written by:
August 18, 2009

An architectural idealist, Kristofer Nonn answered an online job posting for an ecological builder in Venezuela. The result of his short tenure in the country is two elegantly simple housing shelters.

Two housing models perch lightly in a field, both featuring gently curved, rainwater-catching butterfly roofloines.
Two housing models perch lightly in a field, both featuring gently curved, rainwater-catching butterfly roofloines.
1 / 13
Most of the dwellings in the town of Santa Elena are made with corrugated metal and dirt shacks, and are often plagued with mold.
Most of the dwellings in the town of Santa Elena are made with corrugated metal and dirt shacks, and are often plagued with mold.
2 / 13
Nonn and Martin designed models that were simple and straightforward, with passive strategies for ventilation and cooling. These drawings can be used to build more shelters in the architects' absence.
Nonn and Martin designed models that were simple and straightforward, with passive strategies for ventilation and cooling. These drawings can be used to build more shelters in the architects' absence.
3 / 13
The foundations of the Eco Cabanas are simple, rectangular elevated platforms.
The foundations of the Eco Cabanas are simple, rectangular elevated platforms.
4 / 13
Corrugated metal dwelling in Venezuela
Zinc corrugated roofing was used to cover the shelters, providing shade and preventing rain from collecting and causing structural deterioration.
5 / 13
Drawings of the Windcatcher demonstrate the criss-crossing roofline and the alignment of the main shelter components.
Drawings of the Windcatcher demonstrate the criss-crossing roofline and the alignment of the main shelter components.
6 / 13
A sideview of the cabana shows off the most artistic facet of the design, where recycled bottles are embedded in the wall.
A sideview of the cabana shows off the most artistic facet of the design, where recycled bottles are embedded in the wall.
7 / 13
Nonn and Martin collected bottles from the roadside for use in the walls. The bottles let colored light filter into the cabana, and passing breezes create sound effects on the mouths of the bottles.
Nonn and Martin collected bottles from the roadside for use in the walls. The bottles let colored light filter into the cabana, and passing breezes create sound effects on the mouths of the bottles.
8 / 13
The interior of the cabana is relatively tight but with the sides open, the space feels breezy. Built-in shelving makes storage easier, leaving room for beds, chairs and tables.
The interior of the cabana is relatively tight but with the sides open, the space feels breezy. Built-in shelving makes storage easier, leaving room for beds, chairs and tables.
9 / 13
Nonn and Martin hope that locals who have been living in the corrugated metal shacks typical of the area will take some inspiration from their designs, and be able to improve their accommodations with local materials.
Nonn and Martin hope that locals who have been living in the corrugated metal shacks typical of the area will take some inspiration from their designs, and be able to improve their accommodations with local materials.
10 / 13
A site plan for the Peace Villages shows the placement of the cabanas and various other amenities and community areas.
A site plan for the Peace Villages shows the placement of the cabanas and various other amenities and community areas.
11 / 13
Before leaving Venezuela, Nonn and Martin drew up a proposed plan for the future of the area, with more buildings designed to be sustainable for both the local ecology and the people who will live in them.
Before leaving Venezuela, Nonn and Martin drew up a proposed plan for the future of the area, with more buildings designed to be sustainable for both the local ecology and the people who will live in them.
12 / 13
The first two cabanas to be built in Santa Elena will always stand as points of reference in projects the locals undertake in the future.
The first two cabanas to be built in Santa Elena will always stand as points of reference in projects the locals undertake in the future.
13 / 13
Two housing models perch lightly in a field, both featuring gently curved, rainwater-catching butterfly roofloines.
Two housing models perch lightly in a field, both featuring gently curved, rainwater-catching butterfly roofloines.

In early 2007, Nonn and his then-girlfriend-now-wife, Helen Lewis Martin, a special ed teacher, were living in Belgium and decided they wanted to work in a developing country using their professional skills. They saw an ad on Idealist.org for a teacher and a builder, and six months later, they were bouncing over rutted roads on a 24-hour bus ride from Caracas to the town of Santa Elena, a town of about 25,000 just 20 minutes from the Brazil border.

Most of the dwellings in the town of Santa Elena are made with corrugated metal and dirt shacks, and are often plagued with mold.
Most of the dwellings in the town of Santa Elena are made with corrugated metal and dirt shacks, and are often plagued with mold.
This area of Venezuela centers around gold and diamond mining and the gasoline trade (both legal and otherwise), and locals generally lived in what Nonn calls “corrugated metal shacks,” small dwellings clad in metal with dirt floors. Sanitation and mold issues were rife and Nonn was asked to build healthier – and more appealing – homes that could be used as models to teach locals about better building practices.

Corrugated metal dwelling in Venezuela
Zinc corrugated roofing was used to cover the shelters, providing shade and preventing rain from collecting and causing structural deterioration.
Using only materials found in that area, Nonn wanted to create structures that would perch lightly on the land, inspired by the vernacular stilt architecture of the indigenous Indians. To start, he settled four 8-inch round precast concrete columns into the ground as the foundation; concrete worked well both because it’s used to make local roads and is therefore plentiful, and also because it’s a deterrent to termites. On top of the columns, he rested a simple wood frame comprised of hand-split shingles of locally sourced wood. The shingles shed water, since they’re split along the grain, and the off-cuts of the pieces were made into doors. Deferring to local knowledge and trying to suspend his Western incredulity, the wood was finished as per custom with transmission fluid.

Glass is hard to come by in that area, so to let in light, Nonn and Martin trawled the sides of roads, picking up discarded beer and liquor bottles that drivers chucked out of their car windows, then cemented all the bottles into a solid glass wall of each house (with the bottle openings facing out). Now, patterns of blue, green, brown, and clear light drift over the interior of the house through the glass wall mosaic, and the wind blowing across bottle mouths on the exterior makes a mellifluous sound. Breezes also help keep the places cool, since both north and south facing walls are doors that fully open; when the doors are closed for privacy or rain, some air still comes in through transoms.  And Decks on both sides of the houses let occupants watch roaming anteaters, wild dogs, and snakes outside, without fearing that the fauna will come inside.

Nonn and Martin collected bottles from the roadside for use in the walls. The bottles let colored light filter into the cabana, and passing breezes create sound effects on the mouths of the bottles.
Nonn and Martin collected bottles from the roadside for use in the walls. The bottles let colored light filter into the cabana, and passing breezes create sound effects on the mouths of the bottles.
Like nearby houses, zinc corrugated roofing was used, but was pitched like butterfly wings so that rainwater can run off of integrated gutters into water collection barrels below. There’s little space inside the 180 square foot places, with room just for two single beds and end tables, and a small table and chairs. Nonn built shelving into the walls for possessions, and there are two lights in each house run through underground cables. Plumbing is a short walk away in communal bathrooms.

The interior of the cabana is relatively tight but with the sides open, the space feels breezy. Built-in shelving makes storage easier, leaving room for beds, chairs and tables.
The interior of the cabana is relatively tight but with the sides open, the space feels breezy. Built-in shelving makes storage easier, leaving room for beds, chairs and tables.

Now a designer at Kee Architecture in Madison, WI, Nonn is proud of the Venezuelan structures; local government officials have already visited the site. He and Martin got engaged while in Santa Elena, and the couple lived in one of his shelters for a few months before Nonn was driven back to the U.S. by a serious case of parasites. Though he’s since regained the 35 pounds he lost, he does express nostalgia for living in his eco-cabanas. “We were so exposed to the environment there. We woke at sunrise, we tracked the sun through space, we appreciated the rain and thunderstorms. And with the use of minimal materials to build the cabanas – it was really an experience about distilling things into their fundamental and necessary components.” He and his wife are already looking for their next overseas adventure.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

Anderssen & Voll sofa for Erik Jørgensen
The month of February means all eyes on are design in the Nordic countries, as the region’s furniture designers and manufacturers launch fresh products en masse during Stockholm Design Week. Take note of these highlights.
February 14, 2016
HardiePlank Lap Siding on modern-rustic North Carolina home.
When the clients (and parents of two) are an an organic farmer and radiologist, you know the results are going to be unique.
February 14, 2016
A concrete courtyard surrounds the family in this midcentury modern renovation.
On a whim, a growing family uproots to Oregon where they find—and remake—the home of their dreams
February 14, 2016
in the mix antwerp belgium warehouse renovation live work space lounge area cushions dining table kitchenette borge mogensen cabinets
An artist and an architect build their home, studios, and an exhibition space inside an Antwerp warehouse.
February 13, 2016
senses sight products kinetic wire sculpture alexander calder mobile
A phenomenon of light and visual perception, colors signal a language of their own.
February 13, 2016
beach weathered seaside retreat sagaponack new york pine walls aluminum furniture
Balancing texture, proportion, and found objects lends unexpected sophistication to a seaside retreat.
February 13, 2016
Concrete floor, white walls, Bend sectional sofa, Metropolitan chair by B&B Italia, and Arper pouf in living room of Rhode Island family vacation home by Bernheimer Architecture.
Create comfortable areas to lounge, sit, eat, and entertain with these designs.
February 12, 2016
São Paulo apartment dining room with local wood floors and HAY chairs
From concrete to wood, these South American homes enjoy nature inside and out.
February 12, 2016
Custom cabinetry and trim in Chicago apartment renovation.
The Second City is second to none when it comes to inventive modern architecture, from Louis Sullivan to the present day.
February 12, 2016
Kitchen of 1956 midcentury modern Palm Springs home.
Celebrate Palm Springs Modernism Week, which runs from February 11–21, with a look at some of our favorite modern desert oases.
February 12, 2016
Gustav bicycle by Coh&Co
Designmuseum Danmark unveils a permanent collection highlighting new developments in Danish design.
February 12, 2016
A Seattle studio's courtyard
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 12, 2016
Chalet in the French alps
An innovative glass addition adds contrast to a timber mountain lodge in France.
February 11, 2016
Aumas' assorted collectables.
Bright colors and vintage furniture are abound in these French homes.
February 11, 2016
Kogan designed a number of the built-in furnishings, including the headboard and cupboard in the master bedroom.The cupboard is deliberately reminiscent of a mid-century stereo speaker. The vintage lounge chairs are by Percival Lafer.
Need to relax? Make your bedroom an oasis from the rest of the house.
February 11, 2016
Modern Florida seaside home with corian island, dornbracht faucet, cees braakman combex chairs and marble knoll table in the kitchen
Read more about Knoll's impressive career here, but in the meantime, explore just a few of her works in these contemporary homes.
February 11, 2016
Modern small box home in Mexico
Letting the warm climate indoors is a common thread through these diverse dwellings.
February 11, 2016
Modern white cabinets under the stairs with skylight above
What could be better than a modest-sized house in a quaintly historic city?
February 11, 2016
dining room lighting
These renovations connect rustic, classic, and modern design in Italy.
February 10, 2016
12362509 211441865858796 1743381178 n1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most viral design and architecture shots of the week.
February 10, 2016
modern outdoor garden room plastic polycarbonate
From colorful living rooms to a backyard retreat, Belgian designers reimagine vernacular forms and materials for the modern world.
February 10, 2016
Tel Aviv kitchen with custom dining table and Smeg fridge
Would you go for an out-of-the-box palette for your major appliances? See how these kitchens tackle the trend.
February 10, 2016
Exhibition view, of Klaus Wittkugel works at P! gallery, New York
On view through February 21 at New York's P! gallery, a new show explores the politics of Cold War-era graphic design with a presentation of works by Klaus Wittkugel—East Germany's most prolific graphic designer. Curator Prem Krishnamurthy walks us through the highlights.
February 10, 2016
Reclaimed cedar and gray-stucco home outside San Francisco.
The new kid on the block in a predominantly Eichler neighborhood, this Menlo Park home breaks the mold and divides into three pavilions connected by breezeways.
February 10, 2016
A third floor addition and whole-house renovation modernized a funky cottage on an unusual, triple-wide lot in San Francisco.
From modern interiors hidden within historic structures to unabashedly modern dwellings, these seven renovations take totally different approaches to San Francisco's historic building stock.
February 10, 2016
Delphi sofa from Erik Jørgensen and gyrofocus fireplace in living room of Villa Le Trident in the French Riviera, renovated by 4a Architekten.
The Aegean's all-white architecture famously helped inspire Le Corbusier; these five dwellings continue in that proud modern tradition (though not all are as minimalist).
February 10, 2016
San Francisco dining room with chandelier and Eames shell chairs
Brooklyn-based RBW's work—from diminutive sconces to large floor lamps—shape these five interiors.
February 09, 2016
Glass-fronted converted garage in Washington
These garages go behind parking cars and storing your drum sets.
February 09, 2016
Modern Texas home office with sliding walls, behr black chalkboard paint, concrete walls, and white oak flooring
From appropriated nooks to glass-encased rooms, each of these modern offices works a unique angle.
February 09, 2016
picnic-style table in renovated San Francisco house
From chandeliers to pendants, these designs make the dining room the most entertaining space in the house.
February 09, 2016