Casa Xixim

Even the iguanas like to linger at Casa Xixim. The four-bedroom, 4,800-sf vacation villa takes calm and restful to a level that only a turquoise blue beachfront can. Located on Soliman Bay, a small inlet on Mexico’s Mayan Riviera just north of Tulum, the house maximizes views of its impressive landscape while shying away from its densely packed and very close neighbors. The slender lot, which spans from a mangrove marsh through a palm grove to the white sand beach, offered both opportunities and challenges for the architects as they worked to create a self-sufficient building, fit for the modern-day eco-traveler looking for a bit of luxury. 

Designed by the Austin office of Specht Harpman, Casa Xixim is characterized by its openness and locally sourced material palette of poured-in-place concrete, concrete block with a white stucco finish, limestone, garapa wood, and colorful pasta tile. The name, which incorporates the Mayan conch shell hieroglyph, translates to “zero house,” reflecting the owners’ belief in minimizing their carbon footprint — a drive that motivated most of the design decisions. Although it is not entirely off the grid, Casa Xixim is self-sufficient and uses a grid intertie system based on solar power. Passive site orientation also takes advantage of prevailing breezes and sun orientation, eliminating the need for mechanical cooling. The house’s waste processing system incorporates an artificial wetland on the mangrove side of the property.

“The lines between inside and outside are dissolved as much as possible,” says Scott Specht, AIA. “We designed all the living areas to bridge the transition across the site, with large sliding doors that fold into enclosed pockets, allowing there to be an uninterrupted flow from the dense tropical landscape, through the house, and out to the pool and beach beyond.” T-shaped in plan, the large living, dining, and kitchen area is situated in the shorter wing and accessed via the long path to the west. Bedrooms and bathrooms are placed in the longer spine on the property’s edge. Every room in the house opens to the exterior. All views, especially those from the terraces, required numerous models to achieve a good balance. “Xixim had to be designed to open fully to the east and west, while obscuring the large structure to the north as much as possible,” says Specht. 

“This was done with the massing of the structure, as well as the creation of large terraced rooftop gardens.” Balconies extend from the upstairs bedrooms, and the requisite bed-sized hammocks on the roof deck are flanked by planted green roofs and supported by a canopy of solar arrays. 

For Specht, one of the critical decisions the owners made was to leave a buffer of natural foliage between the house and the beach. “This cuts down on views from the ground floor,” he explains, “but makes the procession across the site even more interesting, helps prevent erosion, and nearly completely hides the house from the beachfront. It truly feels like a ‘stealth’ structure.”

Undeniably stealth, however, is the property’s ability to handle hurricane surges and then drain water quickly. Site contouring paired with the robustness of the structure allow the house to withstand flooding without major damage. Even kitchen cabinets are fully drainable and ventilated.

Craftsmanship was critical for the entire project, but especially for the small-sized limestone units of the pillars and the walls along the ground-floor bedrooms and for the highly detailed millwork. Garapa, which is a weather-resistant hardwood, was used for everything from cabinetry, handrails, doors, and windows, to decking, cladding, and much of the furniture. Moving temporarily to the Yucatan proved impossible for the small firm, so the team relied heavily on photo-sharing and virtual meetings. This allowed them to be in communication with the local crew and import very few materials from outside the immediate region. 

The consistency of the various textures from smooth to rough and the repetitive juxtaposition of warm and cool hues against the tile unite the house, establishing the basis for its calm and inviting atmosphere. 

Catherine Gavin is editor of TA.

Originally published in the November/December 2015 issue of Texas Architect.