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Buildings for the Sierra Hot Springs Community
Sierraville, California USA






Owner: Harbin Hot Springs Church, Ms. Carol O'Shea, Director, Sierra Hot Springs
Location: Sierraville, California
Date: 1992
Cost: $65,000.00 including architect's fees
Total Square Footage: Building 1: 800 Sq. Ft.; Building 2: 800 Sq. Ft.; Building 3: 1200 Sq. Ft.


On a beautiful 1000 acre (6600 Mu) site in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California lies a forested hillside of Pine trees overlooking golden plains of grass and majestic mountains. On the hillside are designed five buildings all fed by natural hot springs water from deep within the earth. The waters of these hot springs have medicinal use and the five buildings are positioned around the locations of where water reaches the surface of this forested hill. All of the designs are built of materials found on the site; Beetle-eaten dead trees, giant boulders, felled trees, the soil mixed with concrete, mineral crystals and small stones.

The site has no electricity so all designs are warmed by wood fire chimneys at night. Specially designed chimney fireplaces have reflective metal cowls to reflect heat towards the hot spring pool areas. Stainless steel cables are used as structural members to attach mosquito nets that can be pulled open or closed from these cables keeping mosquitos away from the pool springs at night. Daytime temperatures are hot and dry, night temperatures are cool and sometimes breezy. Heat is necessary even in the summer. Each of the five designs are based on east Indian gods with a unique spirit and form of their own. A manager's in-the-ground dome apartment features an opening and closing roof of metal and waterproof nylon fabric. This building can be completely open during the day and closed at night. Other buildings feature transparent waterfall ducts that direct hot springs waters to various areas of the building. The use of structure is both daring and rustic. Angled tree poles, curved wooden forms and swirling shingle roofs make the detailed features of the buildings a captivating experience.

Construction Materials: Felled Beetle-eaten trees found on site, boulders and stone found on site, Rose Quartz, concrete, steel cables and mesquito netting.

Special Features: All buildings heated by natural hot springs, all buildings oriented towards certain star configurations in the northern hemisphere, each building is supported by the surrounding natural features of the site.

Owner requirements: No electricity to or from any building, the natural hot springs are the general focus of the buildings, wherever possible give the buildings a cosmological meaning and make this a functional aspect of the building, use whatever materials are available on the site.

Ecological requirements: Use "found" materials wherever possible and utilize natural phenomenon as a basis for functional use.

General background of the project: Ms. Carol O'Shea, Director at the Sierra Hot Springs Community, was one of many people present at our presentation of the Harbin Hot Springs Watsu Massage School Center. She was impressed by the underlying ecological sensitivities that were involved in the design of the Watsu Center at Harbin Hot Springs and wanted to know more about our concepts. She was in-charge of developing about 900 acres of forrested property that contained several readily available hot springs. She wished to enlarge the usable area around the springs and to create memorable structures that would enhance the area yet be expressive of their respectful attitude towards nature.

Shortly thereafter we met at the site which overlooked a gigantic open meadow. Historical research revealed that the area had been a well used grounds of indigenous cultures. The combination of hot springs, tall redwood and pine trees, the open land and surrounding mountain ranges created an ambiance of the sacred. A nearby mountain had outcroppings of Rose Quartz. The quality of light and the vast quietude was exhilerating to the spirit. Staying on the site for three days and two nights I began to receive a clear picture of the direction in whcih to proceed.

The "buildings" must not be buildings at all, in the sense of closure, but be, instead, a kind of frame work for guiding ones presence as a special part of a greater moving universe. To accomplish this there needed to be a sentient experience that came from the hot springs themselves. Due to the unique positioning of the springs, in the day one could see out over an endless horizon bordered only by the Sierra Nevada mountains. At night, the stillness and starry expanse of the cosmos enveloped ones sense of existence and this was the departure point where the surrounding architecture could enhance these perceptions and experiences.



Aerial view of the Vishnu bath structure model.


The Vishnu Tub, as it was referred to at the time, had the quality of ascenting from the ground lifting water with it like a great hallow of light. However this proved to be too costly given the level of competence of the work crew who were mostly residents of the area. Another variation of the design was to create a truncated cone structure to carry the hot springs water and then cantilever a radiating pattern of inclined acute angle trusses; the whole giving an impression of a giant flowering blossom opening to the sunlight and sky. The base of the cone was several courses of rubble rock and boulders. This structure was particularly stable as it was both symmetrical and maintained a wide base with a more narrow upper shaft. The configuration is often used by water barnacles and other non-moving sea creatures. It is fascinating to note that the thickness of the barnacle wall is directly proportional to the depth of water in which it inhabits and therefore the amount of water pressure it must resist.



Aerial view of the Brahma bath structure model.


The largest of the three hot springs area was deemed the Brahma bath, and consisted of three existing tubs of increasing heat. This area became the central place of congregation having facilities such as a massage room, four toilets and sinks, a changing room, lounge and upper viewing deck. This building needed to be fully enclosed and able to cope with high snowfall during the winter season. This implied a steep roof form preventing snow from accumulating. The wood frame structure was to be milled on site with stone boulders used as berm walls upon which the 4'x12' truss and beam members would sit. Earthquakes were a definite possibility so the entire structure was based upon a continuous "A" frame series of sections. The rounded ends of the buildings create more efficient aerodynamics to accommodate snowstorm wind gale forces. There was to be no electrical power available so skylights and opening shutter mechanisms were designed throughout.

The Brahma bath hot springs are surrounded by five large boulders with heiroglypths painted on them signifying the five interrelated medicinal systems of the body in accordance with chinese, greek and east indian practices. Wherever possible, depending upon the most suitable terrain orientation of the building, the hot spring baths were positioned in such a way as to celebrate the position of astronomical bodies during summer and winter solstice. This concern for the position of cosmic bodies is very much part of the ecological attitude of both the architecture and the community. It is all an integral part of emphasizing and teaching the interrelatedness of all things as a living dynamic. Ecology is not confined to the living systems of this planet. It is also the force that governs all things in the unlimited universe.

Another exploratory approach was the Brahma Bath building as an aerodynamic enclosure; a kind of Lyceum with the hot springs as a central focus and gathering area. The configuration was replaced by one of a more narrow demeanor due to the site conditions with a prominent incline at the base of a hillside.



Aerial view of the Shiva bath structure model.


The Shiva bath design began with a pair of outstretched, cantilevered "arms" which acted as sheltered roof elements to protect the hot spring bath activities below. Other possibilities were tried including an integrated waterfall run which culminated in the hot spring bath. The introduction of the waterfall concept was received with great enthusiasm by the owner(s) and we proceeded to develop the idea. A kind of aquaduct system was tried to connect the various baths. Heat would be dissapated from the traveling water and this was minimized by using enclosed acrylic tubes. This presented the opportunity of actually seeing the water as it traveled from place to place within the site and created a dramatic effect as it splashed into the hot spring baths. Ramps allowed persons to gracefully travel from lower to higher elevations with a minimum of physical exertion.




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