Mies van der Rohe once said, "We must remember that everything depends on how we use a material." In this Palo Alto, CA, residence constructed from rammed earth, steel, and glass, and finished in white oak, ipe, and American walnut, architect Cass Calder Smith of CCS Architecture holds true to Mies' dictum. Thanks to the liberal use of natural materials, the house attains a comfortable sensibility noticed by nearly everyone who passes through its earthen walls. "Guests are, without exception, completely taken by how the house is very modern, but also very warm," say the owners, who wish to remain anonymous.
The residence consists of two main masses: a rammed earth base made from soil excavated from the site and a long ipe-clad wooden box that cantilevers over the ground floor. Bifurcating the forms is a slim glass band that wraps around the building, making it seem like the upper story hovers independently of its base. In addition to an almost reverential treatment of materials, the residence is imbued with a strong green ethic evidenced by the passive cooling features, a drought-tolerant "meadow" landscape, PV array, and radiant floor heating. Smith says this was the most complicated house he'd designed, but maintains that nothing was dogmatic. "It's not about being 'green' or 'cool' or making a monument; it's about the fundamentals of architecture," he says.