When a tree dictates the house design

Architect Chris Briffa was recently awarded a special commendation in the Malta Architecture and Spatial Planning Awards for a villa in Balzan. His innovative design revolved around a landmark tree.

In a country where trees are seemingly considered a nuisance that should be eradicated, it is refreshing, to say the least, when someone decides to not only preserve a tree but to allow it to dictate the design of a building.

For architect Chris Briffa, there was never any question about the fate of this 100-year-old cypress tree, which is so tall that it can be seen from streets away. “It is a clear landmark,” he explains.

“You can see the position of the house because of the tree. For me, it was all about designing something that would definitely preserve that landmark and tying the design around it; stitching the whole design around this very sensitive point of energy.”

Situated in a narrow alley in Balzan, Villa Saudade was originally one of two semi-detached houses that was “falling to pieces” as it was not built on solid ground and had no foundations. Coincidentally, Saudade is Portuguese for longing, and it turned out to be an apt name for this much longed-for project as it took a good 10 years for it to be completed.

The clients gave him one condition for the design – it had to be an eco-friendly house, and this resulted in a strict passive design, working in line with the Maltese climate to maintain a comfortable indoor temperature throughout the year, never too hot in summer nor too cold in winter.

To achieve this, Briffa suggested a revolutionary concept: inverting the living spaces in the house by placing the living room upstairs and the bedrooms downstairs.

It took the clients some convincing, but eventually, they came round to the “crazy” idea.

An inverted living arrangement

Taking inspiration from the concept of the piano nobile of old palazzos – with their lofty ceilings and bigger windows on the first floor, allowing for better light and air circulation and thus a healthier living environment – Briffa explained that the pros of having the living room upstairs meant that it could benefit from a different ceiling height.

Apertures were placed on all six sides of the building – front, sides, top and bottom – to bring in reflected light and unexpected views, such as the floor-window in the cantilevered living room that overlooks the pool.

“From a thermal point of view, this inverted living arrangement makes most sense. The roof on top of your head is gathering heat during the day, and at night, it radiates that heat back down on to you. If you are not sleeping under the roof, that heat is being released in a room that is empty at night and acting as an insultation buffer between the hot roof and the bedrooms two floors below, especially as the bedrooms are semi-underground,” Briffa points out.

Moreover, the latent heat of the pool in the garden acts as a super insulator to the bedrooms, which enjoy a balmy temperature all year round. In fact, the clients reported that they hardly need to use the air conditioning or the underfloor heating.

“Passive design lies at the core of this project since its inception and early sketches. The central yard mimics a cooling tower that retains the heat in winter and cools the structure in summer.”

Architect Chris Briffa

“Passive design lies at the core of this project since its inception and early sketches. The central yard mimics a cooling tower that retains the heat in winter and cools the structure in summer. On its south-facing wing, we devised small apertures to control heat gain, while a generous number of PV panels were seamlessly integrated on its sloping roof.

“Other measures include the use of ThermaBlock in all the exterior walls, second-class water cisterns used for irrigation and water closets, double-glazed apertures and rigid insulation on its sloping roof,” Briffa explains.

The three-bedroom house and its garden cover a very “tiny” footprint of 360sqm. So, the architect had to be “really careful how we used the space”.

The bedrooms were pushed half a storey underground, which resulted in a more “democratic design”, where each floor is either eight steps down or eight steps up. The garden, which is traditionally far away from the bedrooms, is now very close to the sleeping areas downstairs “so the clients can use it for longer”.

The property is heavily overlooked by neighbouring buildings, so apertures face inwards to maximise privacy, resulting in a minimalist façade that gives the impression of a windowless structure.

“We had comments,” Briffa admits wryly.

Despite its modernist design, with its concrete-timber base and curved walls, the building reflects the predominantly 1960s and 1970s look of the area, matching the colours and details such as the retro steel railings.

“I wanted to preserve the sense of place, so the detailing had to relate to the area,” Briffa points out. “Externally, the house presents itself as a series of sinuous volumes, sitting on a concrete/timber base, hugging the impressive cypress tree that was meticulously protected during construction.

“Externally, the house presents itself as a series of sinuous volumes, sitting on a concrete/timber base, hugging the impressive cypress tree that was meticulously protected during construction.”

“The south-facing red block is punctured by narrow openings, each overlooking an intimate yard below. A white monolithic volume wraps the main living space, while gold-coloured aluminium louvres clad the kitchen that overlooks the cul-de-sac.”

Ultimately, this was a house designed for a young family and had to suit their particular needs, present and future.

“The two busy professionals and their young daughter all enjoy myriad spaces, which tick their wish list, while at the same time offering varying layers of privacy, safety, natural ventilation and thermal comfort,” Briffa says.

“The top-most floor is a spacious, independent home office for the work-from-home mum, while the sheltered south-facing yard and terrace act as back-of-house supporting kitchen, laundry and home-farming. The central yard, apart from cooling device, acts as a visual and aural connection between occupants when indoors, even at different levels.”

The result is a building that has managed “to steer away from recently built insensitive houses, which only seek to maximise internal space at the expense of the leafy context of the neighbourhood,” Briffa believes.

“Villa Saudade retains a lush, green perimeter, traditionally associated with Balzan, and also respects its neighbouring properties in terms of building heights, privacy and clean architectural forms that cleverly hide building services,” he adds.

The architect credited the clients for bravely accepting such an original concept. “It is often difficult for clients to accept a daring layout, and it takes a leap of faith when one has to abandon culturally engrained norms of habitation.

“Villa Saudade speaks volumes about trust between client and architect, which leads to innovative living experiences within its unconventional spaces, while nurturing a lifestyle actively concerned with sustainable obligations.

“Such clients do not come very often. I was lucky to have met them and they took this leap of faith. In the end they were very happy with the result.”

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