Shades of Green
Situated on the Sea of Cortez, a garden with a sculptural ramp ups the ante on accessibility.
A single dirt road leads to Cabo Pulmo, a sandy fishing village at the spectacular southern tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Here in this dry-tropical landscape, San Francisco architects Cathi and Steven House created a remote outpost that makes accessibility an art form. Their client, an author of the Americans with Disabilities Act, asked for a house and garden based on universal design principles. “She started her career as an orthopedic surgeon, but when she developed a problem with her eyes she realized how few considerations are given to people with disabilities,” Steven says. “She and her partner don’t need a wheelchair, but were thinking of their friends.”
Cabo Pulmo is off the power grid and on the path of hurricanes and tropical storms that sweep the lower peninsula. So the architects employed a host of environmentally savvy measures: large openings in the house for cross-ventilation, “palapa”-shaded concrete terraces for passive heating and cooling, solar panels, and a rainwater cistern stored under the garden ramp. The construction crew lived on site in tents, building everything by hand.
The two-story structure reuses some of the walls and foundation of an existing house that was in bad shape. Guest quarters are at ground level; main living and sleeping areas are stacked on top to take advantage of panoramic views—of the Sea of Cortez to the east and the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains to the west. The 165-foot-long outdoor ramp makes these upper spaces reachable by wheelchair. Interwoven with spiky agave in terraced planters, it sweeps up to a 10-foot-by-10-foot patio, then switchbacks up to a larger lookout before crossing a bridge to expansive terraces outside the house.
“The ramp is positioned to draw people,” Cathi says. “They naturally go up that way even if they know there’s a stairway inside. It’s a meandering stroll in the garden.”
Many of the outdoor design details are based on natural motifs, like the abstracted outlines of seashells and waves on the railings and the indigenous vine-wrapped tree-trunk posts. Colors, too, complement the site’s vegetation. The clients said they hate green, yet it is used to great effect with yellow and red. “This rocky landscape is shades of dusty gray and green, and the house wanted to be green,” Cathi says. “I took them on a journey about color and they came to the same conclusion.” A deeper journey also occurs: an alternative view of how to live beautifully in a world that welcomes everyone.