GREENBAUM HOUSE: COD 2013 Spring Conference

Greenbaum House Image by Steven K. Alspaugh

Homes are expressions of our individualities. The home emerges out of the ground wrapping around the space we need to lead a comfortable life. Comfort has a direct correlation with the climate. Following our individual expression, it is the climate that is the primary determinant of the home design and construction. Exploring the mid-century modern architecture, the AIA Committee on Design (COD) held its annual Spring Conference at Palm Springs, CA on May 9-12, 2013. The conference led us to many homes built between 1930s to current date in this desert climate. I was one of the two lucky winners of the COD Knowledge Scholarship, and was able to avail the opportunity of being a part of the tremendous conference through the generous support of couple donors.

Palm Springs is a unique city located off the major arteries of Los Angeles region, sitting on a detour between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The city was born and put on the map when celebrities traveling between LA and LV would leisure at Palm Springs having a good time away from the tourist traffic. The practice continues today. This pattern has led to many homes away from homes in Palm Springs. We toured many of the luxurious residences and other prominent projects during the COD conference. The architects of the projects we visited included Albert Frey, Palmer & Krisel, John Lautner, Donald Wexler, Stewart Williams, William Cody, Jim Jennings, Marmol & Radziner, O2 Architecture, Ana Escalante, and Frederick Fisher. We had the privilege of hearing from William Krisel, Jim Jennings and Fred Fisher, among others.

Responding to the local climate, each home we visited had a large private swimming pool, which seemed to be a checklist item for all construction in Palm Springs. Each project also made the best use of the surrounding views, so much so that one forgot the house while looking out. Of all the projects we saw, I was immediately taken by the Greenbaum House designed by Ana Escalante, completed in 2006. This is a residence where the boundary between the outdoor swimming pool and the large living room completely melts, a house where the individuality of the owner shines, and a house that begins to speak to the Palm Springs climate.

Entrance to Greenbaum House. Image by Steven K. Alspaugh

The inspiration for the house came from the owner who loves to swim. The initial thought was to design something very environment appropriate, which slowly turned to be exhibitionist as well. The house expresses the individuality of the owner by bringing the outdoor swimming pool at your face as soon as you enter the house. The entrance of the Greenbaum House is sunken, approached by a sloping ramp from the street level culminating at a shaded outdoor vestibule. One enters the living room directly facing the swimming pool beyond the concrete wall with punched openings.

During our visit, once we absorbed the blue glow of the light coming from the pool filtering into the living area, we were surprised by the sudden appearance of the owner waving at us from the pool. We found ourselves drawn immediately to the glass wall separating the pool from the living room. Only after exploring the pool did we take in the rest of the space. The effect is mesmerizing to the first time visitor.

Living Room Wall’s Punched Openings to Swimming Pool. Image by Deepika Padam

Owner Swimming as Seen from Living Room. Image by Deepika Padam

This house is about the pool, built around a pool, engulfing the pool, exhibiting the pool, with the owner almost living in the pool. But the pool was not just meant to be a pool during the design phase. It was imagined that because the pool will stay at 70 to 80 degrees temperature throughout the year and the windows between the pool and the living space are well insulated, it will help control the temperature within the house. But the owner jokes today that it is similar to being in a plane at 42,000 feet and mistakenly thinking that those plane windows also insulate. In reality, the Greenbaum house controls temperature well because it is part subterranean and insulated in the superstructure very well. The pool certainly helps keep it cool, yet is not the primary insulator. However, the pool remains the central attraction for everybody. When the owner holds parties at the house, everybody has a lot of fun with the pool and the picture windows, where everybody has taken a Facebook™ picture.

Second Floor Perched Above the Swimming Pool. Image by Deepika Padam

There is more to this house than a beautiful 25m lap pool sunken in the ground. The house is located 500 feet above the valley floor in a gated community with dramatic views of the desert and the city below. “The developer of the community created the home site by leveling the existing natural mountain features. The project carves back into the site as well as hovers over it, in order to restore its original dramatic topographical features.” – Escalante Architects. Not only does the form of the house address the local terrain in this fashion, but it also takes advantage of the natural insulation offered by the ground due to being subterranean. Ample daylight is allowed into the interiors while controlling the heat gain through shutters, projections and canopies. The indoor spaces flow into the outdoor spaces with large glass expanses that open up into terraces. These terraces are used for entertaining guests during the milder temperatures in the evening.

Floor Plans. Source:

The organization of the house functions is not atypical. The living room seating area steps down following the site terrain and opens up to the valley view beyond. The kitchen and dining area are in the opposite direction with a guest bedroom in the back. The second floor is perched above the swimming pool, crosses over and lands on the detached fitness room alcove on the other side of the pool. The upstairs consists of two separate bedroom suites. Flanked by the two bedroom suites is a small library / seating alcove that opens up to a large terrace fully equipped with barbeque appliances. When you walk out to the back at the mid-level, you are welcomed by the pools. The sunken lap pool provides the illusion of an infinity pool casting a blue glow over the second floor slab above. There is also a separate sauna building adjacent to the fitness room.

Blue Glow from the Pool. Image by Deepika Padam

Pool Image by Marco Garcia from the website of Escalante Architects

At about 4,300 SF, the Greenbaum House is a good size house built in steel frame construction. The owner shared with us that it took about a year and a half of construction time to build the house. The construction had to stop a few times because the engineers wanted to reinforce the living room/pool demising wall with redundancy. So they kept re-engineering it. It is designed to withstand an 8-point earthquake. The glass windows are composed of four layers of glass and four layers of mylar, making them a total of 4.5” thick pane windows. The utility bill, which in the Palm Springs desert could be up to $25,000 a year, is under $100 a month on average for the Greenbaum House with the integrated active and passive solar systems. Standing in the Living Room and pointing to the East wall with punched openings to the pool, the owner is confident that the pool helps insulate along the Eastern edge. He proudly swims every day.

Punched Window Between the Living Room and Outdoor Pool. Image by Steven K. Alspaugh

When the house was built, the design team took as many eco-friendly measures as they could at the time. A small token of it is the tile in the pool, bathrooms, etc. made of recycled bottle glass. Using materials and finishes that speak of the desert, the house sets an example for responsible architecture at Palm Springs. It turns out, the house is currently for sale. As the owner spends much of his time in the Bay Area, he has decided to move. When asked what his next house will be like, he says with a smile that it will be smaller.

Seating Lounge on the Second Floor. Image by Deepika Padam

One of the Suites on the Second Floor. Image by Deepika Padam

A majority of the work we visited during the COD conference was done in the 50s. The Greenbaum House is one of the few that is done by a contemporary architect. These custom homes not only express the owners’ individualities, but also the unique design approach to the climatic conditions of the desert and the styles prevalent during the time of construction. The Greenbaum House, although may seem to be a rather usual house with expected functional organization, orientation to views, and response to climate, gets away from the design approach of its Palm Springs predecessors. This is evident in the site manipulation to make it a 3-level residence in essence, and in the use of contemporary measures to environmental control and envelop design. However, the house fails to accomplish many shaded outdoor spaces that some of the older homes at Palm Springs so generously provide. Ultimately it is a functional modern home that could be located in another climate or locality very easily. However, having lived in a desert home for many years myself, the $100 energy bill on average seems quite a feat!

The Owner Sharing his Stories with the COD Group. Image by Steven K. Alspaugh

The Greenbaum House screams simplicity. It is a simple home that springs from a pool with living spaces suspended above the pool. The interior finishes and furnishings are modern and simple as well along the language of the contemporary desert architecture. It is a place built to entertain with blurred indoor and outdoor boundaries. The house delivers the owner’s desire of focusing on the lap pool. This was the one house we visited during the entire conference where I finally removed my shoes and wet my feet.

Pool as seen from Second Floor Entertainment Patio. Image by Steven K. Alspaugh

Deepika and Dorothy Taking a Break from the Palm Springs Heat. Images by Steven K. Alspaugh

Although Greenbaum House left a permanent imprint on my mind, the whole conference was an eye-opening experience for me. It broadened my perspective for the committee, and I was able to connect with professionals from various spectrums, levels, and backgrounds. COD is a great group to get involved with for emerging professionals and seasoned architects alike. The conference itself is an out-of-the-box experience with the majority of the time spent in visiting architecture instead of talking about it in a freezing conference hall. The work is carefully chosen along the theme for the year. I took the time to enjoy the conference and the great company during the three days, but also stayed in touch with the outer world through my tweets and images. I returned overjoyed, energized and inspired.

Architects’ Responsibility in Disasters

Is it just me or has there been too much about natural calamities in the news lately? Earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, fires, and now a volcanic eruption! All superstitions aside, what’s going on? Scientists and religious people have various opinions and are projecting increasing number of incidents in future. Although we can’t do anything to prevent these disasters, there are steps we can take to help the people that are struck by them. What is the responsibility of our profession towards such disasters?

Google ‘refugee housing’ and you’ll find numerous results for architectural solutions proposed or implemented, ranging from sand bag walls to shipping container houses. There are also enormous complaints about such solutions. We can either sit back and laugh at the debates, or take action. The question is –‘timing’. WHEN we take action may be more important than WHAT action we take. Scientists have created a long list of all the possible places that these disasters may occur in future. Unfortunately they can’t predict exactly when the disasters will take place. We can narrow down the WHERE; we don’t know the WHEN. Why should we wait for the WHEN? Let’s figure out the WHAT first! What do we do as architects? We need to plan for disasters beforehand instead of being reactive each time.

Last year the number of people living in urban areas crossed the line of rural area world population for the first time. The highest degree of life loss will occur in major cities when nature strikes. Most of these cities will be along the coast. Our own region sits on a fault line and when the earthquake hits, loss of life may be enormous. The competitive business life may lead us towards the rush for clients. But we play a major role in the survival and deaths of those hit by disasters. The highest life loss is a result of bad architecture and construction. When we think of refugee camps, think of the separated families, of a person who lost a limb, a lady who is pregnant, a blind person, a crying child… They are people just like us lost in the hustle and bustle. Other than food and water, they need immediate SHELTER.

The architectural solution should be quick to install, easy to transport, durable, flexible, humane, and adaptable to the region. The layout should create a livable community with shared facilities as well as individual privacy. Needless to say, the structures should be environment friendly and regenerative with net zero energy and water use. Aesthetics should not be negated just because these are temporary structures. Think of the structures that are built for the Olympics. How much thought goes in those! If we can respect the recreation needs, we certainly need to respect the shelter needs. Many of us have more time at hand than before. Why not put our heads together and design for the next disaster now, before we scramble to find another shipping container!

I took the liberty of sharing my opinion. Now it’s your turn to share your creative solutions. If you didn’t participate in the COD Ideas competition, make sure to check the winning solutions in June!


I was in a shuttle going from the airport towards my hotel at the last AIA Convention in San Francisco when I overheard an amazed UK girl speaking to her mother. “Look mom, all the drivers are alone in their cars! There are no passengers!” she said. The mother tried to explain with futility, when the girl asked, “But why are there no passengers? Why are they driving the car for just one person?” The mother simply asked her to shush.

It brought back memories when I was that age and lived with parents in India. Quite simply, we used cars when at least two people were travelling. At other times we used scooters, bikes, mopeds, rickshaws, horse carts, three-wheelers, buses, and trains. This was not because of lack of means, but lifestyle and culture. I could count the number of times I had been inside an air-conditioned building on my two hands until I moved to US. We faced severe cold and heat with the same comfort as the pleasant spring and summer seasons. We lived among the rain and the fog. We adjusted. Our buildings worked, and we adapted to the seasons. Times have changed. Countries like India have “progressed” and become westernized in their luxuries. But are they getting away from nature in their pursuit of luxury? What’s the point of having an air-conditioner installed in a house if we face power-cuts? That’s common there, but may not be far from us at US. Are we prepared? Can our buildings function without electricity?

Environmental design, sustainability, green building, responsive design… whatever we call it… These words were new to me when I moved here. I didn’t initially understand why we were talking about these things. To me, it was part of design. I soon realized the dependence on fossil fuels that this country suffers from. Over the years, I have started to suffer from the same dependence. But I do understand what an experienced architect is talking about when they speak of green building versus someone fresh out of school. There is a big educational gap there. My architectural education in India was similar to US education 20 years ago, while my Masters at Michigan is of the current age. I’d say I’ve seen both sides of the coin. So what do we do about this?

In today’s date, LEED is considered the highest rating system for a building’s sustainability. There are strong opinions for and against LEED. Instead of getting into debates about how good LEED is, why don’t we stop and wonder; if we didn’t have LEED or similar rating systems, will all the buildings being constructed be sustainable? Is architecture all about form and function or are there certain basic principles that some architects overlook? Why are we separating the “LEED” items from a regular building design? I don’t think we should fight LEED because we think we know better! I believe it is an essential tool because without it, many professionals will be lost about how to properly design and construct a building. We need to have both discussions going on simultaneously – how to design well and how to design responsibly. I believe California is headed in the right direction through the adoption of Green Building Standards Code (CALGREEN). We need to lead the effort so Nevada isn’t much far behind. Time will tell how the International Green Construction Code (IGCC) will impact our work. In the meanwhile, let’s do what we can at home to design and construct well.

That brings me to the discussion of the Committee on the Environment (COTE) and the Committee on Design (COD). Why is COTE separate from COD? COD focuses on good design practices while COTE focuses on good environmental design practices. What?! Isn’t it the same thing?

One of my goals for this year was to start a local COD. Another goal was to restart COTE. After much deliberation and some discussions with peers who will spearhead the effort, we have come to the conclusion that these two missions need to be combined. We are starting an AIA Las Vegas Committee on Design that will be based on the missions of COD and COTE at the national level. We will not engage in debates on LEED and how to design green buildings. The mission would be to acknowledge good design. We do not plan on separating the two issues of good design and green design, because they aren’t separate! If you believe in DESIGN, please keep an eye on the upcoming announcements when we head start this new committee. To committee on “designed environments”… to Committee on Design!