Marlene Imirzian unknowingly started down the path to designing the Bob and Renee Parsons Leadership Center for Girls and Women decades ago, when she was just a young Girl Scout. True to that organization’s motto, when Imirzian was being considered to design a new scout camp south of downtown Phoenix, she was prepared. “I wore my sash to my interview,” she says of the part of the uniform on which Girl Scouts display their badges and awards. She also brought her knowledge of sustainable building and, in 2010, her firm was hired to create a master plan for the 14.5-acre campus at the edge of South Mountain Park. The Girl Scouts had owned the property since the 1920s, using it as a camp, but, with outdated structures and paved areas dotting the land, it was time to look toward the future.
The complex includes a main Leadership Center building (top) and cabins, among other facilities, on a Sonoran Desert site with views of downtown (above). Photo © Timmerman Photography, click to enlarge.
“The vision was for an urban program center with camp appeal,” says Imirzian, whose firm has offices in Phoenix and Escondido, California. The master plan would help connect the center’s buildings with its Sonoran Desert landscape while capturing views of South Mountain and the city’s skyline. Parts of the property had been disturbed by off-road vehicles, and water-flow studies indicated a large arroyo snaking down from the mountain to the site’s northwest corner. What might seem like challenges became for Imirzian—collaborating with landscape architect Chris Winters and civil engineer Leslie Kland—the guiding principles to determine where to place new structures and how to restore the desert vegetation throughout the camp.
The cabins, for activities (1) and sleeping, are elevated above the desert floor (2), as is a walkway connecting them (3). Photos © Timmerman Photography (1), Marlene Imirzian & Associates (2 & 3)
“The Girl Scout mission is to work toward community improvement, so the opportunity of the site was a demonstration of sustainable building in the desert,” says Imirzian. Now the camp’s 15 cabins, each with 10 beds, are clustered in groups of three and float above the land, allowing water, plants, and animals to occupy the desert beneath. Circulation decks are raised, too, so scouts don’t tread on the delicate desert floor as they walk from their cabins to the communal leadership center. Outside each three-cabin cluster, the walkway widens as space for impromptu gatherings. The elevated platform was also crucial to the Scouts’ mission of universal access. “Everything is on one path, even if you are in a wheelchair,” says Imirzian.
To reduce project costs, each structure is identical, but Imirzian used the site’s north-to-south upward incline and slightly rotated each cluster to give the cabins a varied appearance. Their sloped roofs each have a diagonal fold, angled to direct water to the lowest corner. From there, a rain leader clad in a perforated screen of galvanized steel directs its flow to a basin in the ground that distributes water to nearby plants—a feature key to managing the heavy rains that can fall in the desert, especially from June through September.
The Leadership Center’s main building also reflects a scouting ethos, by being open to a nearby neighborhood. Its multipurpose hall, seating up to 400 people, can host Council functions as well as larger community events. In this spot, the desert prevails, with native plantings continuing on either side of the building’s glass walls. Imirzian was inspired by the idea of a tent structure when designing the roof, with a steel spine and ribs that maintain views from nearby mountain trails while concealing mechanical equipment. Its shape ensures that direct sunlight never enters the interior, and it extends over the surrounding exterior walkways. The entrance is wrapped in a translucent green “sash” of architectural resin, representing the Girl Scouts uniform and the green campus that sustains both the desert and the community around it.
Click drawing to enlarge
Click drawing to enlarge