In support of Canada Goose’s “Live in the Open” campaign, we were challenged to spotlight an individual wholeheartedly embracing the world around them and sharing the fruits of their vision with their greater community.
We connected with Malek Alqadi, the principal of Cohesion and founder of Folly, who studied architecture at the New School with a focus on sustainability and off-grid innovation. Shortly after finishing his coursework, he conceived and constructed the Folly Cabins—a small, two-cabin domicile built on a 1950s homestead in Joshua Tree and powered entirely by a newly-constructed “solar tree.” Created partly from materials salvaged from the original home and entirely carbon-neutral, the Folly Cabins are available for rental year-round, and have been so successful that Cohesion is expanding the concept to two additional locations—the Folly Farm in New York, and Folly Mojave in Southern California.
All of Alqadi’s builds offer a look into one potential future for sustainable housing, pairing elegant, considered design with a responsible environmental footprint. Specifically, Folly charted a path for Alqadi and Cohesion in pushing on the tension of accessibility in sustainable architecture. They serve as an entry point for many into what is possible when it comes to a more environmentally-conscious tomorrow.
“They’re a way to create this icebreaker, to share with people so they can understand what smart solar housing could look like for their future too,” Alqadi explained. “My goal with Folly Cabins was to create something that was unattainable, and apply it to something that was very much achievable for myself, as a young designer, and for the people experiencing it.” We met Alqadi at Folly Cabins to learn more about his work in sustainability, his architectural process, and what living in the open means to him. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Olivia Crandall Malek Alqadi
Where did the idea of the Folly Cabins initially come from?
It was actually a part of my thesis work. It’s derived from a bunch of different patterns that I was noticing and attracted to in the same buildings, and how to bring them to life. Folly was born through my statement and position on architecture, which was “cohesion through the integration of pragmatic and contextual relevancy,” which means being in a building program that derives from the context around it. That is, this cabin derived from the surrounding environment of being in a place like Joshua Tree in the desert. Understanding the rustic take on a rustic cabin. Responding to the different voids. All those play a role in what this was. That's kind of where Folly comes from, and also the name Folly, it's a catchy, one-word name.It really derives from the term that the English and really wealthy Europeans back in the 1700s used—they would build these Follies on their land. They were a part of the landscape on these hundreds of acres and it was their way of using a structure that had no purpose. You would just continue walking through your garden after you looked through this Folly. It could be a tower, it could be just a little box, it could be anything. I took that concept, applied it onto an existing homestead cabin that was run down, and then allowed myself to explore new tech sustainability aspects.
Was this your first major project as a young architect?
Actually, no. I worked for a firm for seven years before taking this on. I worked on really large Hollywood homes for the producers of X-Men and the screenwriter of The Devil Wears Prada and Game of Thrones. I learned a lot going through that same concept, and it was the same pattern. You would design for one or two people, they're amazing clients, but at the same time you pull yourself into something that goes up behind a green hedge that no one gets to experience but those few people. That's kind of why I came all the way out to Joshua Tree to explore this experiment without any noise from anybody.
Totally. It's the antithesis of what you were doing before. You decided to migrate from LA. What was your relationship with Joshua Tree? Why here?
I was looking at places all over around LA, because what's so nice about Los Angeles—you're able to drive two hours in any direction and you're in a different context. Whether you're in snow in the mountains or you're in the desert or you're on the beach. I came to Joshua Tree and it drove me back to my childhood roots, because I grew up in Jordan, in the desert, and it's all mainly desert landscape. My first interaction with architecture was Petra, which is an architectural wonder.
And it was such a cool thing for me to have a moment with it, because Joshua trees only grow in certain areas of the world and it’s the perfect climate here. I think the other place is in Northeast Africa, which is right near Jordan. It was a breath of fresh air for me because it drove me back to my roots in one way. I was in the farthest possible part of the world from where I grew up. The pieces all came together.
There is a lot of really smart reuse through everything in this space. How does your materials sourcing reflect this overall environmentalism? Has that always been part of your practice? Yeah, the plywood interior was all local and a bunch of it was reused, too—that's why some of it has stains on it. It's just raw materials. I didn't want to put sealers or anything on anything. I just wanted to leave it raw for what it is, because that's what the outside is. There's no art in here because it's all outside. Would you say that there is almost a cyclical process between your interior process and your architectural process?
I know you mentioned that you also did the interiors for your personal home in LA, and everything at Folly seems so meticulously chosen and thought out.
For sure. I always think of interiors as an extension of the architecture. In the architecture there's all these different constituents that I label in my book, which was program circulation, void, form, and understanding all these different constituents and how they all work together. You create a rule book for yourself, especially when you're trying to create something from nothing. It's like, "Okay, what are my rules and what do I stand for?" Those are the kinds of things that I set for myself and I'm like, "Okay, I'm following this rule, this rule, and this rule." If you have those in any context, the solution will always be different. The essence of the space will be the same. Folly was my 100 percent uncensored way of doing that without any external noise.
You've talked a lot about external noise, and previously mentioned Folly was truly a project where you acted as your own client. What are you like as a client? Do you think it's easier or more challenging to create for yourself?
It's definitely more challenging, because I'm thinking five steps ahead. I'm thinking about myself, but at the same time I'm thinking about all these different people that are going to experience the space and what they are going to go through with the process. I walk through the space thinking, "Okay, I will put my jacket here. I will open this cabinet here. I will move through this shower here while someone's utilizing this room." It's like I'm almost at the helm planning this space out, thinking about everybody else and making sure I take everyone's consideration.
With this next iteration, I have all this feedback from everyone that stayed here. It's this wealth of knowledge that I've acquired now by sharing my space and my work with people. How does it take that to the next step? Speaking of the next step, where does it go from here, beyond the initial Folly Cabins build? The next step is what I’m calling Folly Mojave, which is by the Mojave National Preserve. It's on a hundred acres of land, whereas Folly Cabins is only on two, and it will be able to occupy 16 to 32 people. The concept is to take what I created here and scale it to where you have shared group environments. Places where larger amounts of people can come and gather together and experience the space at the same time. Folly Cabins is definitely catered to smaller groups or couples, and it was a great first step.
You mentioned you’ve learned things with this first build. Where do you think there was room for improvement moving forward with Folly Mojave?
It's more nuanced. It was more about approaching and building the access aspect. Coming in as you approach the cabins. That was a really difficult part for me to sort out at the beginning. Also, I think it was a learning curve of all the mechanicals and everything that makes a building work. I think we're all so used to opening the faucet up and there's just water coming out. We don't think about how there's all this pressured water that's coming through the city's waste and water systems that comes to your faucet. When you're living off the grid, you have to think about all of those different moving parts and the mechanicals that come with it. I think the equipment room was a lot larger than what I would've liked it to be. I needed that space to be able to explore those mechanicals, so I can refine it in my next build. Instead of it being a whole room, just a closet.
With Folly Mojave being so much larger, how did you conceptualize the public spaces in a different way, knowing that larger groups would need to be accommodated?
There's a gathering space that's called the Mara, which is based off of indigenous tribes. They all lived in the Oasis of Mara, which is an oasis in the middle of the desert, right where Folly Mojave is being built. I took that concept and created this little oasis in the void and it was just really about being with nature and not having any barriers.
You’re going to have a larger stream of new guests coming through and leaving inspired. Do you think there are ways that the elements here could be applied to a more traditional residential build?
That's what I try to do in my practice in my office. Cohesion is just that—it's how you take the practicality of all these different spaces, especially with small space, and think of every square inch that you're utilizing in the space. It's really about your day-to-day habits and use of space and taking note of that before approaching this space feeling, how can I improve this space or make it better? I think that's what my goal is to try to do with my clients outside of the Folly experience.
With regard to really maximizing every inch, I noticed one of the things this space does best is to combine elements both natural and inventive. There is a juxtaposition of the desert outside in its purest glory with super innovative smart home elements. How do you balance these seemingly opposing forces in your work?
I try to—and I'm going to try even more so with the next one—allow the tech to be there, but allow it to take a backseat completely. I tried to minimize tech in your face as much as possible. It's there if you need it, but otherwise the focus is your surroundings. It becomes more of an amenity than a necessity.
Right. People come to a space like this because they do want to unplug from somewhere else. Obviously they want this mix of this beautiful, perfect nature, but then those kinds of creature comforts that make them feel at ease.
Exactly, you have access to them if you so choose. People like to know that it's there, even though they might not use it. A lot of the feedback has been like, "We were happy that all of these things were there, but we realized we didn't need to use them."
What’s something you wish people knew about Folly and Cohesion that hasn’t been extensively covered?
I think there's a misconception of this being a derivative of just wealth and money and being able to create this space due to financial circumstances that are above everybody else's. It's actually the polar opposite. I think at first look, it might feel like, "Oh, this is a really cool thing that you did in the middle of nowhere," but it's really so much more than that. If you saw the initial stuff and the journey we've been on, our site visits were camping and we were hammering nails and putting stuff together by hand. I think just the group effort and the process of doing all of that made it come to life and made it seem like it was this illusion of so many people, like they had all this money to do that. I really didn’t. It's all about just setting your mind to it, having a really smart budget and believing in the process.
Yeah, it's a lot more grounded and down to earth. Fully lacking pretense.
Seeing it in photos is one thing, but when people do come here, they have a completely different perspective on the space. Then once they get to talk to me or get to see all the different facets of it, it's definitely another layer.
I think there’s something to being in a cabin that rusts over time—the skin is constantly changing on the outside because it responds to the elements. Whether it's rain, wind, moisture, whatever. Those things wouldn't occur in a different context. It's truly special to this lot, this place.