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Architects recycle truck trailer into lofty tower

March 2, 2012 |  3:53 pm

Container house tower 2
Mexican architects Alejandro D'Acosta and Claudia Turrent have turned a priest's 19th century adobe house into a 21st century residence, rejiggered a hotel of ill repute into their architecture office and built a rammed-earth dwelling into a seaside cliff in Ensenada. But it's their off-grid country home in the Valle de Guadalupe wine region that may be their most unusual project to date: The house is partially built from an abandoned refrigerator truck trailer, but unlike the converted shipping container projects that have been so fashionable in architecture, this one is flipped up on its end — a tower with rooms stacked vertically.

PHOTO GALLERY: Truck trailer remade as loft tower

Dubbed El Granito for the elephantine granite boulders that surround the property, the 50-acre parcel was the discovery of D'Acosta's brother, winemaker Hugo D'Acosta, and a friend while they were looking for land to plant more vines. In a rocky plain where hawks soar on thermals by day and coyotes call to the moon by night, they came upon the truck trailer lying on its side next to a cinder block shack. Barrels smelling of chemicals filled the trailer.

Container house living
“It was an abandoned meth lab — more el gramito than El Granito,” said a chuckling D'Acosta, referring to the term for a gram of drugs. “We liked the idea of taking a place that was used for making something bad and turning it into a creative place to cook up some good ideas.”

A Home section cover story three years ago detailed D'Acosta and Turrent's temporary seaside home on the Baja California coast, where whale vertebrae had been deployed as a sculptural table centerpiece and human X-ray films served as wallpaper. Likewise, visit the couple today, and nearly everything that has gone into their trailer country house has been found on the land or recycled in some way, perhaps discovered in nearby salvage yards or plucked from secondhand stores, the couple said. With the refrigerator trailer as their pièce de résistance, they fashioned the rest of the structure with cinder block, plastic soda bottles, earth, stone, wood and reeds.

“We tried the most we could to use these materials in an expressive way,” D'Acosta said. “How to put them together so it functioned as a home that has a quality of space, temperature — and yet not invade the landscape. That was our experiment.”

The first thing that needed to go: the gagging smell. They removed the trailer's roof, but it took eight months for the chemical odor to dissipate. Then, to make the one-room cinder block shack more habitable, they added a stone entrance on the west, picture windows and transoms on the east.

Repositioning the trailer proved most challenging. Two men with ropes, a pulley and a backhoe uprighted the container onto a new concrete foundation, then welded it to the cinder block structure. The yellow tower now houses a bathroom on the main floor with two stacked bedrooms above, reached by ladders. A tiny kitchen lies in the transition space between the container and the cinder block structure, now a living room.

Container house mud reedsA plaster made of red soil, lime and carrizo, a reed that grows along a nearby river, insulates the living room. The prickly, organic exterior resembles an exotic bird's nest.

“Each time we come, we have seen an eagle flying around,” Turrent said. “We thought maybe if we built a nest she would come and live with us.”

The eagle does sometimes scan for rabbits by perching on the new roof, composed of beams from the old roof, plus plastic soda bottles and wood — “the cheapest kind,” said D'Acosta, who thinks of it as a “wood-and-plastic sandwich.” A layer of concrete and a coating of polyurethane finish the rooftop, keeping the interior temperature about 77 on summer days that reach 100 degrees.

For water, the couple use a gas-powered pump that draws water from a cistern to a large plastic tank atop the tower. From there, gravity delivers water to sinks, toilet and shower. Still a work in progress: D'Acosta's adaptation of a bicycle that will operate the cistern pump by pedal power. “So when we take a shower or wash the dishes, we can get some exercise too,” Turrent said. “We all need more exercise, Alejandro sobre todo [especially].”

The 15-by-21-foot living room is minimally furnished with a sectional sofa from Los Globos, an area of secondhand shops in Ensenada. The sleek Corian dining and coffee tables are designed by Turrent and taken from the sales office of a former project. Friends' paintings decorate the walls. An old hutch that the couple bought in Puebla 20 years ago holds vintage Mexican dishware.

“The goal was to use things at hand — and especially not spend money,” Turrent said, echoing the spirit that also drives the couple's main home, a recently finished rammed-earth house built on an Ensenada cliff.

Economy also comes in the form of additional passive cooling, crucial for a house with no air conditioning (and no electricity). On summer days, the west-facing front door is left open to capture ocean breezes, and windows in the living room and the tower bedrooms pull the air through the house.

“The tower acts like a chimney taking the hot air out,” Turrent said.

Container house bedroom
In winter, a 1940s wood-burning stove keeps the small space toasty; solar lamps and candles are the only source of light. The project certainly isn't anything that would pass inspection in California, but that's not the point. For these accomplished architects, the idea is to inspire conversation, not just about how we build, but how we live.

“We all need to redefine the idea of comfort,” D'Acosta said. “If we modify our understanding of comfort, we will use less energy. Our bodies are losing knowledge of how you feel cold or hot or hungry. We don't let ourselves feel these things anymore. The whole idea of the house is to work with the Pachamama, Mother Nature — not against her.”

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Can you recycle fast-food cups? Car seats? Chopsticks?

-- Barbara Thornburg

Photos: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

 

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