley Cosanti I can say his views certainly deserve good merit. My wife and I went to ASU for Graduate school back in the early 90’s. Then we moved back east to CT, and are now back in the valley of the sun - Phoenix. Living in the foothills of Ahwatukee we have the ability to really create an efficient house and living.
Modeled on some of what goes on at Arcosanti we have solar panels on 3/4 of our roof - don’t care much that they block the spanish roofing tiles - and have a newly designed water filtration system for our outdoor plants. Though not fully operational yet, we are planning to filter and reuse water from our kitchen sink, bathroom sinks, and showers to water our outdoor plants. The plummer looked at me like I had two heads when I told him what I wanted to do, but hey, my wife and I want to live as green as we can.
Though far from it now, we would really enjoy opening our home up for people to come and see how easy it is to live efficently and help them learn how to re-engineer if-you-will some of the systems in their house to recycle water, organic food stuffs and the suns energy to better suit them.
Granted our solar panels were a decent hunk of change but they pay for themselves in more than one way. Email me if you’d like to chat further on desert living, or if you are going to be in town - don’t you have relatives here?

My mom died in February, and we have sold the house. Maybe I’ll make it to a DopeFest someday?

It sucks being ‘bi-climatal’. I generally don’t like hot weather, but the desert heat is different from L.A. heat. It’s somehow more tolerable. But I really do like the cool wet weather of the PNW. I never water the lawns, I don’t need an air conditioner… it’s very comfortable. But I do miss the desert expanses. I was watching Contact the other day, and the vistas were amazing.

Good on you for your ‘green’ house! I think I mentioned my mom’s yard. (I’m too lazy to go back to see what I’ve already posted.) It was very nice seeing the wonderful plants that were supported by slow drips of water. Lawn? Who needs a lawn when you have native plants?

I’m sorry to hear about your mother…hopefully you can make it to a fest at some point - in the winter though :slight_smile:

I went down for Thanksgiving, and again in December when she was in hospital. Being unemployed, I kept the house cold to conserve the expensive propane. It was very nice to sit out on her patio in 70° weather!

I’ve been interested in astronomy for years and years, though I’ve never taken any classes or know much more than what I’ve seen on science programmes. I’ve ordered a telescope that will arrive this week. Winter nights in particular are very crisp and clear up here – when it’s not raining. When I move back to L.A. I’ll not have rain, but the light pollution will be horrid. The desert is a great place for looking at the night sky. I was blown away when I took a ‘shortcut’ that turned out to be a two-lane road somewhere in Arizona, and pulled over in the middle of nowhere to attend to a physiological imperitive. Those were the brightest stars I’d ever seen!

My folks still live in Barstow, I grew up there & visit them quite a bit. Believe it or not, swamp coolers are now high tech. Sealed double-walled water systems, pumps that automatically fill the cooler’s reservoir, dual side squirrel cage fans, automatic drainage of the mineralized water to your garden. You don’t even have to change the pad that often, just once every 3-4 years. It costs a friggin’ fortune, but it sure as hell beats having to clean & maintain those SOBs all the damn time.

I’d be more likely set up a Sunset Breezehouse in the desert than go underground. I’d also have to use one of those swamp coolers for the worst days, but by late afternoon you could throw open the house and let the desert breezes cool it down. I’d only go underground if there was a guaranteed way to get a breeze down there.

And while rattlers and sidewinders look scary, the liittle guys are really shy. If you don’t have a tribe of housecats, it isn’t hard to learn safe catch-and-release methods. Either that, or find a LOT of King Snakes that like hanging out in your yard.

I built a 10 in. Dobsinian telescope with my wife a few years back. It wasn’t until we drove into the middle of no where (15 minutes from our house) and set it up did we really understand how wonderful itn was to be back in the desert :slight_smile:

I used to have plans on How To Build Your Own Sidewalk Telescope that showed how to build a Dobsonian. I opted for an 8" reflector on an equatorial mount because I want to try some photos. I think it will be here Wednesday.

Still, a Dobsonian would be cool to get kids interested in astronomy – if only I knew anything about it myself!

We built a house in Crestline a few years ago and during the building of it I drove back home from there late Friday nights. I would stop on a hill just a few miles north of Randsburg and get out to just look at the sky. The Milky Way is astonishing when you can really see it. A telescope just gets in the way in that case.