Špela Videčnik, Architect at OFIS Architecture, expert in extreme environments, and guest lecturer at Harvard University led the large and experienced team of architects responsible for “the House of the Desert” – Guardian Glass’s ambitious construction project in the Goraffe desert, Spain. She now discusses the team’s challenges and goals throughout the project.
Q – From an architectural point of view, what is your main goal when executing a complex building design and construction project like this?
There are many issues. Most important is to achieve the best performance of the building in extreme conditions, while maintaining the best relation between the inside and the beautiful nature. It is important to keep opened views and establish contact between the inhabitant and their surroundings. On the other hand, we also have to keep in mind structural resistance to the strong winds and all the vertical forces and, of course, the thermal characteristics of the building that would work well in the extreme climate of this region.
Q – When Guardian Glass challenged you with this project, what was your first thought, your first feeling? Did you think it was viable?
It really awoke our interest. In the office, of course we deal with very tough building projects but I would say what we enjoy very much, is making small objects like this one in extreme environments. In the last years, we built three Alpine shelters in very high mountains, with a lot of snow, and we are testing their resistance and the wellbeing of the mountaineers who are using them. The glass house in the desert is part of this research but challenges a very different context, climate, and material.
Q – As architects who specialize in harsh environments, what are the main requirements these constructions should meet in order to become habitable and comfortable? What is the most important factor you need to take into account?
First of all, it is a climate issue. Gorafe has very hot summers with almost no rains, strong sun and winds… and then in winter you can get very cold weather and even snow. There are also extreme temperature gaps between day and night that we had to consider. The building design and its construction need to face this climate and protect the interior from the sun while keeping the glass as transparent as possible. We managed to achieve this with the help of Guardian experts who defined various coatings on the triple glazing – non-visible while achieving a thermally isolated interior. We also explored the structural aspect of glass – to have glass walls as a structural element. There are no columns in this building made with either steel or wood. The roof with all its heavy PV elements is only supported by glass.
Q – “The house of the desert” is an energy efficient and self-sufficient building, with almost zero consumption. What role does glass play in this?
Glass plays an important role in the design and construction of this building. In our projects we like to research and test different types of materials. Glass is the hero of our project and we enjoyed challenging it to its limits. Creating a glass house is playing with transparencies and reflections… Then it is about testing is thermal characteristics – to protect the interior from getting too hot in summer and a keep warm interior in the winter. The third challenge was creating a design building with no other structure than glass. No columns, no steel, pure transparency.
Q – “Beyond the use of Guardian Glass in the harshest environments, what are the benefits of this kind of glass for home windows?”
Glass – transparent division between interior and exterior, plays a significant role in architecture. Whenever we design someone’s home, either a family house or apartment inside a housing block we try to establish a strong connection between the apartment and the nature. It is important for each home to have a piece of outside space. Through a large window someone can connect with terrace, balcony or garden or simply just the world outside.
We always create windows as large glass walls, even in low budget projects, because we believe it is important that the home has no border between interior and the nature, have lots of sun and light and that this border is invisible. This we can achieve with high quality glass.
Q – “How was the fieldwork in Gorafe desert? Architecturally speaking, how would you value this territory of Spain?”
It is a beautiful wild environment, a natural park. We were impressed by the diverse, rich landscape and also found interesting vernacular architecture – underground caves. It was the way for people to adapt to this harsh climate and now, the “House of the desert” is right the opposite.
Q – “How important is it, in a project like this, to have a good communication and coordination process between the different professionals involved?”
It is extremely important. We collaborated intensely together with our sustainable engineers, a company -Transsolar- from Germany, and our structure engineers -AKT II- from London to explore potential of living in a glass house in extreme climate.
We also got a very good support from Guardian technicians, especially Tamás Kovács, who was coming back to us calculating the proper thicknesses to achieve structural supports and select the various types of high performance glass to create the combination that don’t allow sun to enter the house while it still has the effect of an extremely transparent glass.
Q – “How was your professional experience working with Guardian Glass experts and technicians?”
We worked with Guardian Glass for several years in very different buildings. I would maybe mention just two because they are diverse.
We have just completed a glass tower in Ljubljana city center- Intercontinental Hotel. There is no external sun shading in this tower due to the wind and Ljubljana also has harsh climate with hots, sunny summers and cold winters so achieving good thermal characteristics is very important. We had to protect the interior from direct sun but yet wanted façade that is transparent and has no green or grey coating. We used Guardian glass, which is called “invisible”, so the border between the inside and the outside disappears.
A very different project is a shelter on Skuta Mountain, it is a mountain of 2200 meters high, where we did this small object together with our students at Harvard University Graduate School of design. Two main facades of this shelter are completely out of glass that works very well thermally as well as structurally.
Q – “What was the most difficult part of the project?”
Being honest I would say maybe that the most difficult part was the bureaucracy, to get solved all the paperwork was a long process.
Now, seriously, the most difficult part came out because we really wanted to achieve a no-column-house. There is timber roof and timber floor and in-between connected only with glass. This connections between these two materials had to be structural and done very precise – and this was hard but the building is now put together and we believe it is working well and hopefully that’s it.
Interview courtesy of Guardian Glass