Words Patrick Kasingsing
Images Greg Mayo
“I’m afraid there’s not much of a story here,” PXP Design Workshop co-founder Patrick Espiritu shares with an embarrassed look as we approach the house, a 700-square-meter, double-level space embedded on a 10-degree sloped lot. I give the house a sweeping glance: you know at once that as a tropical dwelling, it should work. From the street, the house appears to be broken into two interlocked volumes, whose glassine boxes are shielded from the street with a curtain of teak wood timber screens. Despite the copious use of screens throughout the façade, the house is anything but a reclusive fortress; the wooden screens, like a sheer curtain, let through hints and glimpses of the house’s composition and layering. The beautifully orchestrated entry sequence further enhances this layered approach, adding an aura of mystery by having visitors enter the house through a dark, staired corridor lined with adobe stone, eventually emerging in an open, double-height space awash in light and the shadow of the louvers that veil the home.
Razor-sharp eaves protrude 2.5 meters from the rectangular blocks on all sides, emphasizing the house’s horizontality, a gestural counterpoint to the verticality suggested by the timber screens. Lush greenery punctuates select corners of the house’s multi-leveled fascia, which favors a row of lush, old-growth trees.
I look to Espiritu for elaboration; how can this picturesque home be devoid of a story worth telling?
“The beautifully orchestrated entry sequence adds an aura of mystery; visitors enter through a dark, staired corridor lined with adobe stone, eventually emerging in an open, double-height space awash in light.”
House of Screens was technically PXP Design Workshop’s first residential project, but the pandemic pushed back progress so much that another house project in Quezon City by the studio of ten finished ahead. Speed, however, was not something the owners of this abode prioritized; they wanted a house that fitted their tastes and inclinations to a tee. The L family, a husband-and-wife entrepreneur with two college-going children, were dedicated to making the most of their real estate that they organized a mini competition between three architecture practices, one of which was PXP.
The brief called for four bedrooms and spaces that catered to the diverse inclinations of the household; the man of the house wanted a music room for his instrument collection; Mrs. L and daughter, both with a penchant for beautiful design and craftsmanship, wanted pieces that were practical and artfully put together. The son, an avid cook, desired a fully equipped kitchen and dining space to serve as his culinary stage. The household, who lived in a modestly sized two-story house beside their new lot, also wanted a swimming pool, as this was a feature deprived of them in their previous home.
In the end, it was PXP’s design vision that greatly appealed to the family. Studio co-founder Spencer Sy muses on their win: “We were eager to try unconventional solutions to meet the requirements, encouraged by the client’s openness to possibilities. We’d like to think that it was our novel approaches and problem-solving in response to the challenges the brief presented that gave us the upper hand,” he adds.
Espiritu chalks up the strength of their bid from taking advantage of the parcel’s defining characteristic: its steep slope. “We thought of the slope more as a friend than a foe to tame; We positioned the major spaces (living, dining, kitchen, and master’s bedroom) on the highest level of the slope, open planned, so all of the said spaces share full, unimpeded views of the trees up front. The slope also allowed us to create a dramatic entry sequence, wherein we placed the main door up in the middle of the lot, with an ascending entrance route from street level that is a play on light and dark.”
“When we saw their designs, it was different from the others we saw; it was like a breath of fresh air from the usual approaches. After meeting the team, we appreciated the vision of PXP for the house and saw their passion and drive for their craft; it didn’t take much deliberation for us to decide to work with PXP.” Homeowner Mrs. L shares.
The volumetric distribution of the house has as its nexus the requested 2.5-by-9-meter swimming pool. Conveniently hidden from street-level view, it is however omnipresent in views from the living and dining areas, the master bedroom, and the second-floor bedrooms for the children. Coupled with the lush canopy of the aged trees fronting the property, it makes for a tranquil sight, especially in a subdivision in the middle of a busy metropolis.
Another aspect of the design that the client grew to appreciate was the copious pockets of green that PXP carved out without affecting the household’s asks. Originally ambivalent to greenery and fearing the amount of maintenance and upkeep involved, the family was won over by the beauty and calming effect exuded by the natural tableaus and pocket gardens the studio orchestrated around the property.
For the co-principals of PXP, the house’s signature feature is undoubtedly the sturdy teak screens that shield the west-facing front façade:
“The plan was to orient the house’s major spaces to favor the trees out on the street; however, the challenge was that the street-facing façade faces west,” Sy recalls. “As a solution, we introduced panels of timber louvers outside the glass windows, as well as extending the roof eaves around it. This helped us to buffer the house’s interior spaces against the afternoon sun and yet still preserve the views of the foliage outside.”
Beyond keeping out the sun, the screens do double duty as privacy shields, especially with the copious use of full-height windows. The screens veil and distort household movements on street level by appearing solid, whilst allowing the family the luxury of opening their sliding windows to let sunlight and breezes in. The screens also come with an added bonus: they are the protagonists of entertaining shadow play when the conditions are sunny and bright.
Having previously worked for revered Singaporean practices CMD and SCDA respectively, Sy and Espiritu can attest to the effectivity of louvers, an architectural element they often employed as ‘solar and visual buffers in their projects in the Garden City.’ “We were confident in introducing it here as we’ve seen how it works,” Espiritu shares.
Despite being the house’s defining feature, the homeowners were initially worried that the expansive use of louvers would make for dark interior spaces; their worries were only assuaged when Espiritu and Sy had mockups created to show the impact the screens would have indoors.
We saw the screens in action on the day of our visit, which had a sampling of both sun and rain; the louvers did well to filter the excess sunlight and heat in the morning, helping ward off stray rainfall from the interiors, and effectively masked household movement at night when the interiors are all aglow. The house’s abundant floor-to-ceiling glazing (with most windows operable) ensured that the house did not feel hemmed in or closeted off from the outside world.
“In terms of space planning, I would say that we are heavily influenced by the classical way of planning spaces, defined by symmetry and sensitive scaling; successful implementation of these two allows the spaces to exude a sense of balance beneficial to the end user,” Espiritu explains.
This sense of balance is indeed extant as one traverses the luminous spaces of the House of Screens. Spaces for socializing are left open plan, with walls reserved for the private bedroom spaces. Despite the house’s considerable size, the interior spaces feel intimate, thanks to a material palette that exudes warmth and earthiness, and a furniture composition with a measured use of soft and hard surfaces, rounded and sharp corners.
PXP and renowned Sorsogon-based interior and furniture designer Milo Naval worked together on select pieces for the home, tweaking the sizes of existing designs to fit the spaces, or creating new pieces entirely, which were then fabricated by Naval’s OMO factory. These pieces include the angular tanguile sofa and table set in the living area, along with the 1.5-meter-long punch-holed coffee table in the second-floor family room.
PXP’s material palette for the house runs the gamut of textures and tones from pristine plaster surfaces, honey-hued narra surfaces, to craggy gray adobe stone. Of course, there was a budget to follow, so the team was strategic about the finishes they used. “We bid the project according to the target budget, but snuck in our pockets some of the materials we really envisioned using, materials we know would elevate the senses of the user when in the space,” Sy shares. “Our strategy is to bring these materials back to the table and do a mock-up during the construction stage. This way, the client can see the impact and feel the actual materials on site. They can then decide whether it will be worth the cost to bring it in.” One of the major material upgrades that was the successful result of this strategy was the rough-hewn adobe stones used to finish the entry corridor. It is hard to re-imagine the entry sequence with another material; the adobe stones delivered intense tactility and a primeval feel, which, coupled with the orchestrated darkness of the route, is akin to entering a cave more than a family home.
There is no such thing as a perfect project; true enough, a challenge presented itself mid-construction when the man of the house decided he wanted a subterranean man cave where he could share a tipple with friends, or indulge in some alone time, listening to a record or two. The resulting scope creep necessitated a manual dig and debris clearing to take place as digger machines could no longer enter the site.
The pandemic also wreaked havoc on the project timeline. Originally scheduled for a 1.5-year construction period, the house took a total of three years to complete due to the prolonged lockdowns and material supply issues brought on by pandemic restrictions.
It was, however, getting the finishing and details at a standard they were happy with that PXP considered their biggest challenge for the House of Screens. “We are obsessed with alignments and material termination in our projects. That was the challenge here, ensuring that the contractor kept the terminations clean, the shapes of the form pure, with no unnecessary kinks, no visual clutter…” Sy ventures.
“…Sometimes, people tell us to let go of this obsession with the alignments and such because only we technical people can see that. True, only we can notice these details most of the time, but trust us, these tiny deviations and mistakes taken together can be felt and sensed by the end user, one way or another.” Espiritu adds.
Despite these speed bumps, the family was largely happy with the resulting space and had given their full trust to the young firm: “PXP was extremely reliable throughout the project; they made sure that they delivered exactly what we had discussed…we appreciate that we had a great dynamic in our client-designer relationship,” Mrs. L shares.
Ebony and harmony
It was perhaps a show of humility on Espiritu’s part when he told me that the house didn’t really have a story. There was one, and one that is hard to come by: a story of a successful collaboration between designer and client. Not many parts of the house felt like the victim of compromise. During our visit, we felt the pride and sense of ownership the clients exuded when they showed us the spaces within the home. They, alongside the designers, owned and are proud of the design decisions that have resulted in such a home. It was the product of trust and empathy on both sides. Mrs. L had more praise for her designers: “What we appreciate the most with the PXP team is that they refused to compromise on quality; we felt cared for as a client in every step of the project and their work has more than exceeded our expectations.”
So what was PXP’s secret?
“Whenever our clients are unsure about something, we execute a tiny portion of it onsite or show a sample so they can understand why we’re resolute or we feel strongly about something,” Espiritu shares. “This is a collaboration after all; we don’t want to push too hard for something if our clients don’t want it. At the end of the day, we both just want to be happy!”
Sy was all smiles when asked about his time with the House of Screens: “I would say that the project was generally easy,” he shares with a grin. “We were lucky to land clients that are very collaborative and respectful of our process and expertise. That is something you don’t get every day!” •