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Turbulence House

New Mexico
Steven Holl Architects

Steven Holl turned to prefab construction for his Turbulence House, a metal guest pavilion on a windy New Mexican mesa

By Clifford A. Pearson
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  Turbulence House
Click photo for slideshow;
Photo © Paul Warchol
  Steven Holl Architects
  Steven Holl, AIA, Principal
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As its name implies, Turbulence House aims to shake things up. Instead of following the standard method of on-site, wood- or steel-frame construction, this little guesthouse on a windy mesa in New Mexico tests the future, exploring new technologies that harness computer and manufacturing processes. Though the structure measures just 900 square feet, it could impact the way houses are built, according to Steven Holl, the architect who designed it.

The clients, artist Richard Tuttle and poet Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, have lived in New Mexico for many years on a compound with a couple of adobe houses, but they wanted something different for their guesthouse. They told Holl, an old friend, they imagined something manufactured like an Airstream mobile home. Holl was intrigued and agreed to work in exchange for one of Tuttle’s mixed-media paintings on plywood.

Although Holl started this project with a watercolor sketch, as he does with all his work, he quickly moved into the realm of the computer. His architectural team created 3D and virtual wire-frame models, developing the building’s form as an extension of the site’s geology. “I imagined the house as the tip of an iceberg, indicating a much larger form below,” says Holl. As a result, the house’s exterior walls slope into the earth, and its curving form appears shaped by the same forces that created the mesa. In fact, he took some cues from nature—carving out a tunnel-like breezeway within the building, for example, to allow the area’s turbulent westerly winds to pass through and cool it, and angling the roof to the south so photovoltaic panels could gather energy from the sun. He also equipped the house with its own cistern to collect water and recycle it, and used neither paints nor any toxin-emitting materials.

Intrigued by the client’s challenge to design a prefabricated home, Holl turned to the A. Zahner Company in Kansas City, Missouri, the sheet-metal fabricator that has worked on most of Frank O. Gehry’s projects. With Zahner, Holl devised an aluminum rib-and-stressed-skin envelope, which merges enclosure with structure. 

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