[Originally published in Mark Magazine #67]
This remarkable house cost under €900 per m2 to build. Admittedly, mentioning the cost of construction in the very first sentence of a review may seem crass to some readers, but building successful architecture on a shoestring budget actually demands much more creativity and technical knowledge than the kind built with budgets that only a minority can afford. For this commission, Barcelona-based Narch, led by architects Joan Ramon Pascuets and Mónica Mosset, had to deliver ‘more for less’, or the project would have been out of the reach of their client, a working couple with two small children. Making architecture more affordable is the most direct and effective way of making it more inclusive and accessible; of opening its doors, as it were, to a wider public.
Opening doors, not only metaphorically but also literally, is precisely what this house is about. The primary architectural objective was nothing less than to make a house that would let the out-of-doors in, and allow the indoors to spill out. The architects liken this house to a Volkswagen camper: a tight, efficiently planned interior space that can be enjoyed in conjunction with the natural environment outside because of how it can be opened and expanded.
Such an objective makes perfect sense when resources are limited and the climate is Mediterranean. Situated in the interior countryside of Catalonia on the edge of the rural village of Calders, about an hour’s drive north of Barcelona, the two-storey house overlooks terraced agricultural fields in the foreground and the mountains of Sant Llorenç del Munt i l’Obac Natural Park beyond from a small suburban lot on a stepped hillside. The house’s upper storey – containing an entrance foyer, office and a loggia in which a car can be parked – is level with the street, while the lower storey’s domestic spaces are contiguous with the garden.
As the more important rear elevation shows, the house is basically a squared and elongated S-shaped concrete frame. The three horizontal slabs resulting from this conceptual folding process are additionally supported by a structural grid of slender steel columns that defines the different spaces and rooms of the house. The exterior openings of the concrete S frame are either left open in the case of the loggia or covered with sliding doors of different types. The front of the house, which is only one storey high, features a large wooden barn door (within which there’s also a human-scaled door) that opens the house’s upper-storey loggia-garage to the street, while one side and especially the rear façade of the house feature long telescopic glass sliding doors that permit the domestic interior to be opened to the garden and the landscape beyond. When the two sets of sliding doors that meet orthogonally at the exterior corner of the double-height living room are opened simultaneously, this interior space becomes converted completely into a covered outdoor space. To maximize the sensation of openness, structural columns were positioned some distance from the rear façade, requiring the concrete slabs above to cantilever a full 3 m.
Expansive telescopic sliding doors and 3-m cantilevers are not cheap, of course. To meet tight budgetary requirements, priorities were established in terms of where and especially where not to spend money. Finishing materials, for example, were eliminated in favour of leaving exposed the raw structure of the house both inside and out. The concrete walls and floors were cast, moreover, using the cheapest, most common type of wooden formwork panels rather than phenolic plywood panels. The exposed unrefined concrete lends the house an industrial rawness that is more consistent with nearby agricultural buildings than the typical pastel stucco finish of the neighbouring houses. In a similar vein, the concrete floors of this house were simply polished rather than covered with hardwood or ceramic tile flooring, while standard-dimension built-in storage units are made of varnished industrial plywood.
The ‘luxury’ in this house is evidently not in the materials or the craftsmanship, but in the degree to which exterior light, air and landscape can be made to permeate the interior and offer an enjoyment of nature. This is certainly not everyone’s idea of luxury. The happy owners of this house explain that, at the beginning, during the design and construction process, even they – avid hikers and mountain-bikers that they are – were reticent about living in such an ‘unfinished’ house, and that visitors, initially often taken aback upon entering for the first time, come to eventually appreciate the result after spending some time there; often saying that they’re ‘surprised’ to discover the pleasures offered by the house’s architecture. With buildings, material substance is often perceived by many at the expense of space, let alone the effects of natural light or the human relationships that architectural space enables. It is only through the first-hand and lengthy experience of inhabitation that this more immaterial dimension of architecture can be gradually discovered and appreciated by those who do not perceive it easily; an experience that is not always possible during temporary visits to exhibitions, pavilions or even great public buildings. Architecture takes time and effort more than anything, and it is time that is increasingly becoming a rarefied resource, especially for those struggling to make ends meet.
Time and effort is also what was most heavily invested in this house, precisely to deliver the best possible value for money. Unfortunately, the most typical preconception the clear majority of people have of architecture is that it costs much more than ordinary building; that it is only for the rich. This house shows, like other recent architectural works by an entire generation of designers who came of age during Spain’s decade-long economic crisis, that architectural thinking can also be employed to make architecture more affordable and accessible. With more projects like this, maybe people will one day associate architecture with an economy of means. Who knows, maybe in that case they’ll even be willing to pay a little bit more for architects’ services. It is indeed the economy, stupid.