Elements of the Earth

By David M. Brown

For our ancestors, everything in creation was elemental: air, fire, water, earth or their combination.  For us, these can also be the elements in the design of our new and remodeled homes.  Add some color – especially “green” – and our homes can also be built with sensitivity to our earth.

Four Valley professionals – an architect, a landscape architect, an interior designer and a contractor – have incorporated these themes into recent projects.  One discusses a powder room renovation, incorporating an Earth motif.  Another illustrates how a concern for space and airiness is an environmentally sensitive component of any building plan.  Fire – its warmth and color – is the focus of a third participant.  Lastly, a master pool builder will suggest some ways that pools and spas can cool you during desert summers, and showcase your support for the environment.


photography by Jerry Portelli Photography

A cramped, drab powder room lacking style: Transforming it into contemporary Zen space recently challenged Tanya Shively, ASID, LEED AP, specialist in “green” interior design, principal of Scottsdale-based Sesshu Design Associates and one of many members of the Interior Studio Group.

The room was part of a home remodel completed last year for the Metzger family in Troon North, Scottsdale.  The approximately 3,500-square-foot home was built in 1994.  “We didn’t make any structural changes, but this was a fairly extensive interior remodel,” Shively said.

This included new finishes, including low-VOC paint, flooring, plumbing fixtures, kitchen countertops and appliances, cabinet hardware, lighting and furnishings.  The backyard and patio, pool, spa and barbecue were also remodeled.

Picking up on the colors and textures of Troon, Shively chose an earthy theme for the powder room: “I started with the warm color scheme, which was created using Noce travertine floors, a rich golden faux finish on the walls and an earthen concrete sink and counter,” said Shively.

She had the integral counter and sink cast in one piece from recycled concrete.  The basin is filled with natural stone pebbles, reminiscent of a mountain streambed.  “The concrete was cast in a warm, earthy, golden brown and then treated with a wash of a darker brown stain to create depth and a subtle mottled finish,” Shively said.

To the sides of the basin, two pebble-like glass sconces reiterate the texture of the sink basin, and the mosaic tile behind the flowing water is an eco-friendly line of recycled glass and ceramic.  The custom faucet is both a water feature and low-flow fixture with an automatic sensor.  In addition, the original toilet was replaced with a low-flow Toto fixture.

“The connection to the Earth was carried further with the addition of the floral motif on the hand towel, mirrored by the vase with stems of cherry blossoms,” Shively said.


 photography by Scott Sandler

Kristin and Randy Wojtysiak’s 6,086-square-foot home at the base of the McDowell Mountains in Fountain Hills incorporates a variety of environmentally sensitive components, many increasing a sense of space and its connection to the lush surrounding desert.

Their five-bedroom, five-and-a half-bath home in the Eagle Ridge community includes a 1,000-square-foot walk-out basement, whose only exposed elevation, on the west, incorporates a well that provides light without increasing heat gain.

“One aspect my clients requested was mountain and desert views,” said Nick Tsontakis, AIA, principal of Scottsdale-based Nick Tsontakis Architecture & Interiors.

As a result, the great room emphasizes those views and the home’s relation to the outside: a negative-edge pool, a wash and the mountains beyond.  To frame the McDowells to the west, Tsontakis used an automated five-panel sliding glass door system – 20 feet wide by 10 feet high – with low-E glass and three semi-circular overhangs.

“When the doors open, the inside and outside become one space,” said Tsontakis, whose firm specializes in remodeling and environmentally sensitive design.

Within the home, Tsontakis maximizes space and energy efficiency with a circular design.  The great room ceiling is an open wheel-spoke design, with nine varisized clerestory windows with overhangs and vertical baffles that help minimize heat gain while admitting natural light.

For insulation in the ceilings and walls, Tsontakis used recycled denim insulation batts, which have demonstrated outstanding sound absorption and thermal performance – better, in fact, than fiberglass at low temperatures and windy conditions – Tsontakis said.  The two-by-six-inch framed walls have a value of R-19 and the ceilings R-38.

He explains that the recyclable batts are 85 percent post-industrial recycled natural denim and cotton fibers; 10 percent boron-based fire retardant, which impedes growth of fungus and mold and resists pests; and 5 percent polyolefin fibers, used as a glue to hold the batts together.

“It takes less energy to manufacture than other types of traditional insulation, contains no chemical irritants and is easy to install by either the contractors or homeowners,” Tsontakis said.


photography by Norm Platt

“The essential and mystical qualities of fire are as old as time,” said Michael Dollin, RLA, ASLA, principal of Urban Earth Design (UED) and instructor at Arizona State University at the Herberger Institute for Design and Art.  “Fire is a formative and transformative element.  When applied in a well-designed, controlled manner in the environment, fires bring joy and warmth.”

Dollin uses fire when appropriate to provide “spice” in their projects.  “Just as the heat of peppers can make a mundane recipe sizzle, a fireplace or firepot can provide just the right amount of life to an outdoor room,” explained Dollin “Fire yields visual interest, light and warmth.”

Recently, for four Valley clients – the Frank, Jarred and Sorosky homes in Phoenix and the Becker home in Scottsdale – Urban Earth Design infused backyards with this spirit.  All fire pits and fire pots are powered by natural gas, which Dollin considers the best source of clean fire: “It provides the sparkle without the smoke,” Dollin said.

Around a concealed gas line, UED frequently uses glass or stone bedding material to maximize the look – even when the fire is not burning.

“We will take local stone or quarried materials that can be used for both paving and fireplaces and then blend the forms so that the fire element does not stick out as a utilitarian object when not in use,” Dollin explained.

Locating the fire element strategically so that it can be viewed from an interior room is good for extending the visual impact of a fireplace, Dollin said.

Metal or terracotta vessels can also be used as containers for the flaming focal point.  “Contrasting fire and water can be an interesting treatment if done in moderation,” Dollin suggested.


photography by Dino Tonn

Annually since 1985, Mike Ferraro’s Scottsdale-based Phoenician Pool and Spa has installed and rebuilt about 50 to 60 custom-designed residential and commercial pools and spas throughout Arizona.  He also specializes in all glass-tile installations and large glass windows above or below surface.

Ferraro explains that a variety of new energy-efficient pumps and cleaning systems, such as the Pentair variable speed pumps, are available as well as solar systems.  “They’re quiet and save up to 90 percent on energy use,” Ferraro said.  “Most traditional pumps are energy hogs and the use of energy-efficient pumps can save you hundreds of dollars or more in costs over their lifetimes.”

Solar pool heating uses the existing pool pump, Ferraro explained.  Pool water moves through valves to the exterior solar collectors, rising to the top.  Through the panels, the sun heats the water, which then returns to the pool.  This cycle repeats until the desired pool temperature is reached.

Saltwater is another recent sustainable pool innovation, Ferraro said.  Also a Pentair product, the IntelliChlor® generator electrolytically converts ordinary table salt, sodium chloride, to pure chlorine, the standard pool sanitizer.

The salt recycles, reducing the need to continually replenish it, and the generator also self-cleans.  “You never have to transport heavy chlorine compounds again, and your children will never have stinging eyes again,” Ferraro said.  “And, because fewer resources are used in its production, the product is also environmentally responsible.”

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