Building with Lava Rock | Dust Architects / Travel & Place

23rd March 2018

“Our world’s history is written in the dirt. It is through nature that we find the allure of its mystique, its grandeur, and the timeless qualities where we find silence and reverence.” DUST Architects, Cade Hayes & Jesus Robles

Casa Caldera – the remote house where we took the photographs for the House&Home SS18 shoot – sits on the hillside of a vast, crater-like valley, rimmed by mountains. Located on the southwestern bajada of Arizona’s Canelo Hills, it is three miles from the Mexican border and two hours from Tucson. Hidden amongst emory oaks and manzanitas, it looks out onto a wide, wildlife-filled plane – owls, eagles, coyotes, rattle snakes, grasses with nodding seed heads that look like rabbit tails and shine in the sun. It can be accessed only by a dirt track and as such required the architects, Cade Hayes and Jesus Robles, to live on site, working during the day, lighting fires for warmth at night. It is perhaps because of this hands-on inception that the off-grid, sustainable house feels so deeply rooted to the land on which it sits.

In all of their projects, Hayes and Robles first consider the landscape and try to work with locally sourced materials, using traditional processes when they can. “We’re always trying to respond to the immediate context, leaning on a desire to blend in with the landscape as much as possible and using the materials which have a history of use,” says Robles. For Casa Caldera they worked with poured lavacrete. Deemed a new vernacular material by many in the region’s architectural community, it is made up of red scoria, a pulverised lava rock, cement and water. Fluid and self-supporting, the lavacrete can be rammed into a framework before it sets hard, in a similar way to the ancient rammed earth method – which comprised sand, gravel or clay stabilised with lime or animal blood. The climate of the desert makes this technique ideal, since the thick walls – in Casa Caldera’s case, 18 inches thick – both retain the heat and cool the space.

The landscape not only determined the choice of material but the design, too. “For us,” comments Robles, “the landscape is as much a living room as the thing we build. We want to create a living experience that’s not just a house.” At Casa Caldera it is the zaguán – a central passageway, typical of local architecture – which connects the interior space to the hills beyond, giving a sense of ease and spaciousness, of calm and flow.

The zaguán also passively controls the temperature – the bifold steel doors at either end of the zaguán can be opened or closed to harness the breeze. “There’s something to be said”, Hayes explains, “for the way things were built before air conditioning and modern comforts. People thought about how to build more closely to their environment because they had to. There’s a lot of historic technology we disregard now because we have easy ways out.” As well as cooling the house, the zaguán also allows the sun to penetrate more deeply in the winter months. “Tied to cultures in the Southwest, there’s a reverence for the sun,” explains Robles. “Ancient civilisations would wake up thinking about lighting a fire to warm the body; today we wake up wanting to find the sun, to feel its heat and enjoy it with a cup of coffee. So the positioning of spaces at Casa Caldera – where the windows are, and where the kitchen is, and where the sun might be on that horizon all play into these modern day ceremonies.”

It is in this careful planning that delight can be found – the Japanese-way in which the building plays with deep shadow and shafts of strong light, the way the windows reflect and frame the colours of the land. Everything is thought through and considered, from the patina of the lavacrete to the handles of the steel doors, wrapped in hand-stitched leather sleeves. “The choice of materials can make you feel a certain way about a space, and the way you are in this space does the same,” says Hayes. “At Casa Caldera we wanted to encourage a simpler, calmer way of living, one that allows you to slow down. The fact that it is off grid, only using solar energy, means that you can’t watch television or use a laptop, so you have to just ‘be’.”

Each of Dust’s projects is equal parts breath-taking and functional – factors inherent in their overarching philosophy: “Through architecture and art it is possible to create spaces that can add a sense of graciousness to everyday life; to create moments of wonder or joy that reveal a silence amidst all the noise.”

Words by Andie Cusick

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