Even homes built on tight budgets should be more than just simple shelters built from the elements. Lower-cost housing tends to have small windows and few openings to the outdoors, making it feel dim, drab, and cut off from its environment. Designing a building with this kind of sharp delineation between outside and in may shave a few dollars off the project’s total price tag, but it doesn’t exactly boost the health and happiness of its inhabitants. Studies have shown that access to vitamin-D-boosting natural daylight and fresh air can prevent the onset of a range of conditions and diseases — and views are just plain nice to have, even if they’re just of the sky.
That’s especially true when your environment is as beautiful as this lush hilltop in Granja Viana, Brazil. Relatively speaking, the clients had a limited amount of money to work with when they commissioned to design a home for their steeply-sloped building site. The plot has stunning views of the horizon, but the clients couldn’t afford the highly reinforced style of house typically built for similar hillside locations. The architects had to think creatively to come up with a solution that would satisfy their budgetary constraints without turning to forms that would limit their enjoyment of the setting.
With retaining walls out of the question, the architects turned to a novel approach: inverting the whole house. Rather than building up from the access point at the roadside, reinforcing the slope, and supporting the home with pillars, they built down, resting the home at the site’s lowest possible point. That means the driveway is flush with the home’s roof, allowing it to be used as a spacious terrace with unobstructed views. To access the home, you cross a bridge-like walkway and descend a staircase to the top floor, which itself hosts an open-plan living room.
Floor-to-ceiling glazing in this area opens right onto a second terrace overlooking a courtyard-style backyard below. Two additional walkways set on the roofs of the lower wings extend to the back edge of the site, offering another level of elevated outdoor space for lots of sun exposure and ideal observation of the sunset. By contrast, the sheltered ground floor courtyard is shady and private, protected from the gaze of neighboring houses.
“Descending to the intermediate floor of the residence at the end of the staircase is the library. On this floor, we created a plateau to make a winter garden that can also be admired from the floor of the room and serves as an entrance of lighting and ventilation to the environments that surround it,” say the architects. “Soon after passing through the library, one can have access to the intimate corridor, where the three dormitories of the residence are, all with views to the west.”
From there, you can descend yet another level to the bottom floor music room, which itself is shaded by the projection of the bedrooms above. The house is primarily made of low-cost cement blocks, which remain apparent in the finished structure, along with mixed metals, porcelain tile, and cement flooring and hexagonal hydraulic tiles in the kitchen. The wood used for the built-in furniture, ceiling cladding, and decking is cumaru and cedrinho, both of which are local Brazilian species.
“RD House” isn’t exactly low-income housing; it’s still a luxury residence, albeit one built a bit more frugally than usual. But it does offer an example of how architects could make simpler budget-conscious structures that cut costs while prioritizing three of the factors that can help housing feel much more comfortable and livable: views, daylight, and fresh air. Flat-roofed cement block houses at all price points could easily be modified to offer rooftop terraces, courtyards, and more generous openings to the outdoors, even in humbler neighborhoods.