On a coastal hillside in the Costa Rican rainforest, Casa Torcida proves that luxury and eco-friendly living can coexist.
Rising above the rainforest on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, radiant Casa Torcida overlooks the blue water of the Golfo Dulce. The modern, stacked geometric shapes of the residence offer a calm oasis amid the lush growth in one of the most biologically diverse places in the world. In the pristine rainforest teeming with an extraordinary variety of wild animals and plants, conservation is a way of life.
Construction had been halted and the rainforest was slowly reclaiming the steel frame and concrete slab structure when New York-based SPG Architects’ project team of Coty Sidnam, Eric Gartner, and Andres Cova came onboard. Though a reconfiguration of the layout would be necessary to meet the client’s needs, they decided to recycle the existing work. Preservation of the natural environment is at the heart of their design.
“We added some and carved some away in an effort to make more sense of the space,” says Sidnam. “We decided the water cistern, housed in an enclosed area on the first floor, should go underground so we could recapture that space as a bodega. A lot of changes happened organically.” They dug underneath the foundation to build a music studio, added an infinity pool, and configured the living spaces vertically to provide natural cooling and take advantage of the views.
Despite the sweltering heat and humidity, the house only uses air conditioning in its music studio. Passive solar controls, free of mechanical or electrical assistance, keep the home cool. For shade, southern and eastern exposures utilize deep overhangs created by exterior walkways. The steep slope of the site and the dense trees around the structure provide a sun shield, while the rainforest canopy protects the lower levels. Areas that are exposed are rendered in sun-reflective white.
Primary living spaces and bedrooms are raised above the trees to catch the breezes flowing up the hill from the water. Glass walls open fully to provide cross ventilation, creating an integrated indoor/outdoor living area. Casement windows around the home’s perimeter can be adjusted to maintain comfortable temperatures inside. Responsibly harvested custom teak louver panels on the bedroom windows incorporate screens for defense against insects and can be adjusted for privacy, ventilation, and wind protection.
Rainwater runs across an impermeable, microbe-free roof membrane into a series of drains and is collected in an underground cistern. A solar water heating system greatly reduces the toxic gases produced by electric and gas water heaters while maintaining the home’s sustainable energy. After rainwater reaches the temperature necessary to kill bacteria, a slow-flow pump circulates it.
SANYO solar panels on the roof.
Unlike a typical black roof, the white membrane doesn’t absorb or transfer solar heat to the home or the environment, avoiding the “heat island” effect and saving energy. “It was as organic as we could make it while still providing a really good seal,” says Sidnam. “It also had to be free of any chemical sloughing that would get into the water.” Impermeable to rain, saltwater, and UV exposure, the material is durable and needs little maintenance.
Eighty-four SANYO solar panels on the roof are designed to produce dependable, high-power output despite the intense heat, which usually decreases performance and voltage. The system reliably provides the home with all electricity, including the power needs of computer equipment and appliances; therefore, it wasn’t necessary to bring in electricity from far away or disturb the environment with unsightly power service wiring.
No eco-friendly house is complete without energy-efficient lighting and Energy Star appliances, which must meet energy-saving and low greenhouse gas specifications set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Eco-friendly, high-tech options abound in the luxury appliances the architects chose, which included Sun Frost refrigerators, a Bosch washer and dryer, and a “Swan-labeled” Asko, one of the most energy- and water-efficient dishwashers on the market. Energy-efficient lighting throughout the home uses less power, lasts longer, and produces significantly less heat.
To reduce transportation pollution, the plumbing fixtures and fittings were purchased locally. Designed to reduce water usage without diminishing function, family and friends can still enjoy a good Jacuzzi.
You can’t really have a chef kitchen unless you’re cooking with gas. Used here for cooking and drying clothes, eco-friendly propane is the cleanest burning of all fossil fuels. It’s not harmful to soil or water, and it doesn’t contribute the contaminants that cause acid rain. Interiors are modern, sleek, and indigenous. “We tried to use Central and South American products for the surfaces, and all the cabinetry came from wood that was cleared from the site,” says Sidnam. Native hardwood includes Cenizaro, Ron-ron, and Cristobal, which produced the dramatic cabinets and worktable in the kitchen, the custom bookshelves in the library, the dressing room woodwork, and the custom bed and dining room tables.
The kitchen, whose cabinets and work table were created using native hardwoods.
In contrast to the wild tangle of the rainforest, the interiors are grounded in a neutral palette. Bright pops of tropical colors—echoing native plants and animals— are seen in sleek yet soft modern furniture raised off the floor to prevent snake and insect surprises. Indoor/outdoor furniture features waterproof and colorfast fabrics. The living room’s Simplice Sofa and Poltrona armchair, designed by Antonio Citterio, juxtaposes clean lines and a saturated red with the calm mottling of the polished concrete floor, while the curves and bright scarlet of Paola Lenti’s Aqua Collection soften the straight lines and concrete of the pool terrace.
Set in the concrete like an oblong jewel, an infinity pool stretches to the edge of the cliff. “You don’t need rails at the edge. The pool becomes your protection,” says Sidnam. “Anytime you’re sitting out on the pool deck, there’s nothing between you and the view. And there’s the sense that the pool water runs into the water beyond.”
Around the pool, light-reflecting white tiles, sourced from South American quartzite, ensure that the floor never gets too hot. Rather than toxic chemicals or the necessary upkeep of corrosive saltwater, the Carefree Clearwater mineral ionizer system uses copper, silver, and zinc ions to purify the pool water. Underwater benches and energy-efficient LED lights beckon family and friends to linger long after the blazing sun sets.
Palms trees rise from a recessed floor in the entryway, the trunks mirroring the straight lines of concrete and steel. On the second level, the fanned leaves of the palm trees bring the forest inside. Circles cut into a concrete wall resonate with the blue curves and balance the green angles of the terrace furniture and straight lines of the overall design. The spine of a central corridor unites all the levels and acts as counterpoint to the concrete finishes with an open wood staircase and the rough, stacked-stone texture of quartzite tiles on the opposite wall. The replanting of native trees that have no need for artificial irrigation negated any disturbance previously inflicted upon the landscape, although a buffer zone remains around the perimeter to keep snakes away.
Modern and minimalistic, Casa Torcida seems to rise toward the future, yet it still harmonizes perfectly with the ancient rainforest. View more of SPG Architects’ work at spgarchitects.com.