A Green Giant in Repose

The building industry has lost an icon–a man who embodied the joy of building—and of living.

On April 18, 2022, we lost a true icon of green building with the passing of our beloved friend John Wesley Miller.  John passed in Tucson while surrounded by family following a prolonged illness.

His credentials and leadership in the green building and sustainable development arena will likely never be approached.  The list of his professional accomplishments and industry awards provides only a glimpse of a lifetime of dedication and excellence.

miller1As a true innovator and pioneer in energy-efficient building, renewable energy applications, and understanding of the importance of building science, John’s fingerprints can be found on a range of projects from Biosphere 2, to Civano, to commercial developments and countless custom homes throughout Tucson and Pima County.

Perhaps the crown jewel of his lifetime of work, however, is Armory Park del Sol, a nationally recognized high-performance residential community, a redevelopment project on the former site of housing that served railroad workers for decades before becoming abandoned.  Comprised of about one hundred residential lots, the project provided lessons in civic partnership, community creation and sustainability that reach far beyond its physical boundaries.  

The first time I visited Armory Park with John he demonstrated his creativity and joy of the project in several ways. First, rather than entering directly onto the property John drove around the perimeter along the streets of the bordering neighborhoods where he would point out the homes of long-time residents and relate their stories. He seemed to know everyone, and more importantly, genuinely cared about how the revitalization of the area benefitted those who were already there just as much as those who were purchasing his homes. 

He was proud of the fact that his redevelopment activities would improve the safety and security for that part of the city and result in raising the values of existing homes but conscious and concerned that it might also increase property taxes so he championed the need to protect everyone who might be affected.  

When we finally arrived onsite and began to walk around the new community I was taken by the comfortable density, the compact lots, and building footprints, as well as the careful use of roadways, walkways, and public spaces.  It remains the best and most successful example of how a built environment can feel completely organic, that makes anyone feel as if they are in a place that belongs exactly where it is. It is as if it literally grew out of the desert, not a grid of straight lines but more like a meandering arroyo. 

Unlike most subdivisions around the country, where developers limit variations and restrict the color palette of exteriors, Armory Park was an explosion of vibrant colors much like one would encounter south of the border, or in a desertscape filled with spring wildflowers. When I asked him how he came up with such a wide range of options he said that they simply told homeowners they could choose any color they wanted, as long as it had not been used before.  Such was his unbridled love of free expression.

Years later we collaborated with John to construct a demonstration project, the VISION House Tucson on one of the few remaining lots that he had held onto. The result exceeded expectations, typical of John’s work, with an impressive negative HERS rating and energy-positive outcome all wrapped into a beautiful package of understated southwestern aesthetic.

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We celebrated the completion of the project with a public event that featured presentations by local elected officials and other dignitaries who praised John and his team for leading the way to a more desirable, more sustainable city and region.  

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Author Ron Jones (far left) in the standing-room audience during John Wesley Miller’s speech at his nationally renowned Armory Park Del Sol neighborhood in Tucson.

There were many impressive speeches but perhaps the greatest testament to the project, and to John, was that the majority of the standing-room-only crowd in attendance was comprised of homeowners who already lived in Armory Park, and whose admiration and appreciation was on full display.

It is not possible to express the depth of brotherhood I feel for John in this humble tribute. I can only share that his unrestrained joy of building, and of living, will serve as an inspiration forever and the image of his sparkling eyes and his infectious, mischievous smile will light even the darkest hour.

He never left an in-person encounter or ended a phone call without saying “I love you,” and you knew that he absolutely meant it.