Each year since 1985, the National Association of Home Builders has constructed the New American Home, a showcase house custom-built to reflect the new residential trends that are most emblematic of evolving American consumer taste.
This year’s four-bedroom, five-bath home has two garages, a yoga studio, a wine-tasting room, a pool, a fire pit, and a kitchen divided in half by a retractable glass wall that opens to reveal stunning views of the Las Vegas Strip glittering in the distance. It’s valued at $5.7 million and will be used as a show home for the builder.
In 2019, architecture critic Allison Arieff skewered the size and sprawl-inducing qualities of last year’s New American Home. Her New York Times op-ed ridiculed the excesses of the 11,000-square-foot Tuscan-inspired mansion in a Florida suburb “with eight bathrooms and both an elevator and a car elevator in the garage” amidst the country’s affordability and climate crises.
Like that home, this year’s Vegas mansion is a study in contradictions. Slathered with solar panels, the home is net-zero—meaning that the 7,683-square-foot structure generates more energy than it uses. A slew of other certifications guarantee the home is, technically, resource-conscious, at least when it comes to sourced materials and water- and energy-efficiency.
But this year’s showcase home is, in many ways, one of the most environmentally damaging homes that could be built anywhere in the Las Vegas Valley. It’s located in Ascaya, a gated community of 300 lots that creeps up a hillside on the outskirts of the neighboring city of Henderson, Nevada. The Strip is about a 30-minute drive away. The home’s WalkScore and TransitScore are both 0.
Even though the house itself is net-zero, its inhabitants will generate a significant amount of carbon emissions and particulate matter to transport themselves and what they consume to and from their door. (And, yes, even electric vehicles create pollution.)
The New American Home isn’t the only oversized house on display up here. Since Ascaya officially opened in 2015, its developer, Hong Kong–based billionaire Henry Cheng, has poured at least $40 million into building “inspiration homes” that dot the community’s lots. Six architects were tapped to design properties, including Richard Meier, who left his firm in 2018 after being accused of sexual harassment.
One “inspiration home” similar in size to the New American Home, designed by the well-respected Los Angeles firm Marmol Radziner, is currently for sale for $5.5 million. It’s been on the market since it was completed in 2017.
Other homes in the development that have been on the market since 2017 are for sale for $7.1 million and $6.9 million. One 12,000-square-foot home, on the market since 2018, is currently for sale for $15.5 million.
Only two homes have sold in the development in the last three years. One had been on the market since 2014 and sold in 2018 for $5.2 million. (It was originally listed for $6.5 million.) Another—supposedly Cheng’s own house—had been on the market since 2017 and sold for $4.5 million in 2019. (It only went for $500,000 under asking.)
But mostly, Ascaya is empty lot after empty lot—some of which have sold, including one for $2.5 million, and some of which are for sale, asking as much as $1.3 million.
The listing photos for the dozens of lots look like the ruins of a society more technologically advanced than ours. Rings of terraced rock-lined walls provide platforms for metal-and-glass buildings atop piles of rammed earth, like alien outposts ready to receive attending fleets of SUVs in their driveways.
It’s looked like this for about a decade and a half. In 2005, Cheng’s development company used dynamite to blast 15 million cubic yards of rock out of the foothills with explosions so powerful nearby residents claimed they broke windows and cracked foundations.
The developers carved out the lots on streets named Boulderback and Rockstream—and then left the site vacant for a decade as the region’s real estate market was slammed harder by the financial crisis than anywhere else in the country.
The region has rebounded somewhat, but as recently as 2015, Southern Nevada faced the highest foreclosure rate in the nation, with one in four Vegas homeowners owing more than their homes were worth. Even mansions are still being repossessed.
At the same time, Las Vegas is grappling with the daunting challenges of housing the low-wage workers that power its economy, resulting in one of the country’s highest per-capita homelessness rates.
It’s clear the region needs more affordable homes close to jobs. Instead, metastasizing edifices are being built on mountainsides that had previously remained off-limits. For all the region’s rampant growth, generations of developers had left the foothills that ring the Las Vegas Valley intact—until Cheng’s billions came to town.
Developers have built a glut of high-end condos and unsold mansions everywhere in the U.S. But it’s one thing to build a whisper-thin luxury tower near existing transit systems, or a gaudy one-off spec house on an urban infill lot. It’s quite another to blow the tops off of foothills to strip-mine the wilderness like modern-day speculators.
The environmental devastation wrought by Cheng’s Henderson gamble is so striking that Ascaya’s scarred, barren hillsides were captured from the air by photographer Michael Light for his book Lake Las Vegas/Black Mountain.
In April 2019, in order to offload these empty lots, Ascaya announced a new streamlined building process where buyers could choose from preselected home designs at “lower” prices—5,200- to 6,200-square-foot homes ranging from $2.8 million to $4.5 million—that are guaranteed to be built and ready for move-in within a year.
To Cheng’s credit, the views from here do look terrific. But in nearly every image, the Strip is blanketed by a layer of smog. Vehicle emissions in the Las Vegas metropolitan area have increased 175 percent since 1990. The region has some of the worst air pollution in the country. The inversion that traps toxic chemicals emitted by cars near the Valley floor will get worse as average temperatures rise in the fastest-warming city in the U.S.
From up here, the New American Home provides a survey of the country’s most troubling residential real estate trends—and a front-row seat to witness the destruction they have wrought.