Straddling the line between Scottsdale, Arizona, and the desert, the Pima Dynamite Trailhead is a new public gateway into the expansive McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Responding to the unique conditions presented by its site, the project serves as a responsible interface for hikers, bikers, and equestrians as they prepare to explore the sprawling and biologically diverse Sonoran Desert.
The preserve was established in the early 1990s by Scottsdale residents who voted to protect a portion of the McDowell Mountains and the desert in perpetuity as natural open space. It has grown significantly since then and is now the largest land preserve in the country at more than 30,500 acres and 225 miles of multi-use trails. The project’s site is one of the most accessible points from the city but had been previously scarred by off-road vehicles and its former life as a materials storage yard. Given the preserve’s history, the team’s design process was centered on robust community engagement that gathered input from users and a group of 650 volunteers who work with the preserve to promote its stewardship.
The new trailhead was designed by the team to promote responsible interactions between visitors and the preserve’s natural environment while connecting them to its meandering trails. It was delicately integrated into the existing natural drainage flows and topography between two power line corridors that traverse this section of the preserve. Wrapped in a Coren steel skin that allows it to weather pleasingly in the desert, the trailhead contains restrooms, an amphitheater, meeting space, and staff offices and facilities.
Adhering to a central tenet of the preserve, the new trailhead focused on the preservation and restoration of the desert environment. Its construction was limited to previously disturbed land, and salvaged saguaro cacti, trees, and soil from the site have been combined with other native plants to tie seamlessly into the surrounding desert. Fritting and film were used in the building’s glazing to reduce the chance of bird collisions, and low-level exterior lighting helps preserve the dark sky environment for nocturnal animals.
“This building sits well in this landscape setting. The shade structure, from a distance, feels like an interior space.” – Jury comment
Development of the site also focused on maintaining and protecting the existing water flows. The new trailhead is perched on a topographic high point with vehicular and equestrian parking located below to provide unimpeded flow to the three major washes that traverse the site. Permeable surfaces comprise the equestrian parking, while riprap-formed swales and basins capture run-off from the vehicle parking area’s durable surface.
A point of resilience for the community, the trailhead is also an important resource for Scottsdale’s first responders. It serves as an outpost office for police patrolling a remote area of the city, and access trails include additional buffer zones that create fire breaks for one of the more vulnerable regions of the preserve.
Pima Dynamite Trailhead
Architecture firm: Weddle Gilmore Architects
Owner: City of Scottsdale – McDowell Sonoran Preserve
Location: Scottsdale, Ariz.
Project site: Previously developed
Building program type(s): Public assembly – recreation
Year of substantial project completion: 2021
Gross conditioned floor area: 2450 sq. ft.
Architect: Weddle Gilmore Architects
Landscape Architect: Floor Associates
Engineer – Civil: Kland Civil Engineers
Engineer – Structural: Bakkum Noelke Structural Engineers
Engineer – Mechanical/Plumbing: Associated Mechanical Engineers
Engineer – Electrical: Woodward Engineering
General Contactor: Path Construction SW
Photography: Bill Timmerman
AIA and it’s Small Project Design (SPD) Knowledge Community present the annual Small Project Award Program to raise public awareness of the value and design excellence that architects provide regardless of the limits of size and budget.
Submissions are welcome in four categories:
- Category one: Small project construction, object, work of environmental art or architectural design element up to $250,000 in construction cost
- Category two: Small project construction up to $2.5 million in construction cost
- Category three: Small project construction, object, work of environmental art or architectural design under 5,000 square feet
- Category four: Unbuilt project award: any unbuilt design that meets any of the category requirements above. This award is for projects that will not be built in the future (speculative work, conceptual work, competition work, student work, etc.)
In 2023, only recipients from Categories 2 and 3 won awards.
The jury evaluates entries based on how successfully projects meet their individual requirements. Entries are judged individually—not in competition with each other.
All projects must demonstrate design achievement, including how the project fits into its environment and how the project connects to the Framework for Design Excellence.
- Open to all architects, designers and projects that meet our category criteria below. Additionally, the U.S.-licensed architect must be a major contributor on the project.
- Built projects must have been completed after January 1, 2017.
- There is no requirement for professional photography.
- Any size firm may submit a project.
- Maximum of four entries per firm—(a single project may be entered in two different categories with applicable fees for each entry).
Chandra Robinson, AIA, Chair, LEVER Architecture, Portland, Ore.
Madhubala Ayyamperumal, Assoc. AIA, Gensler, Oakland, Calif.
Chris Baribeau, AIA, Modus Studio, Fayetteville, Ark.
David Corban, AIA, David Corban Architects, Naples, Fla.
Katherine Hogan, AIA, Katherine Hogan Architects, Raleigh, N.C.