For most of history, if you wanted to live in a house, you probably designed and built it yourself. These days, though, design has become so thoroughly uncoupled from construction that most architects never have the experience of physically building something they intend to live in themselves until they’re well into their careers–if ever.
Spanish architect David Tapias thinks that in this transition, something has been lost. Architects, he says, shouldn’t design in a bubble; they should have an intimate understanding of the spaces they design that can only be achieved by constructing them from the ground up themselves.
Tapias’s company, Aixopluc, teaches architecture students how to design and construct small, environmentally sustainable shelters. His latest pupils were a group of students at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture–where, over the course of 12 weeks, Aixopluc taught these students to design and build their own shelters in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.
The twist? They had to use only local materials and stick to a mere $2,000 budget. The combination of a harsh climate and limited construction materials taxed the ingenuity of the students, as they solved problems like how best to keep a desert shelter cool while using corrugated metal for the roof. (You can read more about the finished designs here.)
This project wasn’t a one-off, though. Tapias and Aixopluc do this all the time, going on location with a couple of students, and showing them how to design and build a dwelling from scratch in just a couple days. These small-scale interventions have big ideas behind them.
According to Tapias, there are a few basic principles of good shelter designs. First, good shelters are designed to give pleasure and make people feel at home. Second, they’re both sturdy and easy to construct; the best shelters, Tapias says, even forego nails and screws to hold themselves together, but instead fit together geometrically. This also means that good shelters are easy to break down, which brings us to the third criteria: these structures must have a minimal imprint upon a place or ecosystem and use local materials wherever possible. Good shelters can also ideally be built in just a day, by a team of two people working together. “Building and assembling is just a better experience when it can be shared,” Tapias says.
Tapias points to a shelter his company helped construct in a forgotten vineyard in Priorat. This rocky, remote Catalan wine region is known for its mountainous terrain and dry, dominant reds. Here, Aixopluc chose the bank of a large, steep hill as its site, then began the design process by researching the surrounding area. “We gather as much data as we can about the site, the weather, the climate, the geology, and so on, even if that data seems meaningless at the time,” Tapias explains. “Then we make a plan. How do we make the environment inhabitable for living, for seeing, and for building?”
For the Priorat shelter, the major challenge was finding building materials and transport. The vineyard was remote, and difficult to access by car, so all of the wood needed to be transported up the mountain by hand. Even the wood itself was hard to come by, though: the closest lumber that suited Aixopluc’s purpose came from a company in the Pyrenees over 60 miles away–which managed its own forest and did everything from plant the trees to cut the beam, a philosophy that dovetailed with Aixopluc’s own. “We always try to find the closest light material resource in an area, but sometimes it’s better if the source is further away, if the company producing it is better managed ecologically,” he says.
In the end, Aixopluc’s Priorat shelter took three days to construct, most of which was spent just dragging materials up the hill. The finished shelter looks almost like a miniature bungalow, with a steepled roof that would look right at home in the Alps and a broad front porch perfect for surveying the beautiful vistas of the Catalan country side.
What Tapias thinks architects get from this exercise is a better understanding of the symbiosis that should come from a well-designed building: a balance between its setting, its materials, and the purpose to which it will be put. And it also gives architects an opportunity to actually live in a building they designed at the beginning of their careers–when that insight counts the most.
“It’s weird that architects usually don’t build or even live in their own buildings anymore,” Tapias says. That’s something, in Aixopluc’s purposefully small way, that his company is trying to change.
All Photos: courtesy Aixopluc