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Five Easy Pieces

Posted by Matt Power, Editor-In-Chief

Apr 15, 2014 3:05:00 PM


Photos by Jack Parsons Photography; Mary Estes contributed to this article.

Tim Palen’s rural residence in Joshua Tree, California is not just a container house, insists architect Walter Scott Perry, principal of Ecotech Design.

“HybridHouse 1 (his name for the structure) integrates containers into a system,” Perry says. Other components include a pre-engineered Butler building, 10,000-gallon water storage tank and a McNichols perforated aluminum canopy. Five containers, staggered and stacked two high, comprise the 900-sq.-ft. living space; the Butler building serves as Tim Palen’s photography studio. A steel frame connects the two structures and supports the perforated aluminum, which cuts glare and solar gain in half. A gap between the canopy and the building structure facilitates cooling.

Perry worked closely with Eric Engheben of 44 West Construction and structural engineer Leo Parker of Parker-Resnick. The 8’-long containers were fabricated in Los Angeles and trucked to the home site, complete with plumbing, electrical wiring, windows and finished walls. The canopy and a three-part insulation system buffer the home from the desert heat.

“The interior skin is totally separate from the building shell,” says Perry. One inch of blown-in foam seals gaps to create a complete thermal break between the container’s steel shell and light-gauge steel studs. Fiberglass batts and a half-inch insulated panel with radiant and vapor barriers bring the wall system to R-30, surpassing California code requirements by 50 percent.

The aluminum canopy, which shades the photo studio, breezeway and container dwelling’s roof and south face, also adds a dynamic architectural element.

“The material changes with the sun angle,” says Perry. “Sometimes it’s reflective; other times it’s transparent.”

  • The breezeway funnels desert wind through the dwelling’s interior, passively cooling the house and creating a temperature differential of 20 degrees. Double-paned, argon-filled Milgard windows further insulate the structure

  • Walls are finish-grade painted plywood. Unlike drywall, the articulated panels hold up well during transportation and don’t require extensive finishing—an important consideration when building in remote locations.

  • Low-maintenance materials finish the interior. The containers’ original mahogany plywood decking was sandblasted and finished with three coats of water-based urethane.

  • Holes in the aluminum canopy measure 3/16”, arranged in a staggered pattern. Perry is experimenting with different-sized perforations in a second generation of HybridHouse prototypes

  • McNichols Designer Perforated Aluminum Metal was cut into panels and attached to framing made from Unistrut T1001 galvanized steel. The panels sit 8” off exterior walls and 4-6” above the roof.

  • These movable modules, planted with native desert species and sedums, use greywater irrigation and help absorb heat, glare and carbon dioxide. The cool roof has a solar reflective index (SRI) of 0.75.

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