Two recent residential designs by an innovative Puerto Rican firm showcase a commitment to sustainability and resiliency.
By Natalia Gulick de Torres
Fúster + Architects is a comprehensive architectural design studio led by the Puerto Rican architect Nataniel Fúster. A graduate of both the School of Architecture of the University of Puerto Rico as well as the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Fúster’s works explore the delicate balance between light and shadow. He has established his own distinctive style of architecture, elegantly exploring inventive forms based on simple geometries, allowing for a contextual feel whether the project is nestled within the island’s lush, tropical landscapes or tucked into one of San Juan’s urban streetscapes.
Fúster has designed private residences including Casa Delpín in the city’s Miramar neighborhood, public facilities such as the Escuela La Esperanza therapeutic pools, and hospitality architecture like the boutique El Blok hotel in Vieques. All of these projects are unified by his rigorous usage of simple, abstract forms to create dramatic daylighting through the implementation of brise-soleil facade placements (known as quiebrasoles in Puerto Rico) as well as emphasized overhead lightwells and skylights.
Two of the office’s most recent works are the single-family residential project Casa Flores and the prefabricated home model CASA-i, developed as an offshoot manufacturing project by Fúster and firm co-leader Heather Crichfield. While contextually in different places – the northeastern coastal municipality of Naguabo compared to disparate rural interventions throughout the island’s countryside – these designs are testaments to Fúster + Architects’ commitment to integrated sustainability and resiliency as an inherent part of their process.
Casa Flores, which was built in 2020, is inspired by their previous works – maintaining a rigorous dedication to the interaction between ventilation, illumination, and form while reinventing what a typical family home may look like. The facade openings are minimal on the eastern street-facing side, but the western facade opens entirely towards the coast, with floor-to-ceiling windows that allow for panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean. The house itself is fairly compact, measuring the same size as the exterior patio meant to blur the line between the interior architecture and exterior surroundings, as well as allow for the spillover of family life.
With these simple descriptions, Casa Flores sounds like it could be a standard Puerto Rican home. In the Caribbean, concrete is a typical building material, and aligning the house with the natural flow of the trade winds to create a breezy interior is nothing new. But Fúster + Architects looked at the material and geographical positioning with an inventive approach. Most concrete structures in Puerto Rico are not insulated, allowing heat to permeate and stagnate. Casa Flores is built with an insulated concrete system that makes it extremely energy efficient due to its structural mortar that envelops a continuous interior insulation. In terms of incorporating natural ventilation and bringing illumination into the house, the architects looked into the age-old method of wind scoops and lightwells. Eight massive chimney-like protrusions emerge proudly from the main volume, both capturing the island’s constant breezes and providing secondary sources of natural lighting.
Given the recent destruction of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, the architects integrated several design decisions that would protect the house from such devastating events in the future. Hurricane-resistant panels of a canvas-like material were installed in front of the windows and along part of the terrace, providing both logistical protection from the region’s naturally occurring storms but also serving as a shading device. These panels can be pulled back and forth along the facade like curtains, allowing light to permeate diffusely into interior spaces and creating a sleek alternative to traditional clunky metal shutters. The designers also looked to the pool as another opportunity – while it is primarily an architectural expression and extension of the patio area, it can function as a cistern if necessary.
Fúster and Critchfield continued to develop creative single-family homes with another recent endeavor, CASA-i. Described by the architects as Puerto Rico’s first sustainable, resilient, prefabricated houses, these dwellings are designed to adapt to the region’s complicated landscape. Puerto Rico’s terrain includes rolling mountains, karst plains, and coastal lowlands. The various modules of CASA-i allow for a variety of compositions – single-story or double-story, a lone structure or an interconnected grouping, primarily focused toward the building or primarily open towards its surroundings.
They are further designed to resist the region’s natural climatic events like seasonal hurricanes as well as potential earthquakes and flooding through resilient construction and installation methods in addition to fine-tuned aperture and facade assembly. The homes are additionally outfitted with the capability for complete solar panel installation and feature an independent water collection via cisterns and ready-to-install grey water tubing connections.
As is the case with their independently designed residential projects, CASA-i boasts the ability to be a completely unique project suited to the homeowner and their location through more decorative modules which include shading screens and connectors between major volumes. The volumetric connectors range in enclosure, from a traditional hallway-style module to an open-air porch. The negatives within each screen option take inspiration from Puerto Rico’s natural and designed environments, from leaves mimicking the yagrumo tree of El Yunque rainforest to geometries mirroring the ornate ironwork and woodwork found throughout the island’s city centers. Fúster + Architects may be primarily known for their elegant architectural forms evoking themes of early tropical modernism but recognizing their consistent emphasis on the natural integration of sustainability and resiliency is key to understanding how they wholeheartedly embrace their local Caribbean context.