Shapeshifter House in Nevada provides a new model for ecological architecture

Designed by OPA, the futuristic yet functional architecture of the Shapeshifter House merges with the desert ecosystem while responding to the natural landscape.

by Meghna Mehta Published on : Sep 12, 2020

The California-based architecture firm OPA has designed a home for two art collectors and dealers who specialise in contemporary art and art of the American West. The clients decided to move from the arid high desert outside of Reno, Nevada, USA to a less remote site overlooking the city. The art connoisseurs wished to have a house that would both reflect the contemporary moment while belonging to the west.

Shapeshifter House in Nevada, USA, merges with the desert landscape | Shapeshifter House by OPA | STIRworld
Shapeshifter House in Nevada, USA, merges with the desert landscape Image: Joe Fletcher

The architects believe that the American desert has a history of being understood as a place of lack, emptiness, or otherness. “We decided to think about the desert as a real environment as well as its ambivalent role in the cultural imaginary,” shared Luke Ogrydziak and Zoë Prillinger, the principal architects at OPA. Usually framed as a barren wasteland, a kind of ‘no place’, they feel the desert has been appointed the perfect test site, a place for all genres of experimentation – military, scientific, and social. Prillinger believes, “The desert is rarely seen for itself, instead acting as a mirror for various projected fantasies; wilderness, frontier, and heterotopia. Enduringly mercurial, it is a sandbox that changes forms to fit the imaginations of the user, a space of ambivalence and uncertainty”.

  • Ground floor living room of the Shapeshifter House | Shapeshifter House by OPA | STIRworld
    Ground floor living room of the Shapeshifter House Image: Joe Fletcher
  • Upper floor master bedroom | Shapeshifter House by OPA | STIRworld
    Upper floor master bedroom Image: Joe Fletcher

In the process of designing the Shapeshifter House, the flat, empty site became a test site to reinstate the ecology of the Great Basin Desert into the generic sprawl of Reno, Nevada. The desert shapes the project both as a specific environment and as an idea. “We see the return of the desert as the return of the repressed, a resilient ground that drifts and surges to form both landscape and shelter,” says Prillinger. The project treats the ground as a fluid material that allows different forms to emerge, then further dissolve into other forms.

  • View from the master bedroom on the top floor of the house | Shapeshifter House by OPA | STIRworld
    View from the master bedroom on the top floor of the house Image: Joe Fletcher
  • The interiors of the house that show the edges interesting | Shapeshifter House by OPA | STIRworld
    The interiors of the house that show the edges interesting Image: Joe Fletcher

The Shapeshifter House explores ‘slipperiness’ in form by treating the ground as a mutable, protean and fluid material. “Inspired by desert topography, we reshaped the site into anticlines and synclines, dunes and blowouts, and gradually the form of the house emerged with the terrain. Then we hardened what was initially conceived of as a soft form into a regular mesh composed of planar faces,” says Ogryziak.

  • The futuristic appearance of the house in the setting of the Nevada desert | Shapeshifter House by OPA | STIRworld
    The futuristic appearance of the house in the setting of the Nevada desert Image: Joe Fletcher
  • The sculptural staircase and library on the first-floor level | Shapeshifter House by OPA | STIRworld
    The sculptural staircase and library on the first-floor level Image: Joe Fletcher

Spread across three levels, the house features a conventional layout despite its avant-garde appearance. The ground level includes a flowing living space that encompasses sitting, dinning and kitchen areas, as well as parking space and storage. A sculptural staircase leads up to the middle floor and a study, as well as one of the house’s bedrooms. The top level includes the master suite that opens up to a terrace oriented towards the long vistas.

The uppermost level terrace that looks out into the long views of the Nevada desert | Shapeshifter House by OPA | STIRworld
The uppermost level terrace that looks out into the long views of the Nevada desert Image: Joe Fletcher

All edges in the house have shared geometries where no edges terminate in the middle of another edge. This results in a flow of space that supports extreme difference without discontinuities. Elements of the house slide into each other with shifting relationships of fractured symmetries, local axes, and embedded parallelisms. “Topologically, the house is spatially slippery, a twisted torus with several secondary and tertiary bubbles of space,” adds Ogryziak.

The living room and landscape in conversation with the surrounding landscape | Shapeshifter House by OPA | STIRworld
The living room and landscape in conversation with the surrounding landscape Image: Joe Fletcher

The project develops a synthetic ground to protect the house against the harsh desert landscape. The house is carved from a thick shell, composed either of the natural ground or a two-foot thick heavily insulated wall or roof assembly. Much like a high desert creature, the house uses the thickness of the ground as a buffer against the surrounding environment. This results into a high-performance passive structure which maintains a comfortable living temperature using only radiant heating and cooling. The landscape is populated by native plants – grasses, desert scrub and wildflowers. “The desert begins to reassert itself within the city with the assurance of expansion,” share the architects.

A native species xeriscape provides a much needed return of habitat for local wildlife. Like a natural cave, the house is buried below sculpted earth mounds which provide extensive thermal mass aiding both heating and cooling.

  • Floor plans of the Shapeshifter House | Shapeshifter House by OPA | STIRworld
    Floor plans of the Shapeshifter House Image: Courtesy of OPA
  • Sections of the Shapeshifter House | Shapeshifter House by OPA | STIRworld
    Sections of the Shapeshifter House Image: Courtesy of OPA

Zinc rain-screen provides 100 per cent recyclable moisture barrier while providing a zero toxicant rain water run-off. Highly efficient systems for delivering interior conditioning with large capacity to absorb and offset dramatic swings in the outside environment. This system requires low energy consumption and eliminates duct loss. The high desert is an ideal climate for radiant cooling because of the relatively low humidity. The planted roof provides excellent thermal performance similar to the earth berms at the perimeter walls.

The idea of the unconscious incorporated into the design of the Shapeshifter House | Shapeshifter House by OPA | STIRworld
The idea of the unconscious incorporated into the design of the Shapeshifter House Image: Courtesy of OPA

The fluid nature of the Shapeshifter House by OPA in the desert of Nevada, USA, is an ecologically responsive design that responds to the desert in a refreshing way while making a statement.

Project Details

Name: Shapeshifter House
Location: 879 Marsh Avenue, Reno, Nevada, USA
Architect: OPA
Area: 548 sqm

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