© 2024 KUNR
Celebrating 60 years in Northern Nevada and the Eastern Sierra
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

This building was designed to withstand future heat waves 

Marlene Imirzian uses heat-abating techniques in her architectural designs, such as her life-science classroom building at Paradise Valley Community College in North Phoenix. (Courtesy of Marlene Imirzian & Associates Architects)
Marlene Imirzian uses heat-abating techniques in her architectural designs, such as her life-science classroom building at Paradise Valley Community College in North Phoenix. (Courtesy of Marlene Imirzian & Associates Architects)

Many of the people who died in Phoenix during a record-breaking heat wave in July lived outdoors without shelter. But according to the Maricopa County Health Department, at least 81 people succumbed to heat injuries inside a building — victims of a broken or unused air-conditioning unit.

It makes you wonder: What if this desert city was better designed to protect against the deadly heat that is inevitably coming with climate change?

“Everything is about how we manage the reality of the climate in Phoenix,” says architect Marlene Imirzian, who uses heat-abating techniques in her architectural designs.

Her life-science classroom building at Paradise Valley Community College in North Phoenix was completed more than a decade ago. The modern-looking structure — clad in copper — stands out against the other low-slung taupe-colored buildings on campus. It’s topped with a large overhanging roof that casts a shadow on the building. None of the windows are exposed to direct light.

“That’s the key in a hot climate,” Imirzian says. “You need to find a way that the heat is stopped before it comes through the glass.”

On the second level of the building, there are collaboration pods and a bridge to the main corridor.(Courtesy of Marlene Imirzian & Associates Architects)

Also absent from her design: asphalt and excessive pavement. Imirzian says she used natural materials like gravel to prevent the heat from reflecting off the ground. A stand of mature trees also casts a shadow on the building. Their roots are fed from an underground cistern that collects rainwater off the building’s roof.

These design elements make the building more energy efficient and more comfortable in the blaze of summer. When Phoenix baked under 110-degree-plus temperatures for a month straight this July, people living here did so with a sense of dread. Air conditioning bills soared along with the fear of what might happen if the cooling unit broke down.

Even though Indigenous people have been living in the region’s hot climate for centuries, this modern city wasn’t built with extreme heat in mind.

“If you look at old pictures of Phoenix, they didn’t have sidewalks that weren’t shaded,” says Paul Coseo, a professor of landscape architecture and urban design at Arizona State University. “Then, after World War II, you had developers coming in from Chicago bringing with them design ideas and aesthetics that worked well there — but not here.”

Imirzian is trying to change that. She won a competition sponsored by the city of Phoenix to create plans for a sustainable “net-zero home.” Her design incorporates solar panels and back-up batteries, rainwater collection, and traditional building techniques like solar chimneys that vent hot air out of the building.

“This is a historic way to design in a hot climate for centuries,” Imirzian says.“You don’t see them here, but there are many times when natural ventilation can provide the comfort that is needed without turning on the air-conditioning.”

Inside a laboratory support space. (Courtesy of Marlene Imirzian & Associates Architects)

The city provides Imirzian’s architectural drawings for free to anyone who wants to build the house. So far, she says, no one has. But soon home builders and residents may be forced to rethink the way this sprawling city is designed. Scientists say Phoenix will experience more than 100 days of highly dangerous heat each year by 2050.

“The homes that we do have need a lot of work,” says Caryn Potter of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, a nonprofit that helps retrofit existing homes.

Potter says those homes often have outdated single-pane windows, no insulation in the roof, or broken and outdated cooling systems.

This year, Arizona received more than $47 million from the federal government to help low-income families fix those problems. But more should be done, Potter says.

A study published in July from the Department of Energy says adopting the latest international building codes to make homes as efficient as possible could drastically reduce indoor deaths during a heatwave. Cities just have to adopt them, Potter says.

“It could make a significant difference how comfortable our homes are,” she says, “and how well our homes are prepared to deal with extreme heat in the future.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.