Eric Strain Builds Sustainable Homes in Vegas
BY j. PATRICK COOLIcAN
photography by beverly poppe
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 bleeding into indigo darkness. We are looking east toward the Strip, whose lights are just taking on their first gleam. “This view doesn’t suck,” he quips.
We are looking at the rest of a Las Vegas Valley that sits below us like a giant Legoland. The houses are all red tile roof and a stucco resembling instant grits. If we were to revisit our perch in 25 years, how many of those houses would still be standing? In 50 years? According to Strain, very few. But this home, on a hillside at The Ridges in Summerlin, is different. Strain designed it to adapt as well to the desert as a Joshua tree. “I have no doubt that this home will still be here,” he says.
Strain is a soft-spoken man until he’s asked about building in the Las Vegas Valley. Then, his passion becomes evident: “We need to invest in homes rather than just buying buildings,” he says. “There’s a difference.”
Outsiders have a misconception about Las Vegas: They think we live in a temperate climate because we don’t suffer the snows of the East and Midwest. But our desert is host to extreme temperatures and high winds, which can be damaging to our homes and other buildings. Strain not only builds structures that can survive, and even thrive, in our climate, but he also seems to believe he has an ethical responsibility to do so.
My private tour of the hillside home begins in the back, in the driveway. There are no windows in the rear because they would face west—the direction of punishing afternoon heat. Instead, a garage in the back of the house acts as a buffer between the living space and the sun. The owners, Dr. Danny Eisenberg, a radiologist, and his wife Lauren Eisenberg, a middleschool Hebrew teacher, did not want something massive. The catch? Each home in The Ridges has a square-footage minimum. Strain’s ingenious solution: two homes joined by a footbridge. The resultant gap between the two structures is an asset in the overall design, as it helps airflow.
If all this somehow sounds ad hoc, believe me, it’s not. (The design has won awards from the Nevada chapter of the American Institute of Architects.) To fortify the house with an outer shell that will not succumb to the elements, Strain used concrete block walls strengthened with vertical tie rods. The vertical spaces are then filled with insulation. “It won’t wear or crack like stucco,” he says. “It’s here forever.” The extra cost is only about 15 percent more than that for a conventional building.
On the footbridge, I take in the home’s courtyard and infinity pool. Courtyards, Strain says, have been used for thousands of years—in the Middle East, in Spain during the reign 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 airflow and some cooling,” he says, “before the air moves up to the home.”
Interestingly, the two living spaces are ever so slightly askew, creating even more airflow. The roofs are copper with black acid tint for aesthetics. It’s all recycled, and it won’t wear; there are also some solar panels. The black on the copper seems surprising, but Strain says it draws heat to the roof, using natural convection to move air across the surface of the home. Tile and stucco roofs, on the other hand, allow air to heat and be absorbed into the house. The home features plenty of natural light, which might seem counterintuitive— wouldn’t the sun beat on the glass? That’s why Strain put in big overhangs for shade, and angled off the sunlight to prevent heat from invading the home.
“It’s an indestructible home,” says Strain, “and one the homeowner doesn’t have to worry about.” It also requires very little maintenance.
Strain is convinced we could build homes like the Eisenbergs’ on a much smaller (and less opulent) scale throughout the Valley. He plans to expand his business and is poised to be a leader in the next phase of building in the Valley. A home built using Strain’s groundbreaking ideas in an affordable tract development might cost more than a conventional home, but with the savings from lower utility and maintenance bills, the cost would be recouped in 10 years.
The time to act, Strain believes, is now. By the time Las Vegas emerges from its current construction slump, we will be looking at deteriorating stucco all around us, he says. “Those houses were built for 20 years. They weren’t built like our grandparents’ houses.” Strain wants to return to that era, when things were built to last. And in the desert, that means building his way. Eric Strain, Assemblage Studio, 702-464- 5126