It was a grey and yellow day. I didn’t know if the wind was carrying rain or if the cloud was heavy and was wetting the ground. The dense silence was only interrupted by the rustling of the trees and a few rays of sunlight which escaped through the clouds. Dusk was falling, and the leaves were freezing over. Smoke was puffing from the chimney. There was only one light in the wood: a refuge. (1*)
There are places brimming with sensations; little phenomena between the magical and the daily, between that which strikes you and that which is profoundly normal. These are places with which we have a link, like something attached to our insides. Simple, familiar, without pretensions, yet still able to stir up emotion within us and form a page of that story that we love to re-read, or an image in the cherished photo album.
Today we are going to review the project “Doñana Refuge”, by the Asturian architect based in Coruña, Fermín Blanco. Enveloped in a poplar wood, this project was born out of the restoration of a tool shed and its conversion into a family cabin, via a self-construction process, utilising available materials. This is a work in which the word “place” means everything: material, economy, origin and history, whilst also representing hard work, memories and feelings of deep roots.
The Refuge is situated between Fuentesaúco and Villamor de los Escuderos, in the Zamora Province, land marked by grain fields, where wheat and barley paint a typical Castilian picture of eternal brown. Here the winters are freezing and the summers, suffocating. However, as we approach the work, the landscape changes, enveloping it. “Crossed by a little stream, the plot where the construction is located is principally dedicated to the cultivation of poplars, and is one of the only ones in the area where this is possible. This is mainly due to the water engineering carried out by the farmland owner, promoter and builder of the piece, an ingenious retired engineer who specialises in the automotive industry”, explains Fermín Blanco.
Thus, the project emanates from the original felling plant and the domesticated surrounding landscape, moulded with perseverance and care. These factors need to be understood as being constantly linked within this project. The original construction consisted of a building without any defining features: a gable roof, a perimetric enclosure of double-cavity brick, covered with metal latticework with a corrugated iron, fibre cement cap. Due to the collapse of an overhanging gable, a section of the plant has become a vegetable garden. This plant is perched upon a small hill, under which, in their orderly and spongy way, the poplars are lined up. However, this isn’t the only vegetation on the plot: in the most northern zone, and immediately next to the Refuge access, a big botanical garden, host to all manner of arboreal species, grows and expands year after year. This is a significant place for the family, in which the heart of the Refuge beats. Hidden in the botanical garden is a self-built tree house, which speaks of fun and mischief.
The main construction has been developed occupying the same surface area as the warehouse, which has been reformed whilst preserving the empty and occupied spaces of the original outline: the vegetable garden has been incorporated as a patio which the Doñana Refuge overlooks, and the container is used by hosting the functional program, including a bathroom, a kitchen, a fireplace with a log fire, a sleeping zone and storage area. The kitchen and bathroom have been added via a room made of wood and OSB, almost like furniture, creating an entrance zone and providing a transition into the main space. The room is illuminated by the fire to the right and the windows to the left which open onto the patio. At the back a series of bunk beds mark the perimeter.
“The main space is arranged over 33.1 functional m2, whilst the rest is occupied by additional spaces (2.2m2 the larder, 1.9m2 the kitchen and 3.7m2 the bathroom). With an overall functional surface area of 40.9m2, the refuge boasts 65.7m2. The construction is complemented by an open outdoor patio of 32.3m2. The ensemble occupies a total constructed surface area of 100.6m2,” Fermín tells us. The utilised constructive systems give meaning to these figures, and define the space and character of the refuge:
Poplar wood and straw bales, both available in the immediate surroundings, are the main materials of the restoration, which is complemented by the extra material from local providers (brick, cement, OSB...). The supporting structure, the roof and the formation of grooves, has been achieved using 21 poplars from the farm itself (beams, lintels, purlins and pillars), all hand treated. Due to their weight and absorbency, the straw bales from the neighbouring grain fields have been used as insulation between the brick walls.
“The work has been carried out with a limited budget, (30,000€), thanks to the felling of 1,000 available poplars, from which the cost of the next tree planting will be deducted. From this perspective, self-construction is essential, in order to avoid the appearance of agents and industrial profits of construction companies.” In this way, the house has been built whilst minimising costs, “cost” being more that just economics. “The developer has taken on the weight of the work alongside his family, directly contacting self-employed professionals to carry out specialised tasks, namely plumbing and electricity,” explains the architect, who is responsible for the technical assistance of the construction process.
For Fermín Blanco, this project is an exercise in economic and constructive rationality, which feeds directly off the bases of popular architecture and the ‘ever so studied’ sustainability, which is deeply linked to it. However, there is more: the self-construction process is profoundly emotional, and connects the inhabitant to their space via an invisible thread, just as it links the work to its landscape, without which it wouldn’t come to be. Reason and passion, normally considered opposing terminology, dwell together in this work in the most logical way. It’s hard to imagine the Doñana Refuge, a little family bastion in any other way.
This work, on its small scale and minimal budget, in its extreme simplicity and common landscape, is a fine example of a small and honest paradigm. It shows us that it is possible to reduce a footprint, make use of resources, drink from the fountain of prior wisdom and employ technical improvement. It has also triumphed in linking the work to its surroundings, and the user to the work, valuing the process as much as the result and carrying out an educational action of shared knowledge, all of which has been done without fanfare. The proof of this can be seen, hidden between the lines of a poplar wood, with the chimney puffing.
(1)Text (Ana Asensio) accompanying images (Milena Villalba) from the project (Fermín Blanco), in the competition “Architecture of sensations” (PezGlobo), Santa Cruz de Tenerife, January 2019, in which “The Refuge” won first prize.