Ascendent Mexican Architect Chooses Rammed Earth

Young Mexican architect Tatiana Bilbao “has emerged as one of the country’s major creative voices,” according to a glowing write-up in last week’s New York Times T Magazine. Her work is earthy, earth-centric, and concerned with leaving a light footprint on the earth.

That said – and despite much-reposted claims of her designs being “100% sustainable in terms of water and waste management and 40% sustainable in terms of energy use” – it’s hard to find specific, remarkable examples of low-carbon technology in it. In some ways she seems almost technophobic, telling Designboom that “our uncharted geometric research was done without any sophisticated tools for the construction, since I don’t know anything but paper, scissors and rocks. It might sound stupid, but in Mexico we don’t have the latest technology in our hands.… I was always working with simple materials.”

ajijic interior

A rammed earth wall at Ajijic. Via Domus.

Hand-molded clay models apparently played an early role in her 2009 design of a vacation home in Ajijic, a village on the shore of Lake Chapala.


Modeling the overall shape of the Ajijic house in clay. Via Tatiana Bilbao.

She kept right on playing with mud throughout this project, as it uses rammed-earth walls. This ancient material is enjoying a resurgence among sustainability-oriented architects. It is very low in embodied carbon and also does a great job of insulating and mediating indoor humidity, especially in hot climates. The earth for the walls in Ajijic was excavated on site and mixed with 8 to 12 percent cement as a stabilizer. Though the raw material costs next to nothing, rammed earth is relatively labor-intensive.

Ajijic under contruction

Rammed earth construction is incremental: soil is packed into formwork that has to be very strong, but only has to contain a small part of the structure at any one time. Via Tatiana Bilbao.

In the Ajijic house, some earth walls are exterior walls in the usual sense, some are interior, and some are entirely outdoors. Bilbao was purposefully confusing indoors and outdoors, and public with private spaces.

Bilbao considers it part of her job to learn about local and traditional labor skills in Mexico. Her first high-profile project really rubbed her nose in those issues. This was a crazy house that the artist Gabriel Orozco designed, with her assistance, for a rocky coastal headland near Puerto Escondido. Basing his plan on a Hindu astronomical observatory, he converted the observatory part into a bowl-shaped swimming pool. Orozco insisted on using local labor, but they found that “(i)t was really hard work translating the plans and a way of building into the ‘language’ of the locals.… (w)e really had to accompany the construction step by step and explain every detail to get the result we wanted, we had to be involved everyday.”

orozco constr A

orozco constr B

Some stages in the construction of the Orozco house. Via Tatiana Bilbao.

In 2002, Bilbao acquainted herself with higher-tech design practices when she worked with Ai Wei Wei and 15 other designers from all around the world to design a set of 17 pavilions for the Jinhua Architecture Park in China.

Daniel Mathews writes about plants, animals, geology, and culture—most often writing in book form. (Bible form, if you listen to his fans. And now also in iPhone app form.) But he got his start in green homebuilding. Fresh out of Reed College, he went into the Oregon woods and built himself a tiny house out of timbers he cut and a cedar shakes he bucked and split all within 100 feet of the site. Fortunately he keeps up with the times, and focuses today on high-tech paths to a small carbon footprint. He lives in Portland with his wife, son, daughter, cat, dog, vegetable garden, and lots of music.

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