Renovation and retrofitting are trends that have come to stay in European architecture. In truth, they cannot even be considered trends, as the major factors that led to the development of these transforming actions are an undeniable part of our present and near future. The unplanned development of our landscapes created a complex and chaotic built environment in large parts of the European territory. Simultaneously, Europe’s population is shrinking, and people are becoming decreasingly attached to their origins. The combination of these and other factors gave rise to a saturated market, specifically for housing. In fact, the accumulation of empty dwellings in the European market is astonishing. In Spain and Portugal alone, more than four million homes are empty, according to the latest census.
As a consequence, future development strategies needed an essential shift: from new buildings and greenfield developments to the regeneration and transformation of existing infrastructures. In fact, recently approved legislation in Portugal prohibits new greenfield developments in the country for the next few years. The great majority of these improvements will take place in urban settlements, where the historical and traditional value of existing buildings is exponential. Yet opportunities will also arise in some other favourable contexts, like the seaside, or even in suburban and rural areas.
The SilverWood House is one of those successful examples where the value of a thoughtful architecture project is quite perceptible. Despite being located a couple of kilometres away from the Atlantic Ocean, the most noticeable project to date of young Portuguese architect Ernesto Pereira ‘breathes’ sand and sea. Conceived without the pressure of a very tight budget or deadline, the result was a suburban oasis where untreated wood is the main feature. In fact, the carpentry work is exquisite, of a quasi-scientific artisanship. This specific craft is a lifelong passion of the architect, and his approach to architecture is necessarily linked to it.
The story behind this particular project evidences this intersection. The architect was unhappy with a previous work he had done, so he decided to invest in a small, unoccupied house and transform it in his own home and office. As Pereira confesses, ‘It was because of the experimental work I was doing there that these new clients came to talk with me. They understood that the way I tend to see architecture could solve their own problem.’ From that moment on, the architect sought to get to know his clients in a quite comprehensive manner, trying to understand ‘their tastes, quirks, routines, and pleasantries,’ as can be read in the project description. The only requirement of the client was that the house should be inspiring and ‘a fascinating product in which the couple could see themselves living.’
A particularly striking aspect of the project is the artistic capacity of the architect to transform a traditional old house into something profoundly optimistic. The final result not only hides the original layout of the house, it actually makes us believe that there was nothing there before. There is no trace of the old, traditional terracotta roof tiles, replaced by a more streamlined render finish. The volume was carved to make space for balconies and terraces with wood finishing. The exterior yard was treated like an oasis, as Pereira decided to bring the beach to his clients, as he wrote, so ‘they could feel, every day, the proximity of the dunes, sand, and untreated wood.’
Some architects say that a great way to evaluate the quality of a project is to check how inevitable, effortless, and irreplaceable it seems. Those qualities are certainly present in this €100,000 renovation project, an encouragingly fair amount for the final outcome.
The artisanal approach in such pre-existent structures and site-specific projects are more than welcome in the European context. The appreciation of local materials and the valorization of craftsmanship can be a strategic approach to overcome some of the profession’s present difficulties. Can we still conceive a future where successful, small-scale architecture is linked to the ‘ancient’ art of the crafts? Or is this epiphany only a small grain in the wider context of European architecture?