Designed by Carlo Barbieri, this detached residence in Santorso, north-east Italy, is remarkable for at least two features.
First, the brilliant, economically valid solution to the problem posed by the accidental discovery during excavation of the remains of a 7th-8th century BC building. Classed as worthy of documentation but not so important as to forbid new building, the remains were surveyed, photographed and then reburied under the new building’s foundations inside a concrete envelope for future generations. The decision to restrict the building’s foundations to the area already inspected led to the striking first-floor cantilever. This practical solution to a contingent problem has been exploited to great aesthetic effect, creating a pleasing split-level residence. This in turn led to the choice of different cladding materials to mark out the two storeys: appropriately, stone for the ground floor, and wood for the higher level.
Barbieri recalls how architect Maria Sciavarrello, an Italian now living and working in Basel, contributed to the first design phase. “In fact”, he says, “the volumes recall the rationalist approach typical of countries beyond the Alps; the result is somewhat stark but at the same time poetic, a combination that speaks to me”.
The second noteworthy feature is how Barbieri has translated sustainability into architectural reality. His concern with sustainable building dates back to 1987 when, just out of the Venice Architecture Faculty, where his final dissertation was on architectural restoration, Barbieri took on the challenge of developing energy self-sufficient buildings. As a technology expert - he is the son and assistant of a mechanical engineer whose clients include numerous large businesses in Italy’s industrial north east - Barbieri is, however, also aware of the pitfalls.
While sustainable building practices hold much promise, it is not always easy to draw the line between science and superstition; in other words, understand the difference between what constitutes real energy savings and what is “green architecture” waffle, or what materials offer real benefits over and above preconceived, often erroneous, ideas. From this viewpoint, the house in Santorso is an excellent test bed. Its small size makes systems design and monitoring all the more feasible. Several energy efficient systems have been introduced.
The first is drastic reduction of heat dispersion. Thick - over 50 cm - ground and first floor walls contain several layers, including an air space and insulation materials, and have an outer cladding of stone and wood. Downward heat dispersion has been eliminated by covering the foundation raft with a 6 cm bedding layer of cellular glass, a mixture of recycled glass and carbon that forms a tight mesh of air bubbles. “It’s as if the house were sitting in a tumbler, insulated from the cold and damp”, explains Barbieri.
The sun, on the other hand, warms the house. Extensive glazed windows are designed to capture the sun’s energy during fine winter days. On cloudy days, a thermal pump extracts heat from rainwater stored in special tanks and delivers it to the various interior environments. During the summer, the sun-shading systems (PVC awnings in the day zone and Venetian blinds in the night area) adjust automatically to protect the facades from excessive sunlight.
As already mentioned, rainwater is collected and stored. A gravel layer on the roof removes acidity, allowing the water to be recycled for non-drinking domestic purposes. All materials are ecologically certified. Toxic paints were abolished, as were traditional flooring materials in preference to lime mixed with earth and natural oils.
Photovoltaic panels generate electricity. Barbieri underlines that the house has been given an Ecodomus Class A certification, and has consumed only 7 KW in the last two months. The many awards received include that of the Italian Institute for Bioarchitecture.
Of note is the fact that building costs were in line with average costs for the area (400,000 Euros for approximately 250 sq m). In addition, 126 sensors were placed and linked to a central computer to monitor the building’s behaviour over time. “For this”, notes Barbieri, “is an experimental construction. The idea is to allow ‘bio-building’ to take another step towards scientific reliability. Data are transmitted via the Internet as they are collected, allowing real-time assessment of the situation”.
Apart from its technological promise, the house is also an architectural success. It is proof that sustainable architecture does not have to be ordinary. It demonstrates that some of the insights of the Modern Movement, like Le Corbusier’s long picture windows, can, if suitably updated, be employed to effect.
The flowing spatial distribution of the interior, especially in the day zone, debunks conventional wisdom that sustainable interiors have to be closed and compartmentalised. The large cantilevered section that leaves 5 façades open to the elements (the underneath, top and three sides) proves that in the right circumstances, ecology-friendly buildings don’t have to be box-shaped.
As well as the Swiss influence, the house also harks back to traditional Dutch building methods in its pragmatism that achieves maximum benefit with minimum effort. The large overhang of the first floor, for example, designed originally to leave intact unexplored archaeological terrain, at the same time provides a sheltered porch in front of the garden and a first floor terrace that extends the garden and offers sweeping views.
The cantilever seems to echo MVRDV’s home for the elderly in Amsterdam. There is also a subdued reference to Italian rationalism in the somewhat classical - some would say, “Casabella” - style architecture, reminiscent perhaps of the Venice school where Barbieri was trained.
Finally there are overtones of Glenn Murcutt and his concern for the natural setting in the way the building simply rests on the ground without disrupting the surrounding landscape.
The result is an aesthetically pleasing whole that is symptomatic of Italian design today. It proves that restrained eclecticism combined with real concern for new sustainable technologies can give significant, convincing results.