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Building California Cool in the Desert

HKS Architects’ new project is a campground designed with both sustainability and accessible luxury in mind.

Auto Camp in the Mojave.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, Matt Kisiday

The architecture firm HKS is known for its innovative, climate-informed approach to large-scale architectural projects, from an award-winning stadium in California to a yacht club in Saudi Arabia to a bioscience lab in Singapore.The practice is also committed to research, landing on Fast Company’s 200 most innovative companies for designing air filtration systems in a luxury condo building in Dallas.

The group’s latest project, AutoCamp Joshua Tree, is just outside its namesake national park in southern California, about one hour from Palm Springs and two hours from Los Angeles. The glamping hotspot embodies HKS’s philosophy by keeping guests cool — literally and figuratively — using design strategies to manage the desert heat.

I spoke to Michael Strohmer, who leads the firm’s hotel practice, about how they tried to maximize shade and minimize environmental impact. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the general architectural approach for HKS?

HKS’s approach to hospitality is to start by understanding the place — where the site is located. Is it urban? A resort? The point is for the design to be integrated into the environment. Not only is it important for the nearby community, it’s important for the guests visiting. Travelers are looking for something authentic that tells the story of the place. Our job is to convey that through the design. Integration with the natural environment is key to what we do.

I’m curious how you applied this approach to AutoCamp in Joshua Tree?

The AutoCamp at Joshua Tree was unique for us. We have designed several five star resorts — Four Seasons, Ritz Carlton, Rosewood to name a few — but Joshua Tree was our first autocamp. (We have since done another in Zion State Park.) They were going for approachable luxury versus ultra luxury — they wanted to provide a higher-end experience and amenities at a lower price point, still with good service. The point was to build a place for guests to experience a natural environment with a high level of quality. It’s definitely a trend we’re seeing quite a bit, this desire to reconnect with nature.

Autocamp exterior.Matt Kisiday/courtesy of HKS

Your Habitable score shows extremely high for drought, heat, fire, and even flooding! Were you aware of that when you built here?

We were definitely aware of the issues of building in a desert environment. The high desert freezes in wintertime, and while we are aware of the climate and were considering that from our design approach, I didn’t know about the flood risk. I guess flash floods can be an issue for Palm Springs. Still, the AutoCamp location is at a higher elevation. It’s not far way but a bit of a different climate.

What decisions did you make to build AutoCamp for this desert environment?

When it came to building orientation, that was a big factor we looked at. The main clubhouse building was the one fixed piece of architecture at AutoCamp — the guest rooms are a collection of Airstream trailers that can be moved. We oriented the clubhouse to minimize the solar impact and allow for natural light to come in, for the breeze winds to come through and cool off the interior during the summer months.

The number one thing during summer months in the desert is to provide shade to escape to, so we built it so the sun doesn’t hit the glass directly so that it doesn’t absorb into the interior space. The glass is protected with horizontal elements — trellis slats or louvers — to let light come through but not the [direct] sun.

We also worked with a landscape designer that is familiar with the desert environment, so we planted a lot of native species also to save on water. The biggest goal is to minimize the site impact. Bringing in prefab trailers really helped. Non-conventional construction meant we didn’t have to wipe out land to rebuild. We were trying to have a light touch.

How did you adapt the design for different desert seasons?

By providing large operable expanses of glass that allow the clubhouse to open up during more temperate months. We built in the ability to bring in natural air and breezes [instead of] always having to use the AC.

AutoCamp clubhouse interior.Matt Kisiday/courtesy of HKS

What are your three top takeaways for people living in a desert environment?

1. Mobility is a great option. I love the idea of a moveable trailer to take to different environments. The light touch minimizes disruption to the site.

2. Providing shade not just for people but for the buildings is key. Come up with creative ways to minimize solar impact. Landscaping goes a long way.

3. The main AutoCamp building is in a barrel arched shape based on a Quonset huts, industrial buildings used by the military that can be erected quickly in a time of need. They require minimal construction and the panels are preformed with structural integrity. It’s a playful spin off of something meant for industrial use and ties into the whole approachable luxury concept. It doesn’t feel so precious.


Ann Marie Gardner

Ann Marie Gardner is an award-winning editor and entrepreneur. She writes about design and climate and just launched Habitable, a newsletter and tool to assess your home's risk from climate change. You can read it here: Read More

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