Architectural Plans Take Shape

Voila. The sudden appearance of architectural drawings might suggest this project is leaping forward.

Well, hardly. Or at least it doesn’t seem that way to us.

It has taken over six months, and a change of architects, to get where we are. We’re delighted with the results, though. Friends keep telling us this is the normal pace of house design and construction. We hope not. We haven’t broken ground (that’s next week) and already we can’t wait to move in.

About the pictures above, from top to bottom: The first is of the front entrance; the second is the back terrace; the third is a side view; the last is a floor plan. Already there have been some changes and I’m sure there will be many more, but this is close to what the house will look like.

For those interested in technical details, the architect made these renderings using a Google program called SketchUp. It’s easily downloadable and free for the first eight hours of use. The architect then gave us the file with the drawings and quickie instructions on how to use the program. I imagine that actually drawing a house from scratch must involve several hours of work, probably days, even for an experienced user.

But just viewing a finished file is relatively easy and fascinating. You can flip the house in all angles and directions, “walk” in through one of the doors and roam around inside–look at ceilings, floors, walls, up, down, sideways–or remove the top and get an aerial view of the layout. You can have furniture or not and check out various types of floor or roof coverings. It’s a bit hallucinatory, but completely drug-free.

Most amazing was the sun exposure function, which lets you set a time and day of the year. You can then rotate the house and check where sun and shadows will fall on that particular date and time. On my first try, the house turned up all dark, until I realized I had set the time for midnight!

But back to the machinations that got us here.

In Taboada we made a couple more mistakes. We assumed that the purchase was a done deal and so we hired an architect to start working on the plans before all the legal back-and-forths had been sorted out. That bit of impatience cost us a few thousand dollars: When the purchase eventually fell through we ended up with preliminary plans based on that particular site and terrain, but that otherwise were pretty useless, except as concepts.

So this time we waited until we had the deed or escritura to the Jalpa land in hand before going back to the architect we had used in Taboada.

That was another mistake. The architect we had liked so much before this time couldn’t come up with a design we could get excited about. We even had a rough maquette, or scaled styrofoam model, made of the house because, quite frankly, we couldn’t make sense of the one-dimensional paper sketches.

The architect grew impatient with our questions and lack of enthusiasm and we in turn became uncomfortable with the estimated costs and terms for financing the project. It was not an auspicious beginning for a working relationship that could last as long as year and cost a great deal of money.

So we went looking for a new architect and started over. So far, so excellent.

It has taken some practice to get used to the priorities. I tend to project several months ahead and start worrying about kitchen cabinets or the exact size of the windows. This while Stew, in turn, mentally calculates the correct number of circuit breakers and the location of ground fault interrupters.

Forget about it for now. At this stage you primarily worry about sizes (“volumes”), location of rooms and the general flow of the house. A lot of the decisions, such as wiring, are made and revised as the house goes up.

Next week we are supposed to go to the site and actually decide the exact orientation of the house. One tricky problem has been finding a compromise between capturing the best views–which are all north and northeast–while at the same time getting enough southern sun to help keep the house warm during the winter.

You enter the house through a protected courtyard (see first picture and floor plan) that I hope to turn into a bright tropical garden to provide a respite from the monochromatic desert surroundings during much of the year. The plans above show a large, shallow pond (“a water feature”) taking up much of the courtyard. The architect was very fond of this item but we didn’t particularly like it, so it’s gone though we still want to have water gurgling somewhere.

I also worried about enough light getting into the living/dining room (under the Spanish roof tiles). There are large, south-facing windows in the master bedroom and the study. But the southern exposure into the main room, through a pair of glass doors, is partially blocked by an overhang of bare wood beams that the architect calls a “loggia”. We might want to have climbing plants wrap themselves around the wood beams (for example, “Angels Trumpet” or Brugmansia do very well in enclosed patios here).

If that happens there would be very little southern light coming in through the doors. So the solution was to put a series of windows, a clerestory, to let the light in from above the beams of the loggia. These high windows will help with ventilation during the summer too. They are not shown on the drawings above.

The slope of the land has turned out to be a plus. The large terrace on the north side of the house will have underneath a large, wide and shallow cistern (approximately 125,000 liters) to collect rainwater off the roof. This seems like a good alternative to digging a deeper cistern with a smaller footprint, a task that could be expensive and difficult because of the rocky ground.

Rick and Andrea, friends who have a beautiful off-grid house in Taboada that includes its own weather station with a rain gauge, tell us that 125,000 liters of water is enough for a two-person household for a year. The Internet address of their ranch and weather station is
A curious thing has happened during this design. Originally we had talked about a thoroughly Mexican-modern house, in the style of Barragán or Legorreta, though obviously on a vastly smaller and more economical scale.

That modernity seems to have mellowed considerably. During a visit to a new house designed by the architect we’ve hired we noticed that rounded spaces lend considerable warmth to the house, as if it were embracing you.

Now we have a house with many rounded, rather than angular, corners and spaces. The rounded space off the master bedroom is a shower stall; we think it will be cool.

A traditional Spanish-tile roof, over the living/dining room, came into the design and we like that too. In fact, the combination of the angled, tiled roof and the flat roof elsewhere in the house (the latter needed to place solar panels and other paraphernalia like satellite dishes) seems to us like a nice hybrid of modern and traditional Mexican design.

We also grew concerned about a starkly modern house might stick out of the otherwise pastoral landscape of rolling hills and lazy sheep. So we chose horizontal lines and probably will use more conventional, earthy tones for the outside paint.

Another minor struggle has been to keep the house small, which to us means approximately 1,800 to 2,000 sq. ft. of living space, not counting the garage. As you work on preliminary designs, the house seems to grow on its own, like a fungus that thrives on phrases like “as long as we are building,” “we can always use the extra space” or “we need lots of storage.”

Unchecked, such thoughts (particularly the one about storage) will eventually take you to a 4,000 sq. ft. palazzo with a studio, breakfast nook, galleria, guest bedroom, his-and-hers walk-in closets and other costly what-have-you’s.

A vast, recently completed country house we visited even includes a mini barn for a cow.

And don’t forget storage: One can never have enough stuff or storage.

Up next are a string of decisions regarding energy conservation, sustainable design and other buzz phrases that are part of building a house off the grid.

These are easy cocktail party topics until you have to pull out a pocket calculator–and a checkbook–to try to figure out how much they will add to the cost of the house, which features are absolutely necessary, how long it will take to recoup the additional costs, and other nuts and bolts of green design.

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