Low-Tech Green

Two young architects bring a down-to-earth brand of tropical Modernism to the balmy Mexican coast.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been a bit frustrated with a lot of “green” architecture lately—you know, the kinds of buildings that focus on the checklist approach, substituting technical wizardry for simpler, time-honored principles. Enter a breath of fresh architectural air: 32-year-old architect Eduardo Cadaval, who shows up at our offices, portfolio in hand, to show us a recently completed house. His “opera prima” is a beautiful beach house on the Pacific Coast of ­southern Mexico that he and his partner and wife, Clara Solà-Morales, designed—a place where they can go when they aren’t practicing in Barcelona, where she’s from.

Growing up, Mexican-born Cadaval spent his summers in that same sleepy fishing village, Puerto Escondido, now a surfer’s paradise. When he returned as a grad student to work on his thesis about five years ago, he learned that the town was transforming a former trailer park into a residential area. “It’s on the best beach in town, so we bought the site for nothing,” he explains. “My brother, sister, and I paid $9,000—that’s 500 bucks a month for six months for each of us.”

Cadaval says the idea for the project was dictated largely by zoning rules and the need for a low-cost, low-maintenance house: min­imum resources meets maximum impact. Mosquito nets, for example, replace glass windows. The front facade is closed off (“You cannot open it to the south,” he says, “or you will be totally fried”), so visitors enter from the side. “Why have a front door in a summer­house?” The form of the building is two cantilevered blocks—a 16-foot cantilever is balanced on an 8-foot one—that sit atop a small base, forming a kind of Tetris T. Unlike neighboring homes, which are sited in the middle of their lots, the structure’s cantilevered spaces shift off-center to create unblocked views of the sea.

When choosing materials, Cadaval says, the de-signers discovered that good local stone was not available and the small circular ceramic tiles they wanted to use were too expensive, so they settled for a traditional local material: concrete. They brought in a carpenter from Mexico City who could build the wood-frame structure and pour the concrete. After the concrete work was finished, they recycled the formwork for different parts of the house: square tiles—cut like “pizza slices”—for outdoor walkways and longer pieces for fences. Even the excess rebar was used by local crafts­people for custom handrails and chairs. When new wood was specified, they used ayacahuite, an inexpensive, untreated, water-resistant tropical species perfect for the local climate. “I use this wood because the local contractor, who is now my friend, told me to use it,” he says. “All the local workers use it, not the rich guys.”

Cadaval is proud of the cross-ventilation, which eliminates the need for air-conditioning. Even the garden terraces are indigenous: the designers planted dry gardens of river stones with local perennials. “Some of the guys wanted to have a green garden, but we decided we wanted something totally natural with no water expenditure,” he says. “People tend to associate green with sustainable, but real sustainability may mean going the other way around.”

Where did this approach come from? “I grew up in a third-world country where water is not available in all areas,” Cadaval says. “The first thing you learn to do is take care of water expenditure, climate, and energy use. I’d never do a garden that requires water if I was going to only live there two months a year, and I’m not going to use air-­conditioning, which makes the exterior warmer. Good design always comes with that thinking.”

The architect couple spends about two months a year in the house (relatives occupy it at other times), and they are pleased with the end result. In the mornings Cadaval loves to dive into the pool from the second-floor master bedroom. Now, how many LEED points do you get for that?

Find out more facts about this story on the Reference Page: January 2008

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