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April 18, 2015

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j. patrick coolican:

Should Vegas housing go back to the drawing board?

Architect laments shoddy planning for area homes, anticipates eventual need to start all over again


Beverly Poppe

Architect Eric Strain designed this award-winning house on a hillside in Summerlin to be adaptable to the desert. There are no windows at the rear because they would face west — and the punishing afternoon heat. Instead, the back of the home is garage, which acts a buffer between the living space and the sun.

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

Click to enlarge photo

Eric Strain

Click to enlarge photo

The Eric Strain-designed home in The Ridges has two living areas connected by a foot bridge, with one side sitting lower than the other to allow for greater air flow.

I’m standing with architect Eric Strain outside a home perched on a hillside in Summerlin. The sun is setting behind us, the salmon-colored sky now bleeding into indigo darkness. We are looking east toward the Strip, its lights just beginning to shimmer.

“The view doesn’t suck,” Strain quips.

The rest of the Las Vegas Valley sits below us, like a giant Lego land. The houses are all red-tile roof and stucco that resembles the color of instant grits.

And if we were to stand here in 25 years, few of those houses will still be standing, Strain says. They won’t last, and anyway, no one would choose to live in them.

And in 50 years? Forget it.

But this home where we’re standing on that hillside in The Ridges in Summerlin? It’s a home Strain designed to be as well adapted to the desert as a Joshua Tree.

“I have no doubt this home will still be here,” Strain says confidently. He’s soft-spoken until he begins talking about building in the valley.

His confidence comes from his understanding of the desert and what can survive here. Outsiders often mistakenly think we are in a temperate climate because we do not suffer the snows of the East and Midwest. But our Mojave Desert is host to extreme temperatures and high winds, which can be murder on our built environment.

Strain builds structures that can survive and even thrive here, and he seems to believe he has an ethical responsibility to do so. And he clearly likes the challenge.


We begin in the back, standing on the driveway. As Strain notes, there are no windows at the rear because they would face West — and the punishing afternoon heat. Instead, the back of the home is garage, which acts a buffer between the living space and the sun.

It is actually two living spaces. The owners, Dr. Danny Eisenberg, a radiologist, and his wife Lauren Eisenberg, a Hebrew School teacher, didn’t want something massive. Unfortunately, the development has a square footage minimum. Their ingenious solution provides separate independent living spaces at human scale: Two homes joined by a foot bridge. One living space is for the Eisenbergs, and the other is for their two college-aged children when they are home from school. Later, it will be a space for extended family.

And, the gap between the two structures is an important asset in the overall design, as it helps air flow. If all this sounds somehow shoddy or ad hoc, trust me, it’s not. The design won an award from the Nevada chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Strain used concrete block walls strengthened with vertical tie rods. The vertical spaces are then filled with insulation. The result: “It won’t wear or crack like stucco. It’s here forever,” Strain says.

The extra cost? Perhaps 15 percent more than conventional buildings, Strain says.

Now we are standing on the footbridge, and I point out the desert landscaping.

Down below is a courtyard and an infinity pool. Courtyards, Strain notes, have been used for thousands of years — in the Middle East, in the Spain of the Moors and in the old American Southwest — as social spaces that double as efficient mechanisms for cooling air.

“This allows us to get air flow and get some cooling before it moves up to the home.”

The two living spaces are ever so slightly askew, creating more air flow.

The roof is copper with black acid tint for aesthetics. It’s all recycled, and it won’t wear. There are some solar panels.

The black on the copper seems surprising, but Strain says it draws heat to the roof, creating air flow. Tile and stucco, on the other hand, allow the heat to beat against the walls and leach into the house.

“In many respects these are old techniques that Frank Lloyd Wright used.”

The home features lots of natural light, which might seem counterintuitive — won’t the sun beat on the glass? That’s why he uses big overhangs for shade and angles all the sunlight to prevent heat from invading the home.

In the end, Strain boasts, “It’s an indestructible home, and something the homeowner doesn’t have to worry about.” Very little maintenance. Must be nice, right?


Here’s where it gets really interesting.

Strain is convinced we could do homes like this, on a much smaller and less opulent scale, of course, across the valley.

He says these materials and building techniques are affordable — building this home at The Ridges didn’t cost any more than doing a more conventional custom home.

Doing Strain’s kind of building in an affordable tract development might cost 25 percent more than conventional building. That sounds like a lot, but he says that when we factor in savings from lower utility and maintenance bills, it would pay for itself in 10 years. And they would be homes we could be proud of.

By the time the valley leaves this construction slump, we’ll be looking at deteriorating stucco all around us. “Those houses were built for 20 years. They weren’t built like our grandparents’ house,” Strain says.

He wants to return to that earlier era, when we built things to last. And in the desert, that means building his way.

“We need to invest in homes rather than just buying buildings. There’s a difference.”

A version of this story ran in Vegas magazine, a sister publication of the Sun.

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  1. Many home owners feel the same way, we need quality construction with well thoughout planning. Stucco housing is poor quality, and nowhere near the value of the asking price.

  2. The bigger problem is the lack of ground space between the homes in some of the tracs. Every other home needs to be torn down just to make the area livable.

  3. In most cities a very structured Planning Department exits to guide the Elected Officials in the overall direction of a City. In Las Vegas you just wonder - What Happened? - and why even now is there no movement to keep the valley from looking like a hundreds of square miles Strip-Mall. Most of it filled with Repetitive Box Stores, Nail and Massage Places with no curb appeal at all.

  4. Sorry no chance to make a change here.

    Hard to cool and heat chicken wire shacks with a thin veneer of stucco on the dry rotten wood frame are the norm here in all neighborhoods. Such neighborhoods will eventually burn in a fire storm worthy of Dresden.

    And current urban planning is simply another name for unsustainable crime ghettos. Cheap, so called, "luxury" apartments are deliberately thrown into middle class neighborhoods which give a ready made nest for drugs dealers and prostitutes/pimps to eventually flourish in the midst of older middle class housing. Burglary and drug sales and casual prostitution overwhelm many of our older middle class neighborhoods as the crime spills out from a cluster of roach filled apartments.


    Not a chance, ongoing criminal activities and even large firestorms are inevitable in this patchwork town, The town was thoughtlessly "planned" to end up this way. The town's greedy politicians and just plain good old boy/girl politics whipped on by developer money made sure it would happen this way.

    PS if there HAD been any planning NO housing would EVER have gotten that close to Red Rock to give a great view. The reverse is NOT a great view, as dreck-like housing pollutes Red Rock's visual and aural envelope.

  5. Commenters Dennis Hill, Ben Lambert,Peter Fritz, and LongTimeVegan, framed my sentiments exactly. Might I add, that the Clark Couty Planning Commission has NOT served in the best interest of the community in the past 20 years or more, but rather of their cronies and their own self-interests. To allow building at the massive scale as they have, has been irresponsible, considering there is NOT A SUSTAINABLE WATER SUPPLY!

    Hello, this is a desert.

    Now that economic hard times have hit, we are wallowing in endless foreclosures and empty dwellings, yet, the Clark County Planning Commission sees fit to continue uncontrolled building in light of the current disaster of neighborhoods turning into slums/ghettos, and ghost towns. Anyone looking to live in a nice sustainable place, will truly cross Clark County off their list. The State of Nevada LAWMAKERS have seen to it, that MINING continues to prosper, paying a mere pittance into State revenues, while the People continue to suffer LOSS. Hell of a deal!

    Educators are having to shell out of their pockets to keep their classrooms running, have extra duties/responsibilities due to budget cuts, while certain preferential treatment of some prevail in the culture. Thousands of parents are giving up in frustration, due to an economy where the Banksters were bailed out and NOT the People. Their dreams and hopes are shattered, as well as their VOICES. You see it in the motivation of their children at school.

    We need leaders with common sense and decency. Leaders who can PLAN with the knowledge that this is a desert with very limited resources, that maintaining the ambiance of the landscape is of value to citizens, that as our communities age or mature, it is necessary to provide resources to strengthen what remains, to make it a quality liveable place.

    So far, this has been lacking for a while. Let's require that our PLANNERS do their job responsibly.

    Blessings and Peace,

  6. I am living in a 1200 SF townhouse that was built in 1976. They are practically giving these places away now. I've paid 81K, 73K, 63K, 45K and the last one at 38K. They all needed paint, carpet and some minor plumbing and electrical but they are quite solid. So, I don't see why these newer homes would only last for 20 years.

    The temptation is to call for a moratorium on new McMansions. This could 4 done by charging a $80K connection fee for water (that's how Santa Barbra CA did it). But then, all these workers would lose their jobs so it's hard to make choices like this.

    It's funny that when the place I live in was selling for $225K in 2005 there was a waiting list and now at $38K nobody wants one. Makes no sense really.

    That's my meow of the day :-)

  7. Joe Cassano is still stinkin rich too, lives in a huge mansion in London.

    I dont think my 10 year old KB home is going to disintegrate over the next 10 years.

    The lot sizes in housing tracks here have been a problem longer than since the latest building bubble.

    Ill buy my next house when I can get a .25 acre or bigger lot and decent drive to work.

  8. This is the first time in my life, since I left the city life of Southern California in 1972, that I had purchased a home with less than 2 acres land. Needless to say, it is NOT my cup of tea, and what makes it worse, is that getting out of this particular property here on East Carey Avenue, next to the new City of North Las Vegas Waste Water Treatment Plant, will be next to impossible, since my values dropped significantly (from $174,000 to less than $39,000!!!!!!)

    It is obvious that the PLANNING COMMISSION and all parties involved benefited greatly, while the entire neighborhood on East Carey Avenue and Betty Lane suffered HARM and there is NO JUSTICE.

    Corruption in Clark County is the rule of the day, week, month, and year. These commissioners must be accountable or be voted OUT.

    An aside on this article: years ago, I owned a well-built, walls made of cinder blocks, with the entire home walls surrounded with sliding doors for 360 views custom home with acreage on Rainbow Heights Road, in Rainbow (Fallbrook), California. The home's foundation was blasted into the side of a mountain, had solar, and passive cooling. Although this home was extremely well-built, years after I had sold it, this lovely home burnt to the ground! Goes to show, that sometimes, no matter how well and thoughtful a home is built, disaster can happen.

    Blessings and Peace,

  9. =D for Bradley Chapline little jab!

    But going back to that time when metal framing was quite the rage, it seems to me that during the boom times, prices were going sky high, and the supply was less available than lumber. This sticks in my mind, because back in 2000, we were building from the ground up, a ranch house in Lund, and we came down here to Las Vegas for our materials, our trusses even crossed the Hoover Dam! Quite a thrill.

    Blessings and Peace,

  10. This article has an interesting perspective... One that I, and I am sure many, will not agree with. First of all, there are many well-thought of neighborhoods around town and many homes that are built well. *Stucco, when done well, has a long expected life span ( I am also skeptical about the statement that using the same material and technique as the featured house will only cost 25% more than conventional building. If it really is, then it would be great if he started building communities like this around town... (I am sure someone will start tacking on an extra 25% because of its unique design and sell the exclusivity aspect of it though...) Oh, well... Great concept house though... * The house featured on this article is a 5 bedroom 6000 sq ft. house. It was listed for rent in November 2009 for $12k/month. It was finally rented about a year later for $8k/month... Not sure of its current status.

  11. I worked in the Las Vegas home building industry in the 1990's. It was incredible how fast the developers went from looking at the land to complete build out. One development in NLV took less than a year.
    I also remember a meeting with developers (a large home building company) on a new entry level subdivision where we were throwing around ideas for a slogan for the sales promotion. Of course, all of the usual "Building your dream", Living the good life", etc. were mentioned. One person (not me) jokingly said how about "building tomorrow's slums today". We all laughed and went with one of the other more palateable genaric slogans.
    The reason for all of those red tile roofs mentioned is because that was required in some developments, along with the off-white exterior coatings, creating thousands of look alike houses. Some developments even require HOA approval for any plant you may want to put in the yard.
    I also expect those "20 year houses" mentioned will still be around in another 50 years and more.
    While the house in the photo looks really nice, there doesn't appear to be much privacy. I would have included something to obscure the fishbowl effect and also a cover over the walkway might be nice.

  12. In my youth, I had the good fortune to build houses here with a reputable and ethical custom home builder. I am aware of other tract home developers who supposedly threw houses together and then supposedly ran with the money before the complaints hit. Several builders here supposedly and routinely built tracts with one company and, then abandoned that company; and the tract's home owners, for another new company.

    A retired NLV chief and a retired NLV fire captain once told me that weight loaded metal studs wrapped in, not quite inflammable, plastic insulation sheets collapse quickly in a house fire (they bend due to fire/heat). This led to house roofs collapsing from what should have been minor localized house fires.

    On sustainable houses:

    Masses of fir framed/stacked houses with quickly done tile on chip board roofs with inadequate papering; routinely develop incipient (sometimes disintegrating) dry rot and end up with roofs that leak just enough to ignore. That leads to persistent hidden water damage and dry rot and then a pervasive invasion by black mold sometimes follows into crawl spaces, attics, and walls. Home owners supposedly and routinely paint over the damage and sell toxic houses to unsuspecting people.

    Land is getting scarce so marginal "HOT" alkali rich soil on land formerly too expensive to build on is now being used. Foundations built on marginally usable "hot" desert soil require special dirt preparation and deeper than normal foundations laced with proper imported soil. These hot soils often end up with 10-12" foundations without any proper soil preparation. Add water and the alkali rich dirt "boils" and then rots and undermines foundations. Inspectors supposedly often "miss" such details which would stop entire tracts from being built.

    Yes, those houses will "last" but it depends on your definition of lasting. Poorly constructed houses are not a good buy.

    A toxic house that probably needs to be demolished and rebuilt to prevent health issues is hardly my idea of a good value. A neighborhood of old firetraps crowded up against each other, just waiting for a large fire, is not my idea of a good value.

    Like the making of an all byproduct sausage, the building of mass tract homes is better left undisclosed to the end user.