When Carlos Alonso and his sister Camino were looking for a country home for their extended family, they stumbled upon an abandoned stable in rural Extremadura, Spain, and recognized it as a special place.
High on a hill and far from city water or an electrical grid, the crumbling cow shed was far from the conventional image of luxury estate, but Carlos and Camino run the prestigious Madrid architecture firm Ábaton Architecture (which includes Camino’s husband and 2 other Alonso siblings) and could envision a transformation.
Wisdom of those who work the land
This part of the province of Cáceres (near the Portuguese border) has been home to generations of cattle ranchers and the Alonsos recognized the wisdom of those who came before them.
“What we found here was magnificent. The position of the architecture is here as it was originally because the experience of the rancher was to choose the best position on the property where you have water and sun all year round.”
A stable becomes home
Building on the instinctual knowledge of the ranchers before them, the Alonsos preserved much of the old stable. The old watering trough became a fountain and interior patio where water now helps cool the home in summer. The hayloft above became bedrooms.
The facade is still the original stone, though, given the homes crumbling state, they were forced to add cement behind it.
A second skin for an off-grid home
Without access to the grid, the Alonsos added photovoltaics and hydropower (weighted toward solar in summer and hydro in winter) and worked to ensure the home wouldn’t use much energy.
The original position of the stable worked in their favor. The southern exposure allows for the sun to be the main source of heat during the winter. Its position and a generous eave prevent much sun from entering the home during summer, thus keeping it cool.
The Alonsos also added large wooden shutters that slide closed like a second skin, covering the large windows at night to trap in most of the home’s daily solar heat gain.
Water pure enough to drink
The home was located far from city water, but perfectly positioned below two streams that flow year-round. Since there is no one else above the home on the mountain, the water is pure and can be used for drinking and bathing (after a simple filter and rest period to allow for the sediment to sink off).
The natural stone swimming pool acts as a holding tank for use in irrigation. And greywater is purified and the water is put back to use on the property for watering the fields. On those fields, cattle still graze.
Mixing modern with wabi-sabi
In many ways, little has changed on the property. The Alonso’s added their taste in architecture: a mix of modern cement and iron beams with the well-worn stone, weather-beaten wood, and local stone.
Their love of a Japanese aesthetic led them to incorporate nature into nearly every room in the home: bathrooms with views of the interior patio and its stone water fountain, bedrooms with huge picture windows looking out at chestnut trees, or cattle grazing.
Working with nature
But the property has changed little with the arrival of the Alonsos. The house sits exactly as the stable did. The sun continues to hit it the same way and the water flows around it as before.
Even local rancher José Vicente Jiménez, whose family has worked this land for generations, is still here. His cattle graze the property and he clearly is pleased the Alonsos have rescued the old stable from certain ruin (he points to a nearby stable in the process of collapse).
The Alonsos share a mutual respect for the experience of those who used this land before them. “People from the country know a lot. They take from nature and their experience in nature since it accompanies them and helps them to survive, and they work with nature, not against it.