Suburban expansion through greenfield developments is a practice that has long been applied to address the mounting need for high quality housing stock along the peripheries of major cities. However, the caveat that comes with these kinds of development schemes is the risk of depleting peri-urban grasslands and forests, further accelerating the pace of deforestation – a major contributor to environmental degradation and climate change. Constructing residential buildings in such contexts necessitates a careful reading of the impact of such human activity on larger ecosystems, to mediate between meeting human needs without neglecting nature. On a plot that was once part of a sweeping green belt in the city of Córdoba in Argentina, a relevant solution to this multifaceted issue has been demonstrated through a residential design intervention named Las Marías House – devised and implemented by local firm Santiago Viale And Associates. A low-lying structure in brick, concrete, and wood, the home’s design was conceived with the express intention of preserving all the trees that decorated the expanse of the site.
Littered with copious amounts of vegetation, including a 15 metre-high palm tree, the plot of land accommodating the home was once classified under the city’s green belt but has now been rezoned. In choosing to build here, the architects had to survey all of the species that had taken up residence on the land, measuring trunk diameters, foliage, and other parameters to ascertain how they could circumvent the distribution of green cover. This guiding principle proved to be pivotal in the conceptualisation of the program and layout, dictating much of the zoning and spatial experiences that are now tied to this endeavour in residential architecture. Aside from the obvious benefits to the natural environment resulting from this choice, the retention of existing trees also created a buffer against heat, by virtue of the canopy formed by the intersection of their foliage.
In a press statement, Santiago Viale Lescano, who heads the firm behind the project, explains: “We could infer that this property would have belonged to the old house of a quintero – the owner of an extensive agricultural plot. The position of the trees made it practically impossible to build a house without being forced to remove them. Hence, priority was given to find existing spaces between the trees where the program of the house could be developed. The lines of the building were drawn delineating these possible spaces, and from this emerged the three separate rooms that make up the social area of the house.”
Essentially, this generated an additive plan form comprising a standard linear wing towards the north of the site containing the home’s two bedrooms and other private spaces as well as four projections that weave around the assortment of trees to host the common spaces which consist of living and dining rooms, a kitchen, utility space, and an outdoor deck leading to a pool at the far end of the property. Past the garage on the northwestern corner of the plot, a screen realised through exposed brick masonry serves as the first building face encountered, making an inviting impression through its raw and natural materiality. As the main component of the relatively austere façade design, the rhythmic qualities of the masonry construction on display here aid in filtering out excess solar radiation. Exhibiting a play of recess and relief through combinations of flushed and protruding brick assemblies, these partitions allow a hint of transparency to sneak into the building’s streetside face. Additionally, the constant push and pull between rectilinear forms and curvilinear enclosures that wind around trees introduces an effortless dichotomy to the flow of space.
Considering how traditional footings and plinth beams would have interfered with tree root systems present on site, the architects elected to use a system of structural piles to effectively reduce the land area occupied by the foundations while ensuring a solid base for the building to rest on. Through a combination of hollow pipes with a diameter of 10 centimetres each, sunk into the soil and then filled with a cement mixture for a total pile diameter of 20 centimetres, the structural design strives for minimal impact on subterranean ecosystems without compromising on stability and durability. For this exact purpose, the single storey home also rests on a concrete plinth at ground level – rather than one dug into the ground.
Furthermore, as a means of ensuring sufficient thermal mass to combat the region’s humid subtropical climate, most of the exterior walls are composed of 18 centimetre-thick brick assemblies, with an additional half plaster wall partition applied over them, separated by an insulating layer of glass wool. With such a degree of environmental preservation seeping into each aspect of the project, the real highlight of Las Marías House is how the architects have further harnessed it through astute landscape design, which takes shape as a collection of green pockets and courtyards that make these spaces truly come alive. Central to this is a large courtyard at the heart of the plan, separating the public and private wings of the residence. A continuous circulation route winds its way around the organic form of the courtyard, enclosed by glass walls and wooden louvres, which give it an almost gallery-esque atmosphere. The interior design of the home extends the earthy palette of the exterior, making prominent use of wood, concrete, and brick.
Other considerations for climatically responsive design include a number of transition spaces that shield deeper areas of the plan from the elements. As per the architects: “This house presents a variety of intermediate spaces, since I have always considered it valuable to learn from our architectural heritage, extracting these types of ideas from it due to the timeless nature of galleries and patios in colonial architecture, which, especially in our region, work in a proven and efficient way in terms of the dialogue between exterior and interior.” Directly beneath the existing tree canopy, a low flat roof was implemented to top off the residence, with extended eaves for shading, as well as sloped edges and a metallic drip edge. At the ground level, a concrete perimeter channel slopes down to the street, filled with gravel for excess rainwater to trickle into.
Protruding both vertically and at angles from the roofscape, a collection of cylindrical skylights in exposed concrete interject the predominantly geometric design vocabulary of the home, possessing almost ‘Corbusian’ characteristics in their form and proportions, reminiscent of the main chamber of Chandigarh’s famed Palace of Assembly. Santiago Viale Lescano mentions: “We also proposed skylights in several spaces, which not only help to incorporate natural light inside, reducing energy consumption; but also lend character to the architectural language both outside and inside.”
To conclude, Santiago Viale Lescano notes, “I have always related sustainable architecture to common sense, to fair judgement. That is why I believe that sometimes with extremely simple actions it is possible to be sustainable, avoiding the use of astonishing devices or needless accessories. We are used to hearing about ‘intelligent architecture’ or ‘intelligent buildings’, however, I prefer to talk about architecture that relies on common sense, channelling intelligence from the mind of the designer.” He adds, “Appropriate application of knowledge, together with the architect’s common sense and the correct use of all resources available – both natural and man-made – should be adequate to create spaces with identity, spaces that serve and excite inhabitants. In conclusion, as it is commonly said: architecture that does not excite is simply construction.”
Name: Las Marías House
Location: Córdoba Capital, Córdoba, Argentina
Area: 380 sqm
Year of Completion: 2022
Architect: Santiago Viale & Associates
Lead Architects: Daniella Beviglia, Daniela Iciksonas
Design Team: Florencia Esteban, Arch. Tito Maximiliano Gonza, Juan Macías, Eduardo Storaccio
Structural Calculation: Carlos Pudo
Consultants: Agricultural Eng. José Manuel Viale