The Off/Grid House project is located just outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico in a private community surrounded by the Cibola National Forest. Despite being only a few hundred yards from Albuquerque, no utilities or easements are allowed to pass through the Forest to connect the site to the city grid. Consequently, the house was designed to be entirely self-sustaining and off-grid.
We had little interest in repeating the design aesthetic of typical off-grid and sustainable houses. Rather, we decided to invent an entirely new formal language using an evolutionary process of formal development, testing and selection. We began by producing an extensive catalog of digital models; each offering unique formal and spatial opportunities. Each step in the process and its formal consequence was documented and represented in its totality, which allowed us to evaluate and compare the differences between each form at any stage of development. The process continued until we reached a critical threshold, past which the form lost all spatial potential.
By extracting the sequence of parameters that produced a form, or even a specific part of a form, we could recreate particular moments that were selected for the house. Variation of the parameters within the limits defined by the selected digital model allowed us to fine-tune the form, accommodate the functional requirements of the house, and meet specific requirements necessary for an off-grid house to work. In the event that a part was formally incompatible with its neighbor, we varied the appropriate parameters to alleviate geometric conflicts.
The seams between neighboring parts not only provided dimensional tolerance between incompatible geometries, but they also became opportunities in and of themselves. Seams were activated as either enclosed space to be shared by adjacent programs and foster new associations of use, or left as branching voids to help circulate light and air. Though unexpected, the result was one of greater programmatic coordination and connection to the site and natural resources, a necessity when building an off-grid house.
Though the process was non-linear and the cataloguing of form was restarted when necessary, we reached a point, a function of time and project scale, at which we began to evaluate the digital models according to their potential for architecture. Of course, the basis for evaluation and selection of form requires considerable attention. When designing an off-grid house, as this project required, the programmatic and spatial requirements have an additional layer of complexity. To graphically represent these requirements, we developed a program narrative: a diagrammatic description of information that predicates the organization of the program and its relationship to the context, including views, circulation, use, adjacency and the application of environmental control systems. This information was embedded through a set of illustrated codes. By changing the shape, scale, color, line type and line weight of each code, we could identify the type and amount of impact it had on a particular space. Ultimately, the program index became a map for how we began to evaluate and test the extensive catalog of forms that we produced at the start of the process. The forms that were both spatially provocative and best matched the needs identified in the codified index were actuated in the final house design. Requirements that were seemingly incompatible were matched with equally complex models, capable of handling multiple needs simultaneously. What started as a willful exploration of formal and spatial models subsisting in a state of limbo, became a realized set of integrated units indispensible to the project.