Alforja is a small, rather ugly town located at the base of the Mussara mountains. It has a slightly cooler climate than the rest of el Camp. The Mestral wind is very strong here, coming down the Coll d’Alforja all the way from the Ebro river. The plot is located on the northern limit of the hazelnut fields that completely surround the town. It is a flat, strong, good draining soil. It is planted with hazel and olive trees. There is also a very well kept orchard where an uncle grows his own food, a self-built shack made from leftovers of a family house, and a metallic water tank.
ArchitectsDAVID TAPIAS, URTZI GRAU, CRISTINA GOBERNA
CollaboratorsRICARD PAU, GERARD FERNANDEZ
OE House, Twenty Seven Weathers in One
This is a house for a destroyed climate. While seasons keep fading away, this house adapts to all kinds of tropospheric extremes. It is a building for the abandoned hazel tree fields where it belongs. It is also a habitat for the OEs. They wanted two houses in one. One for summer, one for winter. Instead of moving to the beach, they would move a floor up or down. This structure provides twenty-seven weathers in one.
TERRITORY / ECOSYSTEM
NEEDS AND HOPES
Vertical vacations: A 'mas' with a ground floor for summer and a first floor for winter?
This house is for a place. It is also for the OE family. Their first request was that the ground floor should be their summer house, and the first floor should be their winter quarters. Instead of having two separate properties in different climates, one for winter and one for summer, which is quite common in our country, they would have the two in one place. One on top of the other. The second demand was that they wanted a mas, the typical catalan countryhouse, similar than the ones nearby. The third demand, which came a little bit later, was that the house should be as off-the-grid as possible. They’d rather spend money on the climatic qualities of their home than on enriching the big companies that control the energy business. The OE’s last wish was that the house could easily be divided in two when the parents are gone.
All design solutions were thought to make the construction process really easy, taking out material instead of adding layers of stuff. The only sophistication was Big -big windows, big doors, high roofs, big shades, big porches, big vaults, big light, big air. The two very different living conditions demanded different construction systems for both floors, with a very light steel structure as the main frame for them. From totally standardised solutions for the ground floor roof, to a custom made catalan vault for the first floor. Tool shacks and rain water tank on site, among the hazel trees field, were not an inspiration.
Only two seasons? But…does it make sense to build a house for two seasons in a Mediterranean climate, where we have four different seasons? Or at least we used to have them. Climate has already changed, and we’re making it -destroying it- more and more unstable, with more extreme situations. So it is to all these new extreme, unstable weather conditions that the OE house should actually respond to.
SEARCH AND PLAN
Two houses in one
The OE House is a montage. The clients wanted a double house, so they could move from one half to the other, according to their state of mind. They did not like to spend their holidays traveling; they preferred to move downstairs, and do it for real, closing the quarters above. We provided them with two well-known domestic environments—the open frame of the case study houses for hedonistic pleasure, topped with the interiorized existentialism of Le Corbusier’s Maison Jaoul. We did it literally. The resulting exquisite corpse—wrapped by the most Spanish architectural prop of all: the persiana—ensures the schizophrenic differentiation of modes of habitation as much as it negotiates the impossible encounter of both types.
A roomful, archetypical mas. A cluster of rooms. Each with their own volume, plan and section. They coexist in a rectangular perimeter. The empty spaces between them become storage. This is an exploration on the limits of the profusion of rooms in the archetypical mas. The summer house and winter house have two independent, differentiated structures: steel frames and a CLT floor for summer, clay walls and tiles for winter.
Vertical seasons: Exploring ‘masos' and winter/summer extremes?
The OE family needs a ‘mas’, the southern Catalonia traditional country home, with two houses in one: a summer house on the ground floor and a winter house on the first floor, on a hazel tree field at the limits of Alforja, a rural town with a more extreme, cold and windy climate than the rest of the el Camp territory. The house is placed on a flat spot, and it is planted with hazel trees. It is at the foot of la Mussara range, where strong north-west winds blow.
We research the typologies of the local rural constructions and a seasonal membrane that responds to daily weather changes. Learning from ancient neighbouring case studies but also from far away examples such as maison Jaoul or the first Case Study Houses, we reach a crossroad between a ‘mas’ and a peasant’s storehouse. As a humble contribution to stop climate change, we design an inhabitable physiology of trimestral and daily cycle, easy to use and that allows the regulation of energy interchange. Its compact volume reduces its footprint on the land, while helping to reclaim the agricultural and hedonist life of the plot.
We introduce uncertainty as a positive design factor, developing open source systems and interchangeable ingredients, exploring two tangent extremes between archeology and innovation: we reclaim the almost forgotten volta catalana local technique, and adapt industrialised components that came from afar, so that the house can be built in twelve months. The construction system adapts to the two differentiated programs: the ground floor can open totally in summer, so it becomes a big porch -selective strategy; the first floor is highly insulated and the floors, walls and roof are thought to give warmth -conservative strategy.
The Spanish Bank System Crisis (or Fraud) has slowed this process down to four and a half years. Together with the OEs, we have explored a radically optimistic management of adversity and uncertainty, where each setback has been an opportunity to improve and build a cheaper and better made habitat, with a breath of collage and bricolage air. The OEs lived right in front. Each summer, in the construction site, they played and bathed among the hazel trees, camped on the roof, while their new home slowly grew. This long shared resilience test has given us a close engagement with their family, the builders and local craftsmen. To celebrate it, we invited everyone to a calçotada, where we cooked and had fun together.
Local builders were either busy or too expensive. We had to look for a contractor from another town. The clients knew a small-town builder that was mainly working with big petrochemical companies maintenance, but who was still keeping some really high skilled craftsmen. This uncommon combination seemed to perfectly fit how the house was designed. It is made of a semi-prefabricated system, that could be built in twelve months -a fast house. But the contractor was so busy with the petrochemicals, that changed it into a slow house -a really slow one. The building process took so long that we have been lucky enough to befriend most of the people who has collaborated in the construction of this house.
The project was born right in the beginning of the big economical crisis in Spain. When we started its construction, the crisis had already hit really hard, and the bank only gave the OEs 70% of what they had initially agreed. So we had to find ways to build it for much less money. Taking out things, simplifying solutions, in order not to just reduce, but to improve the overall quality of the house.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
La Calçotada. Raul Ruz. 9 January 2016.
Right after the Reis festivity, to celebrate that the main construction works were over, we cooked a calçotada, where everybody that made this house possible was invited.
We asked Raul Ruz to document that very special meal:
José Hevia. January 2016 and June 2017.
The house changes its configuration to make the most of each seasonal and daily weather cycles:
The slow pace that the house has been built at has brought many changes to all our lives: we’ve seen people go, kids have grown, trees have given their fruit several times, seasons have come and gone -real gone. Its anatomy has aged and moved while being born. So have ourselves. On the meantime, the OE’s uncle has used the open ongoing structure as a shade and shelter when cultivating his vegetable garden on the site.
The lack of any proper construction rhythm has allowed the OEs, not only to rethink many priorities and technical solutions, but to dwell the house before it was finished: they live on the other side of the street so, everyday, after work, not only they visit it, check the eventual advances, and imagine themselves at home, but lay under the porch, have a bath or a weekend picnic. Talking to them the kitchen, the bathroom, the porch… have evolved.
The slow pace of the construction process, that extended over five years, gave us the opportunity to document the slow motion changes in its nature. The building was long exposed to the elements before the OEs moved in, and the house was inhabited in different modes once the structure was completed. This video is a synthesis of those years:
As all human activities, this house is the result of a collaboration. In this particular case, we worked together with our close friends Cristina Goberna and Urtzi Grau from Fake Industries Architectural Agonism. If a project’s means of production is a key factor, here it is even more crucial: the typical triangle of client-architect-contractor became almost a square. The project was thought and talked in New York and Reus, sometimes via Skype, sometimes physically together. The intense debates added a complexity that somehow has allowed this project to survive a number of unforeseen accidents. A clearer understanding of this house would be somewhere between Cristina and Urtzi’s explanation, ours and the OEs’. All of them, as we learn in Rashomon, are only possibly incomplete narratives. Nobody -specially architects- is able to tell the whole truth.
Unlike Wikileaks, we must edit a house story in order to explain it. It is too long, too complex, too alive, too contradictory, too communal, to know the facts as they are. Only this house climatic and energetic performance are somehow measurable. The pleasure it builds upon the OEs belongs to the intimate realm, only left for them to enjoy -and eventually, briefly, for us to share.