The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1887] Cohesive Sustainable Communities

United States

The historic Catalina Vista Neighborhood (established circa 1935) in Tucson, Arizona has the dubious distinction of being “the first subdivision to integrate fully the rambling ranch house, the family automobile, and aesthetic site planning into a completely satisfying suburban neighborhood… [Wherein] Automobiles supplanted pedestrians” (Ryden Architects, Historic Resource Survey of the Catalina Vista Neighborhood, Tucson Arizona, page 40.). Commercial zones were placed at the corners of the John Nolan-like subdivision. The suburban style spread broadly with huge population explosions, eventually this sleepy little presidio horse town became a city devoted to automobile circulation and ever-expanding roadways, enabling the long commutes from rambling single family ranch house suburbs to all required destinations.

From a world view, these two factors, (1) automobile use and (2) inefficient low density houses, are the two largest contributors to the overall chlorofluorocarbon emissions throughout the United States, and by far the largest single contributor to Global Warming.

From a local view the low density suburban neighborhoods have entirely engulfed the available land within the enormous boundaries of the City of Tucson, insomuch that families are forced outside city limits to more affordable bedroom communities, enduring even longer commutes, emitting even more chlorofluorocarbons. As a result, property values have skyrocketed - making even starter homes unaffordable to low paid professionals such as teachers, police officers, and fire fighters; and thus completely out of reach for even lower-income families. Poorly designed homes, in terms of simple passive solar strategies, amplify the affordability problem by adding burdensome energy costs necessary to subdue the Sonora Desert climate. Additionally, large yards and wasteful practices have decimated Tucson’s once plentiful aquifer water supply. The City of Tucson can only respond by raising water rates, which further accelerates the upward spiral of home ownership costs. The goals of homeownership and community stability become progressively more unobtainable.

Tucson needs a mid-town initiative to lead the way and demonstrate a more efficient model. Multi-use communities with relatively high residential density levels can be infinitely more convenient and enjoyable than commuter living. Beauty, privacy and security needn’t be sacrificed. Responsible communities can take positive steps toward sustainability while simultaneously enhancing the public’s standard of living. Thus, I have chosen a Drachman Institute Community Outreach Project for my capstone thesis. I am proposing yet another historic change of direction to serve as an archetype in the pivotal location of the Catalina Vista Neighborhood.

I am working closely with the Catalina Vista Neighborhood Association and the Campbell Grant JV, LLC (developer) to design a mutually beneficial redevelopment plan for the commercial zone located on the southeast corner of the intersection of Campbell and Grant at the northeastern corner of the Catalina Vista Neighborhood. I have taken the opportunity to interview city officials to ascertain the city’s long term objectives.

The goal of this collaborative effort is to establish a cohesive relationship between the existing historic Catalina Vista Neighborhood, and the new adjacent multi-use neighborhood development consistent with the City’s economic and environmental objectives as well as the integrated cultural identity unique to this area.

Currently, the aging, increasingly dilapidated commercial zone contains the closed Catalina Theatre, Walgreen’s drugstore, Bookman’s Used Books (housed within a former grocery store), a Laundromat, a barbershop, and a recently constructed two-story parking garage.

The proposed design for the new multi-use development consists of public courtyards connecting a variety of retail and restaurant establishments on the first floor, professional offices flanking the major street and residential units bordering the existing neighborhood periphery on the second and third floors.

The dominant criterion for the development of this design has been the overriding necessity for sustainable livability. Sustainability is defined as reducing and/or eliminating dependence on nonrenewable resources to a level which can be infinitely sustained. Livability is defined as individual access to clean, quiet, inviting, and secure indoor and outdoor spaces, both public and private. Cultural considerations of critical regionalism have also been an important determinant.

Increasing urban density and providing essential services within pedestrian proximity to the new and existing communities is a fully cognizant move towards reducing dependence on environmentally damaging automobile usage. Density must be carefully balanced with quality of life issues. Sentsitively designed multi-story clustered courtyards provide for both of these considerations and are a featured strategy in both public and private areas of this project. Recognizing that buildings contribute the automobile equivalent of greenhouse gases to the environment; every effort is being made to increase building environmental efficiency by utilizing (1) resource conservation (2) passive and active solar design, (3) recycled and local materials, and (4) clean technologies.

The design process has been very encouraging. By bringing the buildings to the property edge (allowing for required zoning setbacks) we both maximize the buildable area and effectively hold the edges within the urban dialogue. Even with generous 2:1 courtyard ratios (courtyards twice as wide as the buildings are tall) we have been able to more than double the initial square footage goals of the developer, yet maintain a relatively low building height of three stories, while adding significantly to the communities’ usable outdoor space. The original developer proposal, unacceptable to the existing neighborhood, consisted of two six-story towers and one three-story tower.

The Santa Catalina Mountains, to the north of Tucson, are prime examples of a Sky Island, with tremendous bio-diversity inherent within these unique ranges. From low desert scrub to high mountain pines the Catalinas contain seven distinct ecosystems. To demonstrate this phenomena (providing an educational experience) as well as micro-climate techniques, the continuously connected courtyards within the development mimic these ecosystems. Cool towers, combined with shading, create a temperature differential of up to 32 degrees - utilizing only a small misting of moisture into the air and gravity to provide a cool, comfortable indoor/outdoor experience even in the extreme temperatures of a Tucson summer. The Environmental Research Facility has already successfully implemented this technique to create a long term thriving mountain micro-climate.

A green roof installed on a portion of the existing second story of the parking garage, with the remaining portion covered by a new third story green roof garden expands the useable outdoor space and unifies the site. New underground parking, (placed in pre-excavated demolished basement locations) will more than accommodate any loss of existing garage parking spaces.

Large bisected hexagonal niches located at each of the four street-side doorways (two on each major roadway) create a welcoming gesture to the community. Setbacks allow for generously landscaped and sized pedestrian walkways. Culturally familiar ramada style coverings provided over the walkways, planted with indigenous vines offer shading and greenery. Native mesquite trees will be planted at either side of the entrances to create an inviting shaded approach. Each of the five exterior corners is triangulated and receives the same planting treatment.

In addition to enhancing the environment, the trees also provide a diffusing effect from traffic emissions and noise into the interior courtyards through the second floor breezeways above each doorway entrance. The breezeways are oriented and shaped to take full advantage of Tucson’s prevailing winds, which are relatively constant at about 3 mph. Typically breezes are from the northwest, with a 180 degree shift in direction occurring during the July-August monsoon season. These winds blow from the Gulf and the southeast. Additional breezeways, on the first floor, capture these shifting winds and also, serve as entrances reaching out to the existing Catalina Vista neighborhood. In order to convert the breezes into a constant flow, and slightly amplify the velocity of the prevailing winds, the breezeways are narrow towards the windward side and widen into the courtyard to create a positive airflow. This shape is, conveniently, a welcoming gesture into the buildings and courtyards from the many entrances. Having breezeways directly across from one another, in line with the prevailing winds, provides continuous air flow throughout the year in the exterior courtyards.

Tucson has a climate that provides ideal human comfort conditions year round. During the summer the ideal temperatures are found in early morning and late evening, whereas the ideal temperatures during the winter are mid-day. Ideal temperature conditions are extended many hours during the spring and autumn. Fenestration and building widths throughout the new multi-use neighborhood are arranged to accommodate natural ventilation into the built environment during the peak human comfort periods, reducing dependence on HVAC systems. Utilizing appropriate shading to block summer sun and allow winter sun access extends the micro-climate human comfort duration.

Tucson has a rich, varied history. The built environment generally reflects the diversity of our combined histories. Articulation of the new multi-use neighborhood must respect this vibrancy without cartoonish historical representations. Variety, within the built environment, particularly in such a large central location, is essential to provide enduring interest and historic contextualism. As such each courtyard module will be individualistic, not only in terms of bio-diversity - but also in terms of architectural articulation. A common connecting material pallet, which respects critical regionalism, and enables variety, is an essential determinate.

Many materials are locally available natural resources. One example is copper, which is utilized for a wide variety of architectural applications, ranging from decorative accents to major features such as standing seam metal roofing, flashing and cladding. Uncoated copper forms a beautiful protective patina that is remarkably similar in color to the natural vegetation of this region, and is an adaptation to climatic conditions, just as are the peculiarities found in our unique and diverse flora. When refined, copper becomes an earthy toned metal which can be preserved in either a matte or reflective finish. Raw copper exhibits azure hues, but when the refined metal is super heated, additional colors –blue, purple, yellow and orange - become apparent and begin to shimmer and dance in a manner reminiscent of our desert sunsets.

Masonry rubble recycled from demolished existing buildings is utilized as coarse aggregate in concrete where structurally feasible. Rammed earth, where appropriate, as well as pre-selected colors of locally manufactured split block masonry, native gneiss granite (laid in coursed rubble stonework), and tinted concrete will form the foundations of the selected material palette, as well as serving as a crucial components to thermal mass walls. Used correctly, thermal mass walls greatly reduce HVAC energy loads.

Additional passive and active solar opportunities are afforded through the second and third story courtyards integrated within the residences and offices creating pleasing mezzanine and loft arrangements. The office suites, situated toward the busy streets, buffer the residential zones adjacent to the Catalina Vista neighborhood. The small, room sized, courtyards throughout allow for increased natural ventilation and natural day lighting. By careful placement of glass, we generate a greenhouse effect with our winter sun, warming homes and offices and reducing heating costs. By utilizing solar tubes we channel sunlight into the more distant rooms as well as into the first floor. Integrated photovoltaics are a particularly promising strategy, as sunny, Tucson is also the location for a major manufacturer of photovoltaic products. Hence, taking full advantage of Tucson’s 350 days per year of sun. For, even in the monsoon season, we enjoy sunny days. It is magical to watch the late afternoon, inky, black, monsoon clouds engulfing our clear blue skies, and literally feel the electricity in the air as a prequel to our spectacular lightning storms.

Because of our violent summer storms and our gentle winter rains, we have the ability to collect rainwater. All roofs will be angled toward the courtyards, with gutter and runoff systems leading towards grates that act as intake for the underground cisterns. Tucson’s forward thinking legislation allows for the collection and utilization of grey water as an integrated part of water harvesting systems. This combined collected water is drawn upon for courtyard landscaping during long dry seasons, and for sanitation system use.

Designing for sustainable livability must become a standard practice. Global solutions can only spring from the cumulative effect of local initiatives. We, the architectural profession, are duty bound to educate our clients and our communities to the wide variety of existing solutions available to us. We must continue searching for innovative solutions, and refuse to design irresponsibly.

Given the maverick western tendencies and old fashioned common sense “to do whatever needs to be done” so prevalent among Tucsonans; the best team selection for this area would be one that helped motivate residents to garner their collective resources and help themselves. I believe that given direction - Tucsonans are perfectly capable, and willing to “pull themselves up by their own boot straps”.

As a child, growing up in the 70’s before the Central Arizona Project and additional Colorado River water came our way, I observed Tucsonans “beat the peak” with “Pete the Beak”, a wildly successful water conservation promotion. Every grade school boy and girl knew the massive ad campaign jingle by heart. “Beat the peak! Water every other day. Beat the peak! Never water 4 ta’ 8!, Beat the peak! Hold down the water rate…” sung in an endless loop. Heaven help the parent or neighbor caught by a child watering ‘4 ta’ 8’ - the jingle would never end.

In the 80’s when Tucson experienced previously unimaginable flooding, the citizens turned out in droves to sandbag the overflowing banks of normally dry riverbeds and washes. There were literally more volunteers than sandbags.

Today, Tucsonans are justifiably proud that nearly all public and most private landscaping is planted with our uniquely beautiful indigenous vegetation, which requires little to no watering. Most post 70’s front yards represent this same mind set of preserving our desert and saving water. It is the back yards we need to worry about, as children need a needle-free zone to play. This can be applied to both cacti and far thornier issues. If public amenities don’t provide this, parents will, even at great personal and social cost. Yet another benefit of increased density is public places for children to play that are not isolated, as so many of our parks are, from the public at large.

In this new millennium, Tucson, faces yet another crisis of unprecedented proportion. Citizens will respond if they understand the crisis and what they can personally do to correct the situation. Therefore, my team choice would be Architecture for Humanity, utilizing their expertise to establish local chapters of trained professionals into a “grassroots movement… of inclusion”. In this region, to act in a pretentious manner, is unforgivable. Giving back to the community is essential. Success, in our field, depends on respect for every segment of the population, and the ability to orchestrate diverse specialties into a constructive whole.

We can capitalize on this outlook and strength, and provide a way to accomplish the already common goals of the architectural profession. I can imagine architects, engineers, politicians, and craftsmen volunteering their time, in masse, to secure grants, educate, and provide pro bono services to the neediest segments of our population, and with the help of mass marketing acclimating Tucsonans into adopting sustainable measures as standard procedures. We could, thus -in part- redeem ourselves from the enormous global predicament we are experiencing, largely of our own profession’s making.

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