Casa Toquilla weaves a safe haven in the vernacular architecture of Ecuador

Casa Toquilla by Rama Estudio aims to bring back the vernacular architecture of Ecuador with toquilla straw weave and materiality of bamboo and wood in an earthquake hit island.

by Sunena V MajuPublished on : Oct 26, 2022

Does architecture hold the key for a displaced community to reconnect to their culture?

Amid the different schools of thought and design philosophies throughout architectural history, there always resonated a need to understand the influence of architecture in society. Even in the 21st century where architecture claims to hold solutions to all the problems of the world, the purpose seems vague. The problems addressed include different concerns varying from environmental, climatic, and in relation to the local biodiversity, culture and traditions and the closest architecture has come to taking responsibility in this regard is the rise of humanitarian architecture. Through responsible and empathetic design, architecture found a practical and natural means of sustainability, contextual architecture and respectful use of natural resources. In a quest to create their own mark in the realm of architecture that resonates with communities is Ecuador-based Rama Estudio. Responding to the aftermath of the 2016 earthquake that hit Ecuador, the architectural intervention by the studio came four years later in the form of Casa Toquilla.

  • Rama Estudio worked alongside the community to realise Casa Toquilla in Ecuador | Casa Toquilla | Rama Estudio | STIRworld
    Rama Estudio worked alongside the community to realise Casa Toquilla in Ecuador Image: Courtesy of JAG Studio
  • Casa Toquilla is a story of an architectural intervention that is responsible, respectful and responsive | Casa Toquilla | Rama Estudio | STIRworld
    Casa Toquilla is a story of an architectural intervention that is responsible, respectful and responsive Image: Courtesy of JAG Studio
  • The form draws resemblance to A-frame structures of American second homes | Casa Toquilla | Rama Estudio | STIRworld
    The form draws resemblance to A-frame structures of American second homes Image: Courtesy of JAG Studio

The inception of Casa Toquilla began when 80 families from the island of Portete in the Province of Esmeralda were displaced. Being displaced from the land they called home to the mainland, led to the loss of comfort and familiarity. In the process of moving away, people also disconnected from their customs, constructional techniques, local materials and sense of ownership that came with it. Talking about it, the architects narrated, “The endemic materials of the area such as bamboo, wood, toquilla straw and kade were replaced by zinc plates, blocks and concrete. The traditional construction of the area whose materials are easily accessible, cheaper and more sustainable have been stigmatised as low-quality materials.” Identifying this, Rama Estudio along with the community of Portete envisioned a project that could highlight these local construction practices and make them relevant again.

  • The intention of the project was to develop three types of bamboo housing | Casa Toquilla | Rama Estudio | STIRworld
    The intention of the project was to develop three types of bamboo housing Image: Courtesy of JAG Studio
  • The central idea of the exercise was to develop homes with high thermal quality | Casa Toquilla | Rama Estudio | STIRworld
    The central idea of the exercise was to develop homes with high thermal quality Image: Courtesy of JAG Studio
  • The structures sit on a deck raised on piles, in response to possible flooding and durability of the material | Casa Toquilla | Rama Estudio | STIRworld
    The structures sit on a deck raised on piles, in response to possible flooding and durability of the material Image: Courtesy of JAG Studio

In a long process of understanding the safety concerns of the site, the potential of construction techniques, and the availability of local materials, the architects along with the community co-created Casa Toquilla. Through many discussions, experiments and community participation, and evaluation of traditional architecture techniques in bamboo, toquilla straw and renewable materials, the project was conceived on the lines of sustainable design principles. In a housing trilogy, Casa Toquilla adorns three types of structures in bamboo construction - Casa Toquilla L, Casa Toquilla M and Casa Toquilla S. The prototype houses aim to respond to different sizes of families, economic capacities and ease of execution. Though the form has a resemblance to A-frame structures of post-war American architecture, the Toquilla Houses are executed in the local materiality of bamboo, wood, toquilla straw and kade.

  • Casa Toquilla L: Floor plan | Casa Toquilla | Rama Estudio | STIRworld
    Casa Toquilla L: Floor plan Image: Courtesy of Rama Estudio
  • Casa Toquilla L: Elevation | Casa Toquilla | Rama Estudio | STIRworld
    Casa Toquilla L: Elevation Image: Courtesy of Rama Estudio
  • Casa Toquilla M: Floor plans | Casa Toquilla | Rama Estudio | STIRworld
    Casa Toquilla M: Floor plans Image: Courtesy of Rama Estudio
  • Casa Toquilla M: Elevation | Casa Toquilla | Rama Estudio | STIRworld
    Casa Toquilla M: Elevation Image: Courtesy of Rama Estudio

Occupying an 80 sqm area, Casa Toquilla L is the largest of the three. Designed to accommodate up to eight people, this version of the Toquilla House functions on one floor and is ideally planned for elderly users or those who require ease of movement. Responding to the families’ necessities, the residence is divided into three spaces for privacy. The residential design incorporates two bedrooms and a common area. On the single floor placed on a deck raised from the ground, the thermal performance is mitigated by a grid on the floor that recirculates cold air and pambil screens with mosquito nets.

  • Casa Toquilla S: Axonometric view | Casa Toquilla | Rama Estudio | STIRworld
    Casa Toquilla S: Axonometric view Image: Courtesy of Rama Estudio
  • Casa Toquilla S: Floor Plan | Casa Toquilla | Rama Estudio | STIRworld
    Casa Toquilla S: Floor Plan Image: Courtesy of Rama Estudio

With a 70 sqm area, Casa Toquilla M takes shape on a deck raised on piles, a statement of the material’s durability. Planned for eight members, the layout set across two floors emphasises ample meeting spaces for efficient habitability. The Casa Toquilla S follows a similar layout, except for the absence of a balcony on the first floor. In a 60 sqm area, the smallest of the housing trilogy optimises space by adopting an open-plan layout. What makes the houses unique is the integration of technical details into the structure's spatial development. Incorporating the toquilla straw weave into the residential architecture itself, the roof profile and attic spaces engage in creating functional spaces on the upper floors. Adorning the facade and enclosing the elevations are pambil screens which are resistant to different weathers and humidity.

  • The technical details necessary to weave the toquilla straw were part of the spatial development | Casa Toquilla | Rama Estudio | STIRworld
    The technical details necessary to weave the toquilla straw were part of the spatial development Image: Courtesy of JAG Studio
  • The spaces are open, generating a utility corridor that enhances cross ventilation throughout the house | Casa Toquilla | Rama Estudio | STIRworld
    The spaces are open, generating a utility corridor that enhances cross ventilation throughout the house Image: Courtesy of JAG Studio
  • A system of pambil partitions, very resistant to weather and humidity, is responsible for closing the house at night | Casa Toquilla | Rama Estudio | STIRworld
    A system of pambil partitions, very resistant to weather and humidity, is responsible for closing the house at night Image: Courtesy of JAG Studio

The project did not only create a place for the community of the island but also acted as a practical exercise for the locals. Training the community in bamboo construction and toquilla straw weaving, the construction of the Toquilla Houses used local labour throughout the construction process. “At a technical level, the houses were treated with different preservation and curing methodologies to evaluate their durability and to be able to carry out a real follow-up of the complications that the material may suffer in a humid and saline environment such as that of the coast,” share the architects.

  • For the construction of the three housing prototypes, local labour was used | Casa Toquilla | Rama Estudio | STIRworld
    For the construction of the three housing prototypes, local labour was used Image: Courtesy of JAG Studio
  • Each house serves as a practical exercise to train the community in bamboo construction and toquilla straw weaving | Casa Toquilla | Rama Estudio | STIRworld
    Each house serves as a practical exercise to train the community in bamboo construction and toquilla straw weaving Image: Courtesy of JAG Studio
  • The houses were treated with different preservation and curing methodologies to evaluate their durability and to be able to carry out a real follow-up of the complications | Casa Toquilla | Rama Estudio | STIRworld
    The houses were treated with different preservation and curing methodologies to evaluate their durability and to be able to carry out a real follow-up of the complications Image: Courtesy of JAG Studio

While the prototypes have been realised, the architects add, "Toquilla Houses is a project in which the technique is optimised to the maximum, to be the most efficient without neglecting quality or safety. A set of decisions and details that propose to resume construction in bambú and paja toquilla with the objective of making it accessible to all. Currently, in the area, they have replicated the methodology, design and construction in three more homes." Through community participation, the locals were able to reconnect with natural materials and familiar construction methods, and technical details. However the wider possibility of implementing these vernacular construction methods are still a tedious process. The project is just one among the many initiatives by architects from around the world, aiming to build for the betterment of society and a cause that requires attention. While Casa Toquilla is not the peak of its architectural potential, it is still a story of responsible, responsive, and respectful architecture. With more such architectural interventions to come, can the future of architecture resonate with Tadao Ando's saying, "I believe the way people live can be directed a little by architecture?"

  • Climate, sustainability and the functioning was a major consideration throughout the planning process | Casa Toquilla | Rama Estudio | STIRworld
    Climate, sustainability and the functioning was a major consideration throughout the planning process Image: Courtesy of Rama Estudio
  • Each home has its own sewage management system | Casa Toquilla | Rama Estudio | STIRworld
    Each home has its own sewage management system Image: Courtesy of Rama Estudio
  • The system includes  biodigester, biological filters and infiltration fields | Casa Toquilla | Rama Estudio | STIRworld
    The system includes biodigester, biological filters and infiltration fields Image: Courtesy of Rama Estudio

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