October 21, 2020

Studiohuerta’s Residence in Cabo San Lucas Works in Concert with the Elements

Open skylights move air through the central courtyard of the passively cooled house. Photography by Roland Halbe.

Growing up in Tijuana, Mexico, Gabriel Huerta lived in the kind of modest concrete house that fills cities across the Baja California peninsula. “Half of the lot was a courtyard,” the Studiohuerta principal says. “The house was made cool through thermal mass and this exterior space. I don’t remember living with air conditioning.” As Baja urbanized in the mid 20th century, architects developed a pragmatic building style that used limited resources to shelter residents from the arid climate. For a vacation home in Cabo San Lucas, Huerta employed the same strategies and gave them a modern sculptural form. Huerta earned a master’s degree in environmental design from the Polytechnic University of Madrid, studying how preindustrial Spanish villages integrated into their landscapes. He came home curious about how to apply those ideas to Baja and founded Studiohuerta, based in Tijuana and New York, in 2011. Five years later, Huerta completed the Center for Postgraduate Studies at Cetys University in Mexicali, an energy-efficient structure insulated from the heat of the Sonoran Desert. It caught the eye of a group of developers in Cabo, who hired Huerta to build something similarly rooted in its environment.

A concrete-floored hallway connecting the kitchen and living-dining areas opens onto the courtyard. Photography by Roland Halbe.

The brief called for a typical weekend house, with a catch: It would have a shared ownership structure, like a co-op, with several families rotating in throughout the year. So, spaces had to be flexible and comfortable for large or small groups. Huerta also had to consider neighborhood guidelines, which stipulated a pitched, tiled roof; limited apertures; and a beige or gray exterior. “The idea that underpins the design is
that we created a project within a project,” Huerta says. Outside, the 8,000-square-foot house, Casa Escondida, has a terra-cotta roof and Cantera cladding that comply with regulations; inside is a diaphanous concrete shell that sleeps 15 people.

A Tolomeo suspension light illuminates the quartz-composite kitchen counter. Photography by Roland Halbe.

“What interested us was the chance to design in this climate,” Huerta says. “Los Cabos is a desert that happens to be surrounded by coast. It makes for an unlikely and beautiful landscape, but it’s challenging to build something there that’s truly acclimated to its surroundings.” The half-acre site wasn’t particularly hospitable. Its uneven slope had limited views of the Pacific Ocean and was covered in sand and granite boulders; high temperatures hover around 90 degrees. Inspired by the regional architecture of his childhood, Huerta honed in on the layout and material best suited to the conditions. He oriented the house around the ocean breeze and chose concrete for its thermal properties. Double-layer exterior walls isolate hot air and hide storm curtains, while a cantilever shields the southwestern facade.

Huerta carved granite rocks found on the property into a courtyard sofa. Photography by Roland Halbe.

The plan centers on an internal courtyard angled in the direction of the southwest wind. “The core of the house is this void, which is open on two sides, so the breeze comes in and goes back out,” Huerta explains. “It’s a way to cross-ventilate the
entire house. All the bedrooms and living spaces circle this courtyard.” It’s covered
except for five tapered, open skylights that filter in the sun. Some skylights tilt north and some south, creating differences in
temperature that move the air through the house. Huerta used the play of light and shadow to dramatic and practical effect. A south-facing skylight, for instance, brightens the entrance; one facing north keeps
a sitting area cool at midday. Beams slant against the board-formed concrete walls like abstract compositions.

The stair has a brushed-aluminum handrail and Venato marble treads. Photography by Roland Halbe.

The courtyard serves a programmatic
purpose too, enhancing the flexibility of the house. When visitors step in from the street, they can go straight to the front door or left to follow a passage to the terrace and pool. “You can move through the exterior of the house without going inside,” Huerta notes. “The courtyard could be a long space for events, or it could be used by an individual. Even though the spaces are connected, they can feel private and secluded.” The living quarters are also both expansive and cozy. On the ground floor, the kitchen-living-dining area has continuous views of the ocean. Stairs lead to an office nook on the mezzanine and four upstairs bedrooms. Another living room by the terrace converts into a fifth bedroom apartment separate from the rest of the house.

Custom white-alder bed frames furnish the four upstairs bedrooms. Photography by Roland Halbe.

Many of the furnishings grew out of the construction process. Huerta doubled as a contractor, as is common practice for architects in Baja, and was on site every day. As workers cleared the land of rocks, Huerta took some to carve into granite sofas and daybeds. Instead of dumping concrete left over from the pour, he set it into molds to make bases for coffee and side tables. “There was so much concrete we could
just play with it,” he says.

All that concrete did the trick. When Huerta visited on a 100-degree day last
July, it was a cool 75 in the courtyard—no A/C required.

A Hans Hopfer Mah Jong sectional circles a custom powder-coated-steel table in a ground-floor family room that converts into a fifth bedroom. Photography by Roland Halbe.
Window walls in the living room, as elsewhere, are low-e glass. Photography by Roland Halbe.
Concrete walls retain traces of the sandblasted pine boards used for the formwork. Photography by Roland Halbe.
Indoor-outdoor acrylic cushions top daybeds in the courtyard. Photography by Roland Halbe.
Barrel cacti, creeping succulents, and palo verde and black olive trees fill the half-acre grounds. Photography by Roland Halbe.
In one of two main suites, a Wetstyle soaking tub overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Photography by Roland Halbe.
A pergola and outdoor curtains shelter poolside daybeds. Photography by Roland Halbe.
The pool stair is tiled in mosaics. Photography by Roland Halbe.
Mexican Cantera stone clads a concrete shell that insulates the house from the desert heat. Photography by Roland Halbe.

Project Team: 
Arshia Gharib, John McMahon, Angelos Palaskas: Studiohuerta.

Product Sources: Caesarstone: Countertops (Kitchen). Bo Concept: Bar Stools. Artemide: Suspension Light. Kohler: Sink. Dornbracht: Faucet. Bosch: Range. Wolf: Oven. Eurocave: Wine Cellar. Sunbrella: Cushion Fabric (Courtyard). Natural Stone Cabos: Staircase Marble (Stairwell). Roche Bobois: Sofa (Lounge). Indian Cottage Industry: Rug. Roku Black: Sectional (Living Room). Bella-Dura; Covington; P/K Lifestyles: Cushion Fabrics. Legrand: Lightswitches. Gubi: Table Lamp. Wetstyle: Tub (Bathroom). Design Within Reach: Armchairs. T Woven: Rug. Paldi: Curtain Fabric. Throughout: Grupo Basica: Custom Sliding Doors, Windows, and Skylights. WAC Lighting: Spot Fixtures, Strip Lighting. CaboBarba Carpentry: Custom Cabinets. Tijuana Powder Coating: Custom Metalwork.

Recent Projects