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Best Houses of 2021: Casa Cumbres

The most impressive houses of the year had one major thing in common: they embraced nature in radical ways. Some were even built around trees – the Greenary in Parma, Italy, is a modern farmhouse constructed around a 10-metre-tall ficus, while the High Desert Retreat in California makes surrounding pinyon trees the central organizing principle. This spirit of communing with nature, also exemplified by D’Arcy Jones’ sheep-focused HA-HA house in B.C., is echoed in the emphatic embrace of a collectivity: From allowing us to live more harmoniously with nature to being more inclusive of multiple generations, our favourite homes of 2021 show that we’re all in this together – and that’s a beautiful thing.

Our full list of 2021 favourites includes:

Images by Delfino Sisto Legnani and Alessandro Saletta of DSL Studio
The Greenary, CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati and Italo Rota, Parma, Italy

The Greenary in idyllic Parma reinvents the traditional Italian farmhouse – positioning its modern wing around a 10-metre-tall, 60-year-old ficus tree, named Alma. The entire home is then organized around this biophilic focus, with a south-facing glass wall made to measure for this natural “pillar” flooding it with natural light. The home, commissioned by Francesco Mutti, CEO of the tomato-product brand Mutti, brings together a long-held passion of architect Carlo Ratti: to marry the natural and the manmade.

“Much of CRA’s work focuses on the intersection between the natural and artificial worlds,” Ratti explains. “With the Greenary, we are trying to imagine a new domestic landscape built around nature and its rhythm.” The home features time-honoured, warm-toned materials, like brick and corten steel – a showpiece staircase is wrapped in a lattice of rusted-steel – while harnessing smart-home technology and the principles of micro-climate to control for temperature and humidity. In this way, “the tree and the home’s occupants can live together comfortably.” The windows and the roof can be opened and closed automatically to modulate sunlight and fresh air.

The house’s seven terraced spaces are split evenly between sunken rooms, like the main living area and kitchen, and above-ground levels – an interconnected array that reinterprets 20th-century architect Adolf Loos’ principle of the Raumplan, which is a floorplan that positions nature at its centre. Even the flooring of the Greenary incorporates soil and orange peels. CRA also created a workspace in an existing granary on the property, the whole of which is surrounded by a garden by renowned landscape designer Paolo Pejrone that incorporated regional biodiversity.

Best Houses of 2021: Copeland Road
Copeland Road, Gresford Architects, London, England

London has a reputation for haphazard expansions that extend out from the back of old Victorians in all manner of incongruous shapes and sizes. With this project, Gresford Architects riffs on that custom with a playfully jumbled composition of shapes that somehow still manages to harmonize with the site’s existing brick building. Credit the architects’ use of charred timber cladding, which contrasts nicely with the original structure’s exterior while also establishing a cohesive identity among the house’s new geometric forms — some boxy, others pitched and angular.

Thanks to these tiered additions, the ground floor now culminates in an open-plan kitchen and dining area, stepped down from the front living room and illuminated by a series of slanted skylights. Meanwhile, a new bathroom and study sit in the volume above, while a roof extension houses a guest bedroom and additional bathroom.

Along with introducing extra square footage to improve the home’s circulation, the cross-laminated timber structures also work to bolster its energy efficiency. And by leaving the wooden structure exposed throughout the interiors, the architects use warmth and brightness to counteract darker elements like the all-black kitchen. All in all, it’s a fine balance of shapes, materials, and colours.

Best Houses of 2021: High Desert Retreat
Images by Adam Rouse
High Desert Retreat, Aidlin Darling Design, Palm Desert, California

Pinyon trees, a pine variety native to southwestern North America, can have impressive life spans of up to 600 years. So when it came time to design a home in California’s Palm Desert on a remote plateau dotted with these remarkable evergreens, Aidlin Darling Design set out to pay them their due respect — all the while also honouring California’s rich tradition of modernist architecture.

In turn, their single-storey, blackened wood-and-glass design stays low to the ground, letting the local pinyons rise above the roofline while also introducing two concrete anchor walls to create a sheltered courtyard around one such tree. Other natural elements worked to inform the home’s floor plan. For instance, bedrooms with floor-to-ceiling windows are tucked in behind the rocky site’s many large boulders, benefiting from natural light and a connection to the outdoors but still offering a sense of privacy. On the other hand, in the living room, pivoting floor-to-ceiling windows offer expansive views of the Coachella Valley.

The house’s impressive regard for its setting also extends to its environmental considerations. Along with ensuring comfortable shading and sun protection, the fir roof is equipped with photovoltaics designed to meet at least 75 per cent of the building’s electricity needs. Bring on those desert rays.

Best Houses of 2021: Kozina House
Images by Alex Shoots Buildings
Kozina House, Atelier 111, Czech Republic

The Bohemian town of Trhové Sviny is a historic jewel. Designated as a national heritage site, the city’s quaint centre unfolds in meandering streets and centuries-old buildings. Near the heart of the old town, architects Atelier 111 sensitively reinvented a neighbouring pair of houses into a modern new home for a growing family — all while celebrating the 317-square-metre site’s rustic heritage.

Championing a more contextually attuned alternative to new-build suburban homes, the Prague-based designers deftly reconfigured two compact buildings into a comfortable family home organized around a central courtyard. After stripping back generations’ worth of renovations and remodels, they transformed the rough masonry walls into an aesthetic highlight. White paint covers the walls, while elegant spruce cladding amplifies the vaulted and curved ceilings characteristic of the Bohemian vernacular.

Combined with the crisp white paint — as well as simple concrete and oak flooring — the integration of old and new revitalizes a historic milieu, while a brightly coloured bathroom injects a pink dose of vibrancy. And the pièce de resistance? The narrow courtyard between the two buildings is transformed into a fluid outdoor living space that knits the home together.

Best Houses of 2021: HA-HA House
Image by Sama Jim Canzian
HA-HA House, D’Arcy Jones Architects, Fraser Valley

While the site for of HA-HA House in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley afforded spectacular views of surrounding orchards, glacial hills and mountain ranges, it also came with an obstacle: The low-lying area is vulnerable to regular spring flooding and extreme ground-level wind speeds, and to mitigate those effects a building bylaw requires that structures must be elevated six feet from the ground.

Vancouver’s D’Arcy Jones Architects masterfully overcame this hurdle by modernizing two traditional typologies — the family farm compound and the landscape intervention the house is named after. The client, a three-generation family, was transforming its personal hobby farm into a business raising organic lamb and needed both a shared farmhouse to live and a new barn. In response, Jones and his team devised a massing of untreated concrete, weathered steel, unstained cedar and glazing that manages to both rise from the ground and elegantly hover above it.

Reinterpreting the ha-ha wall — a historic landscape-design technique to prevent livestock from accessing land they’re not supposed to while still allowing for panoramic views — the architects installed a precast concrete-block retaining wall clad in Corten steel to surround the house and create the necessary six-foot change in elevation. The farmhouse itself is slung low to the ground with cantilevered ends, under which meandering sheep can seek shelter from sun and rain (and be seen through a hole in the floor).

Inside, spaces are long and narrow and expertly arranged to frame one-point perspectives of the natural surroundings and an internal central courtyard — a deliberate move inspired by nearby rail corridors. Internal cast-in-place concrete walls have sandwich-panel construction with acoustic and thermal insulation — this feature also prevents the sounds and vibrations of the passing trains from being heard or felt from inside. Sourced by one of the family members (a civil engineering contractor) the extra-thick insulating core was repurposed from another project and surpasses typical insulation levels by 200 per cent, while an efficient shallow-loop geothermal field maintains a comfortable climate throughout the entire building. Informed by the past and built for the future, HA-HA House is clever, compelling and sensitive to its surroundings.

Best Houses of 2021: Full House
Photo: Ema Peter
Full House, Leckie Studio Architecture + Design, Vancouver

As housing prices in urban centres across the globe continue to rise far out of reach for many, the multi-generational family home is gaining traction. And, aside from easing a financial burden, the proven mutual emotional, mental and physical benefits for all those living in a shared residence validate it as a typology that should become more commonplace. Enter Full House by Vancouver’s Leckie Studio Architecture + Design. The five-bedroom home (with an adjacent one-bedroom laneway house) follows a rather traditional program except for one major and ingenious deviation. A pivoting steel door on the main floor – inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s Door 11, Rue Larrey (1927) – gives the interiors a unique flexibility: depending on its positioning, the partition can divide the single five-bedroom home into two separate dwellings, one with three-bedroom and two-bedroom suites or one with four-bedroom and one-bedroom suites, to accommodate a variety of arrangements.

Photo: Ema Peter

On the exterior, a veil of black-stained wood-slat cladding presents a unified front and serves to obscure views from the outside while still allowing natural light to stream inside. Poured concrete floors, expanses of pale wood and hits of rich black and matte white maintain a sense of serenity throughout, with strategically placed light wells and glass-enclosed courtyards bursting with greenery enhancing the effect. Beautifully designed and effortlessly able evolve and adapt, Full House’s framework resonates as a stellar solution to an ever-increasing, universal problem.

Best Houses of 2021: Windmill House
Image by Ivo Tavares Studio
Windmill House, Box Arquitetos, Ponta Delgada, Portugal

A sleek white volume rises in the Azorean capital. Tucked into a block of urban row houses, Windmill House’s streamlined white facade announces a contemporary addition to a historic neighbourhood. But behind the narrow and decidedly understated 4.2-metre frontage, a more radically new way of living unfolds inside. Throughout the 110-square-metre home, a fluid relationship between indoor and outdoor environments defines the living space.  

“The main facade,” according to Box Arquitetos, “is exclusively the boundary between interior and exterior, with no reason for a relation between both, besides being in it way.” Inside, the two-storey home is organized around an interior courtyard, with a smaller single-level residential volume situated on the far end of the green space. On either side of the garden, generous windows and open circulation define the airy abode, blurring the line to the outdoors. Elevated by warm lighting, simple organic finishes and a subtle sense of texture, Windmill House is a minimalist haven.

Best Houses of 2021: House in Xalapa
Images by César Béjar Studio
House in Xalapa, Lopez Gonzalez Studio, Mexico

“A form of dwelling organized around a continuous dialogue with the landscape in which it is located.” That is how Lopez Gonzalez Studio describes House in Xalapa. With its black silhouette, the home all but disappears into the darkness of night. But during the day, its dark tone allows for the lush greenery to brightly contrast the facade – making nature the star of this residential wonder. The angular, split-elevation home is animated by the irregularly positioned, doors and windows – with wonderful red-painted frames – that connect it to the outdoors, and the interior is designed to unfold as a series of paths that connect space to space, transitioning outdoors through splendiferous terraces. 

“In the house’s ecosystem, plants become protagonists, establishing a symbiotic relationship similar to the one mutually agreed upon between the moss or the amate tree with the rock,” the architects explain.

If the exterior feels high-drama noir, light wood characterizes the interior: Crafted from pine, everything from the beams to the bookshelves and the bespoke furniture provides an airy sense of comfort, and a further connection to the outdoors. Just like nature, the home is also designed to evolve: “Architecture is thought of here in such a way that it can allow for time to do its work over the constructed area: plants will grow, walls will become humid and mossy, the volume will identify more and more with its landscape,” the architects say. “The work does not conclude (it only begins) at the point in which the house begins to live.”

Best Houses of 2021: Hara House
Hara House, Takeru Shoji Architects, Japan

Hara House isn’t exactly a house, in proper terms. Rather, the triangular shape rises as an extension to an already-existing complex of buildings in Japan’s Tsugasarone community.

The architects chose an A-frame structure, which multiplies floor space while limiting useable wall space, understanding that Hara House could and would be used in unconventional ways. “Instead of designing a conventional fully self-reliant building, we aspired to create a buoyant and bustling hub,” says the firm.

The concept of “insufficiency” is central: as opposed to single-family homes that are designed to be everything, all at once, Hara House was made to become “a great absorber:” a simple series of truss frames that would gather and connect the surrounding community in myriad ways. Outside the home, an entrance porch with dormers allows neighbours and passersby to stop by and chat or lounge in the space. It’s part of what the architects see as a revitalization of the “village” typology, where new connections are created and old ones are reinforced.

Best Houses of 2021: The Hill in Front of the Glen
Images by César Béjar
The Hill in Front of the Glen, HW Studio, Mexico

You could call it Hobbit-chic. In Mexico’s Michoacán state, four concrete walls form a house all-but-hidden by a hill’s slope — barely emerging from the landscape. “The process was simple: to lift a sheet of grass, and inside this sheet, one would reside,” says HW Studio, the local firm behind the project. Scarcely noticeable upon approach, with a herd of goats climbing on and around it, the bunker-like house interacts thoughtfully with its surroundings. A long exterior hallway, punctuated by a tree that was left in place during the build, leads to the home’s entrance. “To us, it was important that this walkway that gets you into the house was walked through in loneliness,” remark the architects of the pathway’s narrow footprint.

And thanks to a large semi-circle window that emerges from the side of the largest wall, the interior doesn’t feel dark or cramped — despite being built underneath a patch of earth. The firm centred the design around four materials: concrete, steel, stone and wood — which shine in the home in various ways, each of them responding to the environment. Inside, kitchen appliances and lighting fixtures are tucked away discreetly to avoid distractions or connections to a specific moment in time — making The Hill in Front of the Glen an anachronistic refuge from modern city life.

Best of 2021: Our Top 10 Houses of the Year

An Italian farmhouse built around a tree, a London extension comprised of angular charred-wood forms, a multi-gen Vancouver residence with a dreamy interior courtyard – our top 10 houses embrace nature and provide nurture.

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