Micaela Benedicto’s Z House speaks the vernacular like a native

January 2, 2019



Patricia Anne Sim and Judith Torres

The most effective strategies for sustainable design are the cheapest and easiest to implement—the very same strategies our forebears used for millennia in response to geography and climate. This realization has prompted some Filipino architects to look back to the native bahay kubo for solutions, and for some to advocate literal iterations of its form—an open plan elevated on stilts topped by a gable roof—because they work so well in the Philippines’ temperamental weather. This raises the question of whether sustainable architecture in the country must thus be limited to the language of the Filipino vernacular.

The house is in Laguna province, southeast of Manila. Designed by architect Micaela Benedicto, the chunky concrete massing and glass walls don’t fit the popular picture of a tropical home. But every design decision, Benedicto says, was built with an eye to ensure comfort, convenience, affordability, pleasure, and a low carbon footprint. Early on, she explained to her clients that passive strategies were the foundation of sustainable tropical design because they would reduce the need for active strategies—the expensive add-ons needed to cancel out the negative effects caused by climate-insensitive design and other utilities in the built environment.

z house
Beyond the carport is a reflecting pool later converted into a koi pond. The diagonal lines of the stairwell contrast nicely with the house’s horizontal massing.

Benedicto calls the project the Z House because of the inverted Z-shape of its floor plan and the Z-shape treatment on the façade and stairwell. This shape was derived from the need to open up every room for natural cross ventilation. The hallways connecting the rooms are straight paths developed into centripetal spaces. The axial linearity of the Z house is complemented by its stairway, which is encased by glass and bound at the top and bottom by two angled planes. The asymmetrical character brought about by this seemingly offhand detail is emphasized by the reflecting pond beneath the stairwell.

z house
The house’s orientation away from the East-West axis helps shield the main living spaces from the afternoon heat. Cross-ventilation is achieved when the sliding doors on the left are opened in harmony with those at the right. The reflecting pool cools the air blowing over the surface of the water.

The program of the house follows neither the formula of a suburban family home nor that of a bachelor pad. Owned by a businessman and a doctor, the house’s programming took into account not only the common spaces required by the couple but also their individual requirements and interests. Besides having a master bedroom with a veranda overlooking the hills, each opted to have his own room as well. The businessman’s bedroom on the second floor features rows of shelves where he stores all of his financial books and papers. This room opens to an expansive reading lounge that looks down to the living room on one side and has a large corner window on the two other sides—one offering a view of Mount Makiling, and the other opening out to a garden-view balcony.

z house
Because it faces northwest, the glass-clad stairwell accumulates heat in the afternoons, a problem that could be alleviated by operable windows.

His partner, on the other hand, has his bedroom on the ground floor, surrounded by sliding glass doors on parallel sides, which open to the front garden and the lanai garden in the middle of the house. This room was designed in a way that when the couple eventually decides to relocate their master bedroom downstairs, they can simply install a door in the hall, which will afford the room with an en suite bathroom, walk-in closet, and access to main outdoor spaces.

The open plan for the living room, dining room, and kitchen reflects the owners’ fondness for hosting social gatherings with friends and family. The entire glass expanse of the living and dining areas opens to the garden patio, allowing bigger crowds to mingle during parties.

z house
A large reading lounge overlooks the living area on the ground floor. Picture windows and sliding glass doors open out to the views of Mt. Makiling. The master bedroom (the door at the far end), on the other hand, has an outdoor sun deck the owners enjoy.

Cubic forms with flat roofs, typical of modernist architecture, are unfit for the Philippines’ tropical climate but the designer applied tropical design techniques inconspicuously such as a parapet to conceal the gable roof for efficient water runoff. The slight elevation of the floor slab from the ground gives the volume an air of lightness, and at the same time protects it from flooding. Benedicto chose textured concrete for the exterior, a low-maintenance alternative to paint and cladding. This reduced the need for timber formwork, thus lessening post-construction debris. Although more heat absorbent than light colors, the dark color is consistent with the clients’ wish for a home that will age well in appearance.

Windows spanning from floor to ceiling offer scenic views. The orientation of the house, which faces away from the East-South-West path of the sun, avoids heat and glare from entering through the windows while allowing generous daylighting. Furthermore, these windows are recessed, shading them from direct sunlight and against gusts of wind and rain.

Stylistic preferences always change. Modern Filipino architecture doesn’t have to be the spitting image of the vernacular to work in our context. The Z house designed by Micaela Benedicto, with its monochrome linearity, speaks the vernacular like a native. B ender

READ MORE: Leandro V. Locsin Partners reconstructs Casa de Nipa

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