We fell in love in Labastide Villefranche, at the outskirts of the french Basque country. An old farm, a collapsing vernacular agricultural building.
From outside, the house looked like any farm house in the Basque Country, a massive yet unpretentious architecture.
When we first opened its main door, we were expecting to come across the usual dark and damp central space called ”Ezkatz”. The roof had collapsed and pulled the upper floor with it, turning the house into a forest which main room had become a clearing. ”Let’s not change a thing” we thought.
And so we kept the roof’s opening intact and turned the doors into sliding windows mounted on the facades so they disappear when opened.
Unlike many architects who intend to recreate sunsets for each project they do, we believe that integrating it to our building is enough (and much cheaper).
Doing so, the house changes constantly, through the hours, days and seasons.
A swallow inside the house. And a pretty lousy picture too. Birds are not easy to shoot. May be that’s one of the reasons why we talk much more about how windows look like instead of making place for the birds so they can be part of the house, the same goes for flowers.
In winter, the sun directly heats the 80 cm thick stone walls and an air / water heat pump heats up the floor. The walls then turn the house into a real stove. The inertia of the uninsulated walls allows the house to fully breathe, silently since there’s no CMV system (some of us have forgotten that air flows naturally without any engine nor electricity).
And in summer? Well last June, as France recorded a 40° heatwave, the house visitors were asking whether there was any AC to get such a cool room temperature. That’s the magic of these thick stone walls that have not been insulated. Keeping the inertia intact and freshness all summer long.
When we started the project, one of the main questions we needed to address was: "How do we renovate a 700 m2 farm for 500€/m2?"
One rule: DO AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE AND CREATE 50% OF OUTDOOR SPACES. Doing so, we conceived a bioclimatic design that creates different microclimates all over the house.
A sheltered, wind free, double height buffer space between interior and exterior.
The sun is low in winter and warms up the space whereas as it goes up during summer, the roof protects us and the vegetation provides its natural freshness. The roof opening made it possible for the upstair bedroom to have a view over the Pyrénées mountains and for the plants to get watered naturally.
At the back of the house, the former barn was left as a technical and working space. No insulation nor heating. Above the barn, the former hayloft was made of cinderblocks. Hence very easy and cheap to take down.
Another thing we had to design was accessibility as one of the family members seats in a wheelchair. There again, instead of installing a lift, we went for the economical yet ever operative solution of wooden ramps.
With walls on three sides, the bathroom is cut off from the wind and becomes a “sun catcher” with its own microclimate. Here, one can take showers all year round but the best moment is peeing at night under a starry sky.
Instead of creating partitions and making expensive openings in these thick walls, we left the spaces as they were. By letting the house invent itself, we discover a daily life that we could not have invented ourselves. A 25 m2 bathroom is not a bathroom any longer, it becomes a library, a living room, a playroom, or whatever else you want it to be.
We always create spaces that know how to do lots of things. A staircase is also a place to sit, a bleacher to watch the chef cook, but it also becomes a bookshelf, a small desk, a bar, a storage space, kitchen appliances, etc.
Only when the landscape and the inhabitants are part of the house, does it becomes alive.
Then, is it not invented once but instead, gives way to its inhabitants (humans, insects, trees, birds, flowers and even earthworms) to invent it every day.
A living house is a happy house, capable of sharing its happiness. That’s how architecture makes life more beautiful than architecture. Encore.