Outside the Box

Barb, Tom, Ani Cahill, and Rick Martinson collaborate on some landscape and planting decisions.

Barb, Tom, Ani Cahill, and Rick Martinson collaborate on some landscape and planting decisions.

The structures at Desert Rain can hardly be described as boxes. I have used the term loosely to imply two things: One – the scope of the project is seeing a surge in outdoor work, hardscaping, landscaping; two- the work taking place outside is beyond the realm of traditional yardwork.


Construction of the ‘Miro’ wall is well underway. The curved, masonry wall is a continuation of the interior wall. It gracefully curves between the main house and the accessory dwelling unit creating a courtyard of privacy and a backdrop for the memorial tree planting for the ponderosa pine that was removed from the site.

Rick Siers with Kevin Spencer Masonry building the 'Miro' wall.

Rick Siers with Kevin Spencer Masonry building the ‘Miro’ wall.



Chris Hart Henderson and Ani Cahill with Heartsprings Design have been on board since the beginning of the project. Ani has been working on planting modifications and underground irrigation plans. The original landscape design utilized plants that could survive in extremely low water conditions. With the approval of the gray water system and 5,000 gallon storage tank for irrigation, the diversity of plants has grown.  Though she will still use native, dryland, Mediterranean type plant material, Ani said she is now able to ‘juice up the palette of plants, particularly in the inner courtyard, making it visually more exciting. She will also be increasing the edible plant percentage to help meet the Living Building Challenge requirement of 35%.  The graywater will be processed through a bio-reactive, constructed wetland. Whole Water Systems  engineered the structure that will contain plant material, rushes, and sedges that will treat the graywater as it percolates through the system – about a seven day process. The Desert Rain wetland is the first graywater system in the state to be permitted by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Permits with the City of Bend are pending.

The landscape plans continue to evolve  as new structures are added and more water is available for irrigation.

The landscape plans continue to evolve as new structures are added and more water is available for irrigation.


Native, drought-tolerant plants like these in the Wintercreek Nursery greenhouses, will be used at Desert Rain.

Native, drought-tolerant plants like these in the Wintercreek Nursery greenhouses, will be used at Desert Rain.

There is a collaborative effort taking place among landscape designers, landscape installers, and plant experts. Rick Martinson with Winter Creek Restoration and Nurseryhas joined the Desert Rain team. Rick has an ecology based approach to landscaping. He will be focusing on the steep, rocky west slope and the plantings in the constructed wetland area. Rick said the large rock outcrop on the west side has a diversity of microclimates as the rocks create pockets of intense heat, poor soil base, and shade.
Rick has worked with other green projects including LEED and Earth Advantage. He said Desert Rain landscaping will be a ‘demonstration of a system that functions with plant communities specific to the site to make the landscape sustainable. In his view, the demonstration aspect and the holistic approach of the Living Building Challenge is what makes the project important.

Winter Creek Nursery in Bend. Rick Martison and Karen Theodore specialize in native, local plant material.

Winter Creek Nursery in Bend. Rick Martison and Karen Theodore specialize in native, local plant material.


Thinking outside the box has been a necessary element in creating this Living Building Challenge project.  The landscaping and plant selections are no exception. The Desert Rain team of landscapers, with the designers and builders have been ‘cross-pollinating’ ideas to intermingle the structures with the outdoor spaces.  The landscape work will soon begin to blend function with aesthetics, to create a flow of inside and outside space. It begins by sowing the seed, propagating and planting, cultivating green growth and good living by thinking outside the box.


The Miro wall gracefully curves through the structure and emerges outside to enclose the courtyard.

The Miro wall gracefully curves through the structure and emerges outside to enclose the courtyard.

The Art of Decision

How many decisions are made during the process of building a home? I don’t have a number but I know it is many. Designing and building Desert Rain, the compound of structures, and mechanical systems and meeting the Living Building Challenge criteria,  stretches those decisions by leaps and bounds. I recently listened in on a design meeting for the proposal of a new structure on the compound. In the three plus years the project has been underway there have been a series of design changes as building for LBC certification has many unknowns and is a ‘learn as we go’ process.

design meeting

Barb, Tom, Al Tozer , and James Fagan take a look at the preliminary design for the new structure, Desert Lookout.

The plan to this point has been to keep the garage from the original structures on the site and remodel it to create Desert Station – a studio space. With the waste water system still pending approval there is the need to build a composting toilet facility. In the usual team effort that keeps Desert Rain evolving, the new concept is to build a structure that will do more of what meets the needs of the project and Barb and Tom’s lifestyle. Al Tozer, designer,  presented the preliminary concept for the new structure – Desert Lookout. Included in the design is a garage, an upstairs unit that could be office or dwelling, a fitness space, and the composting toilet facility. The design is functional, aesthetic, and may have some dramatic elements. The decisions begin.

Interior choices - colors, knobs, tiles, materials- tough decisions.

Interior choices – colors, knobs, tiles, materials- tough decisions.

Considerations in the decision process factor in the cost, time-line, aesthetics, function, materials, and how it can meet the LBC standards. The water petal has been a significant challenge to meet. The permit is still pending for the water system. The city required that the site is hooked to city water and sewer.  Early in the process the decision was made to plumb the structures for both conventional and alternative systems. There has been discussion about hooking the Accessory Dwelling Unit to the sewer.  That would result in losing the LBC Water Petal; Barb and Tom are reluctant to let that happen – a tough decision.  The big choice about Desert Lookout: keep it functional and affordable, sacrifice drama for costs, or make a statement. Tom reminded everyone that, ‘ The whole home is a demonstration project. Every aspect needs to demonstrate something innovative and it also needs to make an aesthetic statement’.  More tough decisions.

Gabriel Dansky with Dansky Handcrafted, Tom and Barb look at the cabinets.

Gabriel Dansky with Dansky Handcrafted, Tom and Barb look at the cabinets and discuss options for the exterior finish.






As the large decisions loom there are ongoing, daily details that need answers; choosing fixtures, appliances, cabinets, doorknobs, wall textures and colors, how many shelves, art niche or storage cabinet, – the list is long. In addition to making choices every product and material used must be vetted through ML Vidas, a sustainable architect and consultant for Desert Rain and LBC compliance. The spread sheet for that process is growing.

American Clay plaster walls  - Earth, and the custom Manzanita on the Miro wall.

American Clay plaster walls – Earth, and the custom Manzanita on the Miro wall.

While Barb and Tom and the design/build team collaborate on new questions, work continues with the elements that have completed the decision-making and approval process. Inside is seeing more finishes.


The American Clay plaster is nearing completion, cabinet bases are being installed, and the reclaimed wood is in place on the ceiling and trim. The exterior of the site is currently under siege as trenches are abundant laying infrastructure for the rainwater catchment, gray-water, and waste-water lines. When the excavation moves out of the courtyard construction on the exterior Miro wall and other landscaping features can begin. The exterior plaster will be applied to the structures, and the old garage will be deconstructed. As many materials as possible from the garage will be reclaimed and used. Jim Fagan, general contractor with Timberline said,’we are wrapping our arms around all these elements, staying within a time-line’.
With so many questions unanswered, options to ponder, choices to make; many of us would simply give up or collapse . Barb and Tom keep forging forward. Continuing to embrace this innovative and conceptual project, Barb stated, ‘this is a learning environment and still very much our passion’. Perhaps in the process of creating Desert Rain, Barb and Tom have learned the ‘art of decision’.


One wall, one word, one decision – done.

The Mudroom Sink

What we don’t see – the design time, the plans, the plan changes, the research and the collaboration between designers, builders, and Barb and Tom.

I’ve recently been sorting through hundreds of photos taken at Desert Rain from project initiation to the current phase of the construction. The progress from the deconstruction of the original homes on the site, to the Desert Rain structure that is beginning to look like a home, is documented with the visuals of the photos.  It is an impressive transformation to see the empty site become reality as each phase of construction adds an element.

Some of the many interior design elements, each one must go through the ‘behind the scenes’ process.

The building process is very much a layering or ‘trickle’ down effect.  One element depends on another. The timing is not always precise as builders may be waiting on design plans or one sub-contractor may be waiting on another. That sub may be waiting on a supplier or the material may be in the process of ‘approval’.  Unlike a traditional building project, Desert Rain is building towards the goal of Living Building Challenge certification.  That means every material and element from nails and glue, to lumber, plumbing pipe, windows, and roofing, must be researched and approved.  ML Vidas is the LBC and LEED consultant for Desert Rain.  ML has a spreadsheet of EVERYTHING that is going to be used. She tracks what it is, where it is being used in the project, who is the manufacturer, what raw materials are in it, and the source of those materials.

The design team continues to work on specifications and collaborate with the builders and with Tom and Barb.  Every item must go through a process. I recently saw an e-mail regarding ‘the mudroom sink’.

Step One in the process that begins the dialogue that leads to the selection and installation of the mudroom sink.

Something that basic, still requires the time and effort of one or more of the ‘team behind the scenes’.  That sink must be selected for design and fit, researched for LBC standards, ‘vetted’ by ML and approved by Barb and Tom.  E-mails and phone calls go back and forth. Time is spent. Decisions are made and eventually the sink will be installed.  When we walk into the mud-room, ‘voila’, we will see the sink. What we won’t see are the details that put that sink in place.  What we won’t see are the team players that did their due diligence. What we won’t see are the choices to be made, the e-mails to be answered, or the meetings at the drawing board.

One of the many collaborative meetings.

We can go to the property today and see the pieces in place; from foundation to framing, windows to roofline, solar panels to the cistern and all the other elements that are bringing Desert Rain closer to home.  Talking about the visual standpoint of the project, Kevin Lorda, on the Timberline Construction build team described the ‘front end of things with excavation, concrete, and framing, as sort of, the lion’s share of the building process.’  What we visualize today are all those elements of the ‘lion’s share’ and more. What we don’t see is the enormous amount of design, research, discussions, and decisions that have happened behind the scenes so those elements are in place.

One small detail – the downspout and copper connector.

Every time I visit the site to document what is new, talk to the builders, and take photos, I am amazed at the progress and what I see. Thanks to the mud-room sink, I am reminded to be equally amazed at what I don’t see.


Tom and Barb in the process of making another decision.

Teamwork in Every Phase

What goes on behind closed doors …

Mission control at Desert Rain (the garage from the site's former home).

… is a lot of planning! And it most certainly does not stay behind closed doors when it comes to Desert Rain and Living Building Challenge.

Jim Fagan (contractor, Timberline Construction), Al Tozer (architectural designer, Tozer Design) and ML Vidas (LBC/LEED consultant) meet to discuss what's happening, and what's coming up, at Desert Rain.

The day started off with an early morning meeting on the home site for architectural designer Al Tozer, contractor Jim Fagan, and LBC/LEED consultant ML Vidas. They walked the site–which was abuzz with framing activity, as well as masonry and cistern work–as they discussed all aspects of the project. Building a home to meet Living Building Challenge 2.0 is radically different than building a standard home. What’s being done is new; groundbreaking both literally (I’m looking at you, 35,000-gallon cistern) and figuratively. It requires more time, more creativity, and more communication in all aspects. While there is a written standard, there is also a remarkable amount of details that must be dealt with at every step of the process, and for that there is no trail of crumbs to follow. “I have to remind myself and the team that this is all pioneering stuff. … That’s why having the team is so important. Jim and Kevin [of Timberline, or Jim] and I meet almost weekly,” ML told me last month.

Meeting to discuss the monitoring and control of Desert Rain's water and energy systems. April 17, 2012

After the on-site meeting between ML, Al and Jim, there was a meeting at the Timberline office that brought together Barb and Tom, Al, ML, and Jim, as well as Shawn Allen and Greg Anderson of Resource Conservation Technologies. Shawn and Greg are leading the team in the monitoring and control of the water and energy systems that are so vital to Desert Rain achieving net-zero water and net-zero energy. Detailed monitoring of systems is essential to the conservation and efficient use and management of water (rainwater harvesting) and energy (generated via solar panels) in Desert Rain. Real-time analytics will alert Barb and Tom to any energy “leak,” giving them the ability to quickly react and improve efficiency. Even if they’re away from home, they’ll be instantly notified of any inefficiency via a system-generated email or  text, and with remote access they can explore and address the issue from wherever they may be.

More photos from today’s collaboration are below. If you’d like to learn more about Living Building Challenge—the standard that inspired and informs every aspect of this home—please join us on Thursday morning (4/19) at 7:30 for an LBC presentation in Bend. Email me via the “contact” form on the blog and we’ll add your name to the list of attendees.

Tom meets with Desert Rain team members to discuss monitoring and control of the home's water and energy systems.

Barb meets with the Desert Rain team at the Timberline office to discuss the home's sophisticated monitoring and control of energy and water generation and usage.

Shawn Allen of Resource Conservation Technologies.

Greg Anderson of Resource Conservation Technologies.

Discussing energy monitoring in Desert Rain.

April 17, 2012