written by:
photos by:
December 31, 2012
Originally published in Prefab Comes Home
as
Quito Parts
Seeking a way to blend architecture into the natural environment, a pair of Ecuador-based designers invents a new modular building system.
Modular building system designed by Jose Maria Saez and Daviad Barragan

 “Your first impression is that the house is very closed,” says David Barragán of the building he designed with Jose María Sáez in Quito, Ecuador. Stacked concrete forms, developed by Barragán and Sáez and used as planters along the front facade, offer privacy and integrate the building with the site. 

Photo by 
Courtesy of 
Joao Canziani
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Modern courtyard with glazed walls and stacked concrete forms

Once past the main threshold, the house opens up to the outside, literally and figuratively. Three courtyards built around existing trees flow seamlessly into a series of rooms with glazed walls and sliding glass doors.

Photo by 
Courtesy of 
Joao Canziani
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Modern living room with glass windows and woven plastic chairs

Herman Pasternak, an engineer and consultant who designs water treatment systems, is a childhood friend of Pentimento’s owner, Desirée Marín, and now rents the house. He selected woven plastic chairs from Dream Works, a local company, for his reading room because they “go with the inside-outside concept of the house.”

Photo by 
Courtesy of 
Joao Canziani
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Living room corner with Colorado wood table and Caoba wood chairs

“With this flowerpot form we saw an opportunity to do everything using only a single piece of concrete," says Sáez. "It’sa simple, direct form of architecture."

A cantilevered slab of Colorado wood, secured in the gap beneath a concrete block, serves as a dining table. Pasternak paired this with a vintage chair made of rare Caoba wood. To fill other gaps between blocks, the architects alternated strips of wood with strips of Plexiglas that let in light from the adjacent kitchen.

Photo by 
Courtesy of 
Joao Canziani
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Outdoor concrete block climbing wall

Six-year-old twins Nicolas and Constanza use Pentimento as their “little battleground,” says Pasternak. “They have some options here that they will not find anywhere else.” Among those options are a climbing wall offering easy access to the roof.

Photo by 
Courtesy of 
Joao Canziani
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Modern built-in table and benches

 Elsewhere, the blocks accommodate other uses, like support for a built-in table and benches in the kitchen and a rooftop observatory (next slide) for watching the sun set over the Ilaló volcano.

Photo by 
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Modern conrete modular building system

The open observatory.

Photo by 
Courtesy of 
Joao Canziani
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Living room with polished concrete floors

Pentimento’s true versatility is revealed with each new tenant who inhabits the structure. As Nicolas demonstrates, the polished concrete floors make for an ideal biking surface. When playtime is over, he hangs his bike on the wall by the front door, suspending it from the handlebars to keep the floor tidy.

Photo by 
Courtesy of 
Joao Canziani
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Pentimento House in Ecuador house plan

 “Nobody in Ecuador had constructed a house like this before,” says Barragán. But with the help of models and section drawings, the builders quickly got the hang of it. They even developed some creative new tools to do the specialized work—attaching part of a pen to an airbrush, for example, in order to extract dust from holes drilled in the foundation. They then anchored steel rods in the holes using epoxy glue and lowered the concrete blocks onto the rods, stacking each in one of the four possible configurations.

Photo by 
Originally appeared in Building the Pentimento House
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Modular building system designed by Jose Maria Saez and Daviad Barragan

 “Your first impression is that the house is very closed,” says David Barragán of the building he designed with Jose María Sáez in Quito, Ecuador. Stacked concrete forms, developed by Barragán and Sáez and used as planters along the front facade, offer privacy and integrate the building with the site. 

Image courtesy of Joao Canziani.
Project 
Pentimento House

Prefab construction is often compared to building with Legos. In the case of the Pentimento House, located on the outskirts of Quito, the metaphor is unusually apt. Overlooking the Ilaló volcano and Andes mountain range, Pentimento comprises hundreds of identical stacked concrete modules. As in a Lego model, the blocks simultaneously form “the structural and formal systems of the house,” as architect Jose María Sáez puts it, as well as both the interior and exterior walls. Thanks to the region’s mild climate, there’s no need for insulation, and “you don’t have to build in a perfect way,” says Sáez. “It’s like Adam and Eve, working in paradise. You almost don’t need architecture at all, just shelter from sun and rain. So you can build, and live, in a more basic manner, in a closer relationship with nature.”

That was precisely what their client, Desirée Marín, wanted. A therapist and mediator who already had a house on the property, Marín envisioned an outbuilding that would work as either a studio space or rental property. She was flexible on the program but insisted that the architects preserve every tree on the lush site. The question became, says Sáez, “how to disappear the building into the garden, so that people would feel like they were living in nature more than in architecture.”

Modern living room with glass windows and woven plastic chairs

Herman Pasternak, an engineer and consultant who designs water treatment systems, is a childhood friend of Pentimento’s owner, Desirée Marín, and now rents the house. He selected woven plastic chairs from Dream Works, a local company, for his reading room because they “go with the inside-outside concept of the house.”

Image courtesy of Joao Canziani.
Inspired by the plastic flower boxes he spotted at an Ecuadorean market, Sáez and his collaborator, architect David Barragán, developed a versatile concrete block, approximately 39 inches long and 8 inches high, that, depending on how it is positioned, could play many roles. Facing one way, it forms a solid wall; turn it around, and the L-shaped notch can serve as a shelf or planter. Narrow gaps in between can be filled with strips of wood or Plexiglas, depending on the level of privacy or transparency desired, or left open to support the wooden planks that form built-in tables, benches, or stairs. Three courtyards—placed wherever there was a preexisting tree—and numerous glass walls ensure a strong indoor-outdoor connection. “The design process was really easy,” says Sáez. “With this flowerpot form we saw an opportunity to do everything using only a single piece of concrete. It’s a simple, direct form of architecture.”

Living room corner with Colorado wood table and Caoba wood chairs

“With this flowerpot form we saw an opportunity to do everything using only a single piece of concrete," says Sáez. "It’sa simple, direct form of architecture."

A cantilevered slab of Colorado wood, secured in the gap beneath a concrete block, serves as a dining table. Pasternak paired this with a vintage chair made of rare Caoba wood. To fill other gaps between blocks, the architects alternated strips of wood with strips of Plexiglas that let in light from the adjacent kitchen.

Image courtesy of Joao Canziani.
He enlisted his friend Héctor Sánchez, an architect and builder, to cast the requisite 900 identical pieces in his backyard. Barragán, meanwhile, created detailed section drawings and models to show the construction workers how to build every single wall, step-by-step—a necessity since each one would be different, each with its own custom arrangement of blocks. Though the workers had never built a prefab building, they were fluent with concrete block construction, which works in a similar way. After a few weeks of training, the process went swiftly and smoothly: The workers threaded the blocks, which have a hole in each corner, onto steel bars embedded in the concrete foundation; the joints were then capped with concrete tiles and secured with cement. “It was like a children’s toy, putting together the pieces,” says Sáez.

The resulting 2,519-square-foot house is, as desired, more a flexible pavilion than a conventional house with defined rooms. “There is of course a place to cook, but everything else is open,” says Sáez. “You can choose where to put your office, your clothes, your food, your bicycle. Everyone can live in it in a different way.” When Marín rented the structure to a family of raw vegans, the architects were delighted to see them use the space “like a cave, in a very primitive way”; they wedged their open cookbooks into the gaps between the blocks in the kitchen and drew on the walls with chalk. The latest tenant is a single man, Herman Pasternak, whose two young children visit him on the weekends. This family hangs their bikes by the handlebars and stashes their shoes in the blocks by the front door. With each new resident, the architects have witnessed a creative new interpretation of the house’s open format and unique structural possibilities. Like its verdant surroundings, Pentimento House continues to flourish and grow.
 

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