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Home tour: Rammed-earth house on an Ensenada cliff

March 2, 2012 | 11:36 am

Rammed-earth home in Ensenada, Mexico
There's nothing new about rammed-earth construction, tapial in Spanish. The technique for building walls using earth, chalk, lime and gravel is ancient, found in 2,000-year-old watchtowers in Dunhuang, China, or the 13th century Pakimé pyramids in Mexico, or contemporary Hmong houses in Vietnam.

Rammed-earth houseBut architects Alejandro D'Acosta and Claudia Turrent, known for their experiments in sustainable living, recently completed their own version of an earthen home in a most unlikely place: built into a seaside cliff in Ensenada, Mexico.

PHOTO GALLERY: Rammed-earth house on the Ensenada coast

They call it the Bridge House, not surprising because the other main components are recycled 100-year-old redwood planks from a bridge in Northern California. The couple bought 200 of the timbers, each 27 feet long and 1 ton, from a salvage yard in Rosarito Beach. The planks have been used to fashion the front walkway and back deck, the front door, the roof, the house floor and the kitchen table. Other broken and splintered posts of varying heights are stationed on the deck, “recalling an old pier,” said D'Acosta, who admires the shadows they cast on the land.

Rammed-earth reed wallThe couple found the property six years ago after moving to Ensenada from Oaxaca. They had worked with the indigenous people there, studying building techniques and helping with construction. D’Acosta and Turrent came to admire the vernacular building methods and the use of simple materials at hand.

They lived on their land by the sea in two revamped trailers featured by The Times in spring 2009. They studied the light, the wind and the ocean, then put to work the lessons from Oaxaca to create the 2,300-square-foot rammed-earth home.

Two years of construction started with the foundation, dug into the cliff. They constructed a perimeter of 3-foot-thick earthen retaining walls, as well as an inner structure of earthen tunnels that they described as an hormiguero, or ants' nest. A concrete slab forms the hearth of the house and supports the weight of the wood floor and roof, “like a huge column supporting a bridge,” D'Acosta said. (In the picture at right: D'Acosta stands at a doorway below the kitchen, whose experimental walls are composed of reeds mixed with dirt, lime and liquid from nopal cactuses.)

Rammed earth loft Rammed earth coffee tableThe public areas of the house are on the upper floor: living room, sitting room with loft, kitchen and dining area and outdoor terrace. The private spaces are nestled below, inside the earth: two bedrooms, a powder room and bath, and a santos chamber they call “the soul of the house.” A deck of redwood planks interspersed with an array of drought-tolerant plants visually bridges house and ocean. (The loft room, pictured, has a coffee table, right, that Turrent designed from a plain pine beam.)

Heating and cooling is a passive affair: No AC or central heating here. Thick earthen walls absorb and hold in the warmth of the sun in winter and insulate against hot temperatures in summer. Modern telescoping doors made of energy-efficient glass slide open to cool the house on warm days. Double pane windows and heavy drapes behind the 18-foot-tall front door keep in the heat on chilly winter nights.

Rammed earth
Claudia Turrent slides a pantry door painted with a sailfish. The door, 13 feet wide by 7 feet high, is recycled from an old architectural project.

Though the couple live off a major highway, the low-slung, two-level house cannot be seen. It’s almost invisible from the ocean as well, "unless, you know exactly where it is," Turrent said. "Downstairs, it is silent except for the waves."

The architects, whose firm is El Taller Arquitectura de Contextual, often sit on the deck, where the land and the sea meet.

"It's alive," D'Acosta said. "The sea is moving all the time — the sun, the wind, all the natural elements are moving the point of view. When you stop to think of the project, we are floating on the earth."
Using vernacular building methods and local resources, repurposing discarded materials and incorporating modern technology is the goal, they said.

"These earthen works have been constructed for 2,000 years or more," D’Acosta said. "We are part of that evolution. We are part of them."


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-- Barbara Thornburg

Photos: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times