Barrel-Vaulted Ceilings Cap an Architect’s Off-Grid Retreat in Mexico

Barrel-Vaulted Ceilings Cap an Architect’s Off-Grid Retreat in Mexico

By Lucy Wang
Architect Fernanda Canales’s self-sufficient vacation home blends into a wild and remote landscape in Valle de Bravo, Mexico.

When architect Fernanda Canales decided to create a vacation home for her family on a secluded plateau in Valle de Bravo, Mexico, she knew that the remote location and temperamental weather would be a challenge. But her attraction to the area’s exceptional landscapes and rich history, she says, made the endeavor more than worth it.

The goal was to create a weekend retreat—the home is three hours from Mexico City—that would simultaneously open up to landscape views and serve as a refuge from the region’s radical climate. "The temperature can vary up to 30 degrees Celsius [86 degrees Fahrenheit] in one day and rain is predominant during half of the year," says Canales.

Located on a relatively flat and remote 2.5-acre plot, Casa Terreno occupies two temperate zones (forest and prairie) on a sparsely populated mountain in Valle de Bravo, Mexico.

Not only would the house, dubbed Casa Terreno, need to be resilient enough to withstand weather whiplash, but it also had to create all of its own energy. As a result, Canales followed passive house principles and turned to brick and concrete—materials with high thermal mass—for the building blocks of her design.

"The house portrays a dual condition reflected in the materials: brick on the outside, and concrete and wood on the inside," says architect Fernanda Canales. "The red color and the rough texture of broken brick on the outside accentuate a completely different condition than the smooth and neutral interior."

Drawing inspiration from the flat terrain, Canales crafted Casa Terreno as a single-story home spread out across nearly 6,500 square feet. To embrace landscape views and solar exposure from different directions, the low-lying home is designed around four courtyards.

The first courtyard, defined by its curved shape, serves as the threshold between the exterior and the entrance, and leads to a brick sky-lit chamber with a dramatic vaulted ceiling that creates a sense of arrival. The chamber provides access to the largest courtyard located at the center of the home that connects to the east-facing bedroom wing and the living areas to the south. A third courtyard is also on the south side and provides rooftop access, while the fourth, and smallest, courtyard can be found in the service area.

A look inside the dramatic brick chamber that serves as the entry foyer into the home. The door straight ahead leads to the first courtyard defined by a curved brick wall. The opening to the left leads to the garage, while the opening to the right connects to the main areas of the house.

A view of the covered walkway in the bedroom wing.

At the heart of the home is a large, open-air courtyard that brings the wild landscape into the home with native landscaping. The greenery continues on the home's flat roofs.

"These four courtyards create different atmospheres within a vast landscape and frame specific views of the exterior," explains Canales. "Each space is directly related to at least one courtyard on one side and to the open landscape on the other, allowing for cross-ventilation and sunlight during the whole day."

The third courtyard connects to the open-plan living and dining area, and also provides access to the roof.

To give the interior extra height and architectural variety, Canales topped parts of the home with terra cotta-tiled barrel vaults. "They create a new topography that coexists with the vegetation of the flat roofs," notes Canales, referring to the green-roofed flat volumes above the kitchen and service areas.

The barrel-vaulted roofs that top the bedroom wing and the living areas help collect rainwater into the underground cistern and "create a new topography."

A family room caps the southern end of the bedroom wing and, as with all the bedrooms, features an exposed concrete barrel vault ceiling and opens up to an east-facing outdoor patio.

"The project allows varied sequences and openings, sometimes through lattices that create privacy, sometimes through large windows that can open fully and hide inside the walls in order to transform interior spaces as open terraces, and sometimes through windows that frame particular views," adds Canales, whose strategic design layout ensures that all rooms receive direct sunlight from at least two directions.

A band of windows wraps around the kitchen to bring the outdoors into the kitchen, which is outfitted with Piacere equipment.

The view from the kitchen to the barrel-vaulted dining and living area. The floors, walls, and cabinetry are all made from local oak.

Access to natural lighting and cross ventilation, as well as use of wood-burning fireplaces help minimize energy demands for the home, which does not have any mechanical heating or cooling. Electricity and hot water are powered by solar energy, while the barrel roofs help funnel rainwater into a 26,000-gallon underground cistern. Sewage is also treated on-site.

Locally sourced brick is one of Casa Terreno's main building materials. Broken bricks have also been used with the rough side exposed to create highly textured wall surfaces.

"Since the house is only one level, it almost disappears into the landscape," notes Canales, who says that’s one of her favorite aspects of her weekend home. 

Casa Terreno floor plan

Casa Terreno section

More by Fernanda Canales Arquitectura: Nine Black Concrete Volumes Form This Mexican Retreat

Project Credits:

Architect of Record: Fernanda Canales Arquitectura 

Structural Engineer: Gerson Huerta - Grupo SAI

General Contractor: Felipe Nieto


Get the Dwell Newsletter

Be the first to see our latest home tours, design news, and more.