“All Sustainable Materials”: Evan Kaufman Shoots the Desert Rain House for the Wall Street Journal

Nov 1, 2019
Photographer Spotlight

We don’t think to compare a building to a flower. After all, one’s made by people, the other by nature. But if we want to start making a positive impact on our surrounding environment, maybe we should compare the two — or at least think about how a flower’s "raison d'être" can influence our architectural habits. If you’re a little confused, don’t worry. Architect Jason F. McLennan, creator of the "Living Building Challenge," has you covered:

Both [flowers and buildings] are literally and figuratively rooted in place. Unfortunately, that’s where the metaphor ends. But I don’t think it should. A flower gets all its energy from current solar income. It gets all the water it needs from the precipitation right around it. It doesn’t pollute — in fact, it creates habitat. And it is beautiful.


Now, shouldn’t this be the same set of metrics by which we judge architecture?

Jason gave this talk at a Bioneers Conference, terming these eco-conscious edifices “Living Buildings” during a speech that was picked up by NPR in 2009. Barbara Scott and Tom Elliott listened to this talk as they were driving back to Bend, Oregon and decided to rise to the challenge of creating a home that needed to adhere to a strict set of criteria (I’ll discuss below).

DRH stands for Dude, Righteous Home

A decade later, Barbara and Tom continue to call the Desert Rain House home, and, as Evan Kaufman found out during his first shoot for the Wall Street Journal, it’s a sight to behold.

The home has no city water hook up and uses all rainwater. It’s also built with all sustainable materials.  

A glorious day

I had not worked with WSJ prior to this project. It was nice to get asked. They gave almost no guidance on the project and just wanted work in line with other projects they had seen in my portfolio online.

Living Buildings are “self-sufficient.” They need to “remain within the resource limits of their site. [They must] produce more energy than they use and collect and treat all water on site.” In order to complete the challenge, homeowners must show proof that their houses comply with this set of rules every month for twelve straight months. Though these requirements sound simple enough, underneath them lies a complex set of 20 imperatives, which you can view here. The people who undertake an endeavor of this magnitude must do their homework, buy in completely, and be patient in dealing with the local government.  

The home was built over the course of a few years. I don’t know the exact building cost, but it’s in the million-dollar range once you factor in the costly land in Bend it’s built on.

A pathway to a better life

The high cost also has a lot to do with the off-grid water system and paying attention to sustainable building practices. One of the biggest challenges was permitting in Bend. The home is not connected to city water, and this posed major hurdles in terms of permitting, from what I understand. 

Now we inside

The commitment to using only rainwater with no city water connection is a bold thing to do, especially in Bend, which receives very little rainfall. The city itself is a high elevation desert, not unlike what you find in the Southwest. 

Happily, Evan’s interactions with Barbara and Tom weren’t nearly as trying as those to complete the “Living Building Challenge” to-do list itself.

I spoke at some length to the owner of the property before the shoot, and it was clear she would be easy to work with. After that, I did not do any other prep other than ensuring I had enough time to speak with and understand the home and the owner for about an hour before I picked up a camera at the location. The total shoot was about five hours in length. 


Barbara and Tom’s compound, comprised of a main house, two detached apartments, and three garages, blends right into the fabric of the land, creating a setup that would make Frank Lloyd Wright proud. Equal parts gorgeous and unassuming, the Desert Rain House has stunning vantage points which made Evan feel incredibly in tune with the surroundings.

Blue skies

I think the images that show the interior of the dining area with the viewer looking outside into the garden are my favorite. These shots have a mix of interior and exterior space and show an interesting visual feature of the home. 

We’ve made mention of the high cost of building a home like this, but there are fiscal benefits directly resulting from the property's environmental ethos. As you might imagine, energy, water, and waste bills nosedive once these structures are up and running. 

Seat at the table

The one thing to take away from the house is to consider your materials when building. The environmental impact they have can be quite interesting to learn about. 

People pay attention when told they can save money in the long run by doing something differently. Perhaps that’s the way to sell this concept to the masses and move us toward the future.

In many cases, the cost difference in using sustainable materials is not as high as one might think. 

Check out more of Evan's work at evankaufman.photo.

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