Casa Mérida is a single-family house project located in the historic center of Mérida, a few blocks away from its main central square, in its colonial area.
Mérida is the capital of Yucatán, but also the capital of the Mayan culture, Yucatán representing a large part of the Mexican Mayan territory. In spite of the fact this civilization disappeared a long time before Spanish people arrived, Mayan people and languages always survived and still exist today, which always made this region very unique and different than any other in México; a sort of small country within the country, with its own way of thinking. Another very important point is the fact that Mérida has a very peculiar warm weather all year long, with intense temperatures and a peak that can reach 40º Celcius in May, as well as a very high level of humidity, especially during the rainy season from June until the end of September.
Through centuries, this weather led the architecture of the city to a recognizable traditional typology, a mix of the history of its colonization with its Mexican tropical reality from Yucatán, which resulted in a singular tropicalized colonial style. This typology is basically based on natural crossed ventilation under high ceiling volumes, all connected together by a series of patios letting the airflow through the entire house, providing this way a natural cooling system. For many centuries it has been the way of building, and it shaped a certain image of Mérida until AC ( air conditioning ) appeared, and made any kind of architecture possible around the old historic center since the absolute need of crossed ventilation could now be balanced.
Mérida is a city where life without AC is almost impossible, and where it became very usual to use it 24 hours a day. How can we step back from this intense use of AC Mérida is doing today? And what could be the possibilities architecture is offering us? With this goal in mind and a perspective of the past, came the following question: How is it possible to build the architecture that reflects and considers the Yucatán identity, to make this house belong to its territory? In other words, how could this house be Mayan? Casa Mérida project is exploring the relationship between contemporary and traditional architecture, both connected through the very simple use of vernacular references.
When entering for the first time on site, something memorable was the unique proportion of the plot, which is a broken rectangle of 80 meters long X 8 meters wide, looking like a big lane. Here came the one and only idea of the project: to preserve this 80 meters perspective, as a straight line, crossing the entire plot from the entrance door until the ending point, where the swimming pool is located; Inserting back the traditional airflow cooling concept as a starting point. But it was not only about the air circulation, but this long perspective is also referring to the Mayan antic culture and architecture, and more precisely to its Mayan « Sacbé » literally the white path, stone ways covered with white limestone stuck.
Those straight lines used to connect all together the different elements, temples, plazas, pyramids, and cenotes ( natural sinkhole, full of clear water, used for sacrifice and offers to the gods ) of a Mayan city; sacred ways which could even go from one site to another along a few hundred kilometers. By using the perspective, this very simple classical architecture artifact as a central element and main idea, the project got immediately structured along this line, converted then in a long concrete wall guide, a sort of axis visually organizing the house, as well as all the movements, since it’s also working as the main circulation hallway. In a second stage of the project development, it naturally and literally appeared as a vertebral column, therefore it became the main structural concrete element to carry all the rooftop slabs.
With its airflow column, Casa Mérida went back to an original and elemental principle of the vernacular Yucatec architecture, the natural crossed ventilation, which then brought the project to a second question: How is it possible to reach the best self-sufficiency in the middle of a city, without being so dependent of modern technologies, to try to be more responsible with the energy waste management of the place? This next concern took the project towards the idea of disconnecting the house from the city to get better control over it, basically creating a sort of isolated countryside situation in the middle of an urban context.
In the historic center of Mérida traditionally, houses use to be connected with the street, with the social area located between the sidewalk and the inner patio, behind which the private spaces take place and a backyard at the end. The logic is gradually organized from the public to private, and a functional area in the back. To physically disconnect Casa Mérida from the city, the layout has been modified by switching the social area with the backyard area; sending the living room, kitchen and swimming pool to the end of the land, furthermore the quietest area where the noise of the street doesn’t reach you anymore; in order to bring the functional backyard to the front, to use it as a buffer on the city
In addition to the permutation between front and back, the general layout of the house is also organized according to a regular rythm of positive built area and negative empty area, to always generate empty spaces on both sides of the built spaces, making the gardens participate instead of only being juxtaposed ornamental ones. The outdoor spaces got integrated as part of the inner space, vanishing the classical border between in and out, increasing the visual depth in order to create a more generous amplitude sensation of the volumes.
The purpose of this house is to make disappear our urban daily references from México city, where we live behind our large glass window apartments, to foment an outdoor life, in which the house is breaking the basic concept of the facade ; the house does not enclose people, it stays open and breathes permanently, while providing the essential feeling of protection and privacy. Casa Mérida is inverting the classical scheme of the house with its garden, to create a singular habitable garden with its house.
To conclude, after isolating the house in a sensitive way, came the last obvious point of disconnecting the house, energetically speaking, from the city. After resolving the cooling system as the first major energy consumption issue, inspired by the architecture of the past, encouraging a most reasonable use of AC, the second point to consider was the water. According to the fact Yucatán is a region full of water in the subsoil, to drill a borehole to get clear water from deep down was the most logical solution. However, to complete a full cycle of water regeneration, the rainwater had to go back to this subsoil.
Absorption wells were designed to fulfill this function, placed under sculptural water collectors, that became part of the aesthetic of the house. The wasted water system also got disconnected from the one of the city, using a biodigester to treat the dirty water and generate water for the garden. The full cycle from pumping to regenerating without letting the city in charge of our wasted water was now completed. The last point was the electricity, resolved by using obvious but proper technologies, such as solar boilers to warm the water, as well as solar panels to cover the rest of the needs in electricity.
The project is willing to get rid of the unnecessary, no finishing and no decoration, to only preserve the structural part, as well as only simple materials. Mayan cream stone walls have been built in a traditional way by covering the joints with the stone splinters, typical stone from Yucatán used in antic Mayan pyramids and temples sites. The brut concrete has also been used for the floors and the walls, definitely industrial but still locally produced in Mérida, the main structural material.
Finally, to control the light atmosphere, massive wooden louver windows and doors have been designed. The construction is reaching a 90% made on-site, with local materials and built exclusively by Yucatec masons and carpenters, a sort of modern reinterpretation of what could mean vernacular architecture. Made of massive materials that do not require special treatments or maintenance, accepting aging and time as part of the architecture process, the house has been conceptualized to end up one day covered by a new coat of materiality: a layer of patina.
Photography by Rory Gardiner with courtesy of Ludwig Godefroy Architecture