Desert Dwellings: Laboratories to Test Our Tastes

Optima’s residential work goes back to 1982, when Sheridan Elm in Winnetka, IL first allowed us to challenge the status quo. Sandy Knoll and Ravine Bluff followed, each an exploration of the steel-and-glass Modernist aesthetic on our own terms. Ultimately, however, it was our geographic leap to designing homes in the Arizona desert that drew our practice, and design, into a new realm. Our desert dwellings serve as laboratories in which we are able to test our tastes and stretch the boundaries of our thinking.

Shadow Caster, Optima, Scottsdale, Arizona.
Shadow Caster, Optima, Scottsdale, Arizona.

A New Frontier

In moving out to Arizona in the early 2000s, our intention was to build in a physical environment that was drastically different than our Chicago beginnings. Our team, led by David Hovey Jr., needed to utilize the outdoor space year-round, an interesting new challenge in comparison to Midwest seasons. Over the years, our desert homes have included  Shadow Caster, Cloud Chaser, Vanishing Rain, and Sterling Ridge. While our Illinois residences were straight-forward, functionalist modular builds, the Desert Homes are deepened and complexified by the multi-layered and defined spaces within. 

Our desert residences also allowed us to test changes in traditional components of Optima architecture, like our all-glass facades. Traditionally, transparency into such a hot region is ineffective for temperature control. However we were able to experiment with landscaping and solar screening that would help to shield our structures from direct sun and subsequent heat, while still allowing seamless desert views. We also discovered new methods of landscaping, creating shallow and bridged beds, as well as self-irrigating planter boxes, in order to create the vibrant verdure of the landscaping seen today at Optima Camelview Village, Optima Sonoran Village and 7160 Optima Kierland

 Relic Rock, Optima DCHGlobal, Scottsdale, Arizona.

Relic Rock, Optima DCHGlobal, Scottsdale, Arizona.

A New Way of Seeing

With a new office in Arizona, we were able to utilize current technology to form a project flow for both areas. About this time in 2001, technology was improving from an architecture standpoint; things were moving from a 2-D CAD design system into a 3-D building information modeling system. This allowed us to communicate effectively through our offices, helped our executive team take on more responsibility and started the process for multi-family projects in Arizona. 

Part of this expansion in Arizona was the introduction of Optima DCHGlobal, which acted as another laboratory for some of the processes we envisioned for large-scale buildings, especially with the transformation from 2-D design into 3-D BIM systems. The vision for Optima DCHGlobal was to create a customizable, flexible and standardized system, which resulted in additional desert dwellings, Relic Rock and Arizona Courtyard House. Through our desert laboratories, we have explored not only how to create beautiful spaces, but how to make them sustainable and adaptable across all types of geographic environments. 

The discoveries that we make through our desert dwellings don’t exist in isolation. With each new home, we uncover more of what makes our design uniquely us, and how to create our vision in the best way possible, so that we can bring it to each and every project that we undertake, no matter the type of home or type of terrain.

The Inception of IIT

Where we come from is a large part of who we are today, and Optima founder David Hovey Sr., FAIA is no exception. His long career as an architect is grounded in the education and mentorship that he found during his time at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Optima’s ties to the school run deep; David Hovey Jr. followed his father’s footsteps in passion and education, also attending IIT. To better understand our founder and our own story, we’re diving deep into the history and inception of the school that helped shape him.

Frank Wakeley Gunsaulus, the minister that gave the Million Dollar Sermon.
Frank Wakeley Gunsaulus, the minister that gave the Million Dollar Sermon. Photo in the Public Domain.

A Million Dollar Sermon

In 1890, Chicago minister Frank Wakeley Gunsaulus delivered the “Million Dollar Sermon.” In a church on the South Side, near the current site of IIT, Gunsaulus declared that with a million dollars, he could build a school where students from all backgrounds could prepare for meaningful roles in a changing industrial society. He believed that the students could learn in practice, not in theory taught at a school to “learn by doing.” 

In response to his vision, Philip Danforth Armour Sr. gave that million dollars. Armour’s money founded the Armour Institute, opened in 1893, a school that offered engineering, chemistry, architecture and library science courses. Two years after that in 1895, another school on Chicago’s south side opened; Lewis Institute offered liberal arts, science and engineering courses for co-ed classes.

47 years later, the Illinois Institute of Technology was created when Armour Institute and Lewis Institute agreed to merge together to form a stronger, singular school.

Mies and IIT

Two years before the merger and the inception of IIT, German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe joined the Armour Institute of Technology to head their architecture program and bring a new, rationalized curriculum. Once the new school was created by the two colleges joining, Mies was tasked with designing an entirely new campus for IIT, set apart by his distinct Modernist style in the surrounding urban environs. 

Coming from the Bauhaus, Mies brought with him a new way of thinking about architecture, design, form and function. Because his arrival came at a time of transition, he was able to share his belief system and help shape the curriculum that now makes IIT markedly unique. 

It is this distinctive series of events that led to the creation of this program, passed down from the Bauhaus, to Mies, to IIT, to David Hovey Sr. and David Hovey Jr., eventually shaping the way we think at Optima today. 

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