A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona


There’s been a lull in the work on the house—partly because I’ve been incredibly busy with other things and partly because I’m between tasks on my end. Add to that that I have neither talent nor skill in translating drawings to a mental picture of what the actual space will look and feel like, and I’d started to lose enthusiasm.

Enter the Tucson Botanical Gardens Home and Garden Tour. I went this weekend with my parents, who are also doing some landscaping and remodeling on their house, and we rode on a bus around the city to tour five homes, from one to the east of the city out in the desert to some right in town. They were all different styles, romantic/eclectic, modern, traditional, vaguely Asian, a style I could only describe as “upscale desert.”

But they also had one major thing in common: incredible outdoor spaces. Every single house had patios and courtyards that were actual rooms of the house, landscaped, often with beautifully designed pots, well chosen furniture, a floor, and some sort of covering—an actual roof, or an umbrella, or some other robust source of shade. And although none of the houses itself was the sort of place I’d like to live, each of them had elements that I loved and want to incorporate.

The plans we have a very clean and modern—which is definitely the look I’m after. But it was good to be reminded of styles outside of that aesthetic that I enjoy, so I can find ways to bring little touches of them into my new space. One of the houses was a beautiful, romantic, eclectic old house full of art and old copper cookware and intricate pottery and bright colored walls and draped doorways. It was all too much for my aesthetic, but wandering around through the house and its gardens, it felt magical. Maybe somewhere in the yard I’ll end up with a brightly colored door in the wall or a gate and a lantern or two hanging in a tree.

Another of the houses was too traditional for my taste, with the hardware and the cabinets too ornate for me, some grass in the yard, a built-in seating area in the kitchen. But even this house, the one that appealed to me least as a whole, had an example I wanted to emulate, a wonderful, private outdoor shower with simple hardware and an orange tree watered by its runoff. The shower was tucked back on the side of the house on the way to a hot tub, and was so private that my mother, when she went around the house after I told her to go check out the shower, walked right past it. Since I have such difficulty visualizing things, seeing a shower built that way, with the tree it waters providing some of its privacy and its hardware and its wooden planked flooring, reminded me how much I’m looking forward to living in my house.

The last house we went to see was the most similar to what I have in mind. There were lots of elements in common with my design—from the faded brick exterior to a bedroom with no excess space to a courtyard of about the size I’m planning. Seeing that courtyard was truly exciting for me. It had succulents growing in pots that gave it a lush feel. It had a table and chairs. It had walls, and shade. I’ve seen drawings of my courtyard. I’ve seen photos online of small, lovely courtyards. I’ve been in actual courtyards that are much bigger, but I’ve never gotten to be in a space that’s so much like the one I’m planning. It was so peaceful and I could really imagine having a space like this with my things in it.

It also—amazingly—had an office with a built-in desk. The built-in drawers, shelves, and cabinets were made out of plyboo, a bamboo-based material that Matthew had brought up and I had already enthusiastically agreed to use. The desk surface was made of a soft black composite material that the owner told me was all recycled. (Paperstone maybe? He didn’t know.) In other words, they had my desk.

And I loved it. I loved all of it. I loved the ideas we already have, and the little touches I know I’ll add to them over the years that I live there. My excitement is back. Now I can imagine it with a clarity I’ve never had before. It’s a little scary—it’s going to be a real house, and how will I ever make a house anywhere near as nice as these? How am I ever going to get from a bare patch of earth to a house like these? But mostly, it’s given me exactly the excitement I need.



Amy Knight is the fiction editor for Terrain.org. In this weekly blog series, she chronicles the process of designing and building an eco-friendly house in Tucson, Arizona. The series will explore both how it’s done and what it means, from the perspective of someone who wants to do the right thing but knows almost nothing about sustainable building. Look for new posts every Monday. You can email Amy at amy@terrain.org or leave a comment here.

Photo credit: Lisa Knight (thanks Mom!)

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