The landscape around La Libertad, a municipality ten minutes south of El Salvador’s capital city, offers much in the way of natural wonders: a volcano in the distance, swaths of untrammeled forest, and coastline renowned for its world-class surfing. It’s no surprise that this breathtaking backdrop figured prominently into architect José Roberto Paredes’s concept for a new house that’s sculptural and attuned to its environment.
Paredes’s hallmark move is playing to his clients’ senses. He formulated a concept that fosters the emotional and haptic, even olfactory, experiences Marco Escobar and his family hoped to evoke: the feeling of "being on vacation, " in a calm retreat from the chaotic city, in enclosed rooms that give the illusion of being outdoors. He proposed a rustic yet sober style, something that would show off the idyllic terrain and look as if it grew from the site.
"I was hypnotized by the views, as if nothing else existed," says Paredes. "The presence of the mountains is so strong, you feel like you could touch them. The idea of the house is to keep that same feeling. The house has to disappear and make you become part of this sensation."
Escobar, an artist and musician, never thought he’d be able to build his own home, due to the high costs associated with custom designs. He was eager to move out of his old house—a pedestrian structure he describes as "comfortable, but suffocating"—and his mother’s generous gift of a prime plot of land made him take the plunge. Escobar reconnected with Paredes, his high school friend, to aggregate, polish, and refine his many desires into a cohesive home for him, his wife, Maria, and daughter, Elena.
For Paredes, breaking into a new project begins with breaking bread. Before he delves into the concept or draws the first plans, he invites new clients, like the Escobars, to his own home. "It’s important for me to really know who I’m working with," explains Paredes. Over a meal, he asks his clients to walk him through an average day, from dawn to dusk, sussing out their personalities and hearing about the most mundane tasks—like who brushes their teeth first in the morning—to the more holistic—like the rooms they use the most. Paredes says he feels "kind of like a psychologist" as he discusses lifestyle and habits. If his clients are a couple, like the Escobars, Paredes first talks with them together, then separately so that each person can freely express desires and expectations.
In this case, clients and architect saw eye to eye almost instantaneously. "They came over for dinner, and Marco’s wife said, ‘You know, I could live in this house,’" says Paredes. Marco’s sentiments mirrored Maria’s exactly. "That was the day I told him, ‘Start working with my home or sell me your house!’" says Escobar.
The Escobars fell in love with Paredes’s house’s connection to the outdoors, the natural materials layered throughout the design, and the ample amount of daylight infiltrating the expansive interior spaces; they wanted the same for their future house. "From then on, it was very easy to work with them," says Paredes.
Paredes’s concept was to radiate rooms from a courtyard and join them with outdoor terraces—a move he borrowed from the traditional Moorish buildings he visited in Spain as a student. "It’s like a checkerboard of a house, where you have living spaces and patios between them," says Paredes. "You basically have the feeling that you’ve never come into the house—you’re always living in the garden." Paredes used materials to make the house seem like it grew up from the site—rough-hewn, earthy stone (plucked from nearby Lake Illopango) at ground level to soften the cooler concrete-and-glass second story. To foster togetherness, an essential request from Marco, Paredes placed the family room toward the center of the house and made sure it had 270-degree views from its floor-to-ceiling glass walls.
Though defining the house’s character was paramount, Escobar also wanted to pack as many physical green features as possible into the 4,200-square-foot, three-bedroom, six-bathroom structure—a cistern to harvest rainwater, passive cooling, LED bulbs (which the family rarely turns on), a graywater system, reclaimed building materials, low-maintenance landscaping, and rooftop hookups for solar panels. "We have to use natural resources wisely, and I wanted to teach my daughter about this while living comfortably in a house that is green," says Escobar.
Paredes’s crowning achievement is the freestanding concrete roof that wraps around the structure. The tentlike form—with an area of 2,200 square feet—extends past the perimeter of the house to shield it from the elements. Triangular sails fold over the portions that receive the harshest sunlight. A small gap between the house’s roof and walls ensures that rising heat has an avenue to escape and channels in cooling sea breezes. Escobar, who detested the near-constant air conditioner in his previous house, raves about this low-tech feature, especially when winds whip through the rooms. "Feeling the intense energy of tropical storms like you were outside, but not actually being exposed to the rain, is so incredible," he muses. Though El Salvador’s rainy season lasts about six months, there’s only about two hours of downfall during the day and then you have "near-perfect 80-degree weather for the rest," says Paredes, who designed sliding walls that the residents use to close portions of the house off from storms, if need be.
With the thoughtful marriage of nature, tradition, modern design, and green technologies, Paredes crafted a one-of-a-kind design, tailored specifically to the Escobar family. "I think I live in a work of art," says Escobar. "I used to spend more time at work, but now I rush home. I feel refreshed and inspired in my house—it’s creative nourishment for my work as a photographer and a musician."
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