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Palm Springs Residents Modernize Mid-Century Homes with Energy Savings and Sustainability in Mind

By Mike Singer

Barry Berkus, AIA, designed Palm Springs’ Park Imperial South in 1961, when he was 25. Returning to the 30-unit condominium community 50 years later, he says, “As an architect, the greatest reward is to see people still living in and enjoying the spaces you designed.

“I wanted to create for people who couldn’t afford architects,” Berkus told the crowd who toured his project during Palm Springs’ Modernism Week in February. “I looked at Park Imperial as an experiment. I was trying to create a community, something sustainable, and now people are trying to bring it back. It is a much better project today than when it was first built.”

Vintage restoration

Fifty years later, desert themed landscaping, a new entrance sign and the restoration of lighting and wood paneling to the condominium homes’ entrances have been completed, with assistance from the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation. The original folded-plate, wood frame roofs shipped in from Oakland and craned over a concrete wall base 50 years ago are still intact, their pointed rooflines mimicking the mountains that ring the community.

Keeping Berkus’ original design intact has been a restoration learning experience for individual homeowners who have contracted for a wide variety of services: refinishing and in some cases expanding terrazzo floors (original units had only partial terrazzo to save on costs), restoring beams and ceilings, restoring shoji screen fabrications, grinding and refinishing concrete floors and undertaking kitchen and bath renovations. Many homeowners added UV shading film to windows and use sun block curtains or shades to save on energy costs, which have skyrocketed since the project was built.

Craig Hammond, Assoc. AIA, used environmentally friendly sealer on concrete floors and zero-VOC paints. What wasn’t original, he found in neighbor homes. He recycled the original kitchen countertops one neighbor was about to discard, and he bought the original turquoise stove that had been sitting in the backyard of another neighbor’s unit for the past 20 years.

“When word got out that I was interested in salvaging items for my restoration, homeowners who had original parts started inviting me into their homes,” Hammond says.  “You do not always have to replace the old with the new.  It is extremely wasteful to demo a kitchen of mahogany cabinets and send them to the landfill because you are having a new set of cabinets made.”

“And now we are paying the price”

Authenticity aside, the biggest restoration issue of mid-century homes for many in this desert community is energy savings. “When I designed homes for the Alexander Company in the 1960s, builders were encouraged by the electric companies to just put in more air conditioning, more electric heat, more energy,” says William Krisel, AIA, who built over 40,000 homes during his long career, including his signature Palm Springs tract homes with butterfly roofs, clerestory windows, and minimal insulation.

“At the time, Southern California Edison gave you a rating as a bronze medal house, or a silver medal house, or a gold medal house,” says Krisel. “The power companies would help underwrite advertising, and the more power the houses used, the more generous the advertising subsidies. So the houses were designed so that you did use more. But the attitude was that it didn’t pay you to do anything energy-wise, not with gas at 18 cents a gallon. So you were discouraged, not encouraged, to conserve energy. And now we are paying the price.”

A local cottage industry has emerged to deal with bringing buildings up to energy code and containing year-round energy costs. “There is a major difference [between] doing energy efficient and power production upgrades from typical home improvements,” says Nate Otto, president of Hot Purple Energy, an alternative energy firm in Palm Springs.

“Energy efficient upgrades pay you back monetarily, environmentally and they improve your health.” Otto says. “It’s making sure that all the different components of the home work properly together. Sealing electrical outlets, incandescent lights, double-paned windows, weather stripping and properly installed insulation in the exterior walls and roof will reduce 20 percent to 40 percent of wasted energy. Once sealed, it’s making sure the heating and cooling system is sized properly, as many homes out in the desert have too much HVAC. Once properly sealed and sized, you can produce clean power by installing solar. Point-of-use power production is the best way to produce electricity that we have.”

Some part-time Palm Springs residents anticipating retirement there are now undertaking total retrofits. One Seattle couple, Mark Linvill and J. Ritchie, are working with Sean Lockyer, AR+D to retain the floor plan of their 2,200-square-foot home. However, they will rebuild it from the studs up with solar panels, variable-timed HVAC, low-e double thermal paned windows, tankless hot water heaters, ample electricity to power future electric cars and other green technologies unanticipated when the residence was first built as a seasonal home in 1962.

Says Ritchie, “We are motivated by the architecture of the period, but with today’s modern technologies. We want to make the house green, energy efficient and accommodating of the way people live today versus 50 years ago.”

Architectural Vigilance Pays Off for Palm Springs Preservationists

Palm Springs Modernism Week: the Mardi Gras of Modernism

Renovation of John Lautner’s Desert Hot Springs Motel Sets the Stage for Revival of the California Modernist’s Early Work

Stagecraft and Skylight: The Desert Hot Springs Motel


Park Imperial South's original front bricks, beam and restored lighting fixture. Image courtesy of Randy Heinitz.

Restored kitchen with salvaged original turquoise stove and fan, salvaged formica countertops and paint stripped from mahogany cabinets. Image courtesy of Stuart Watson.

Park Imperial South’s new shoji screens, replicating the original 1962 kitchen screens. Image courtesy of Stuart Watson.

A Palm Springs butterfly roof home built in 2007 that followed Krisel's original drawings, but used today's energy efficient systems and materials. Image courtesy of Mike Singer.

Interior view from the exterior courtyard of a restored Park Imperial South condominium, designed by Barry Berkus, AIA. Image courtesy of Stuart Watson.



Hear Barry Berkus talk about Park Imperial South's 50-year legacy.

Visit the Modernism Week Web site.

See what the Committee on Design Knowledge Community is up to.

Do you know the Architect’s Knowledge Resource?

The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to “Golconde: The Introduction of Modernism in India.”

See what else the Architects Knowledge Resource has to offer for your practice.


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