VERANDA presents: Designing the Dream with Summer Thornton. In this series, she'll walk us through her step-by-step process of building and designing Casa Rosada, her new home in Sayulita, Mexico. Here, all of the architectural details that make her vacation home sing.
A few weeks ago, my 10-year-old daughter joined me on a trip to Sayulita to check on the progress of Casa Rosada. The days were a blur of activity and installations. Before we left, she convinced me to take a break and join her in a test run of our newly installed infinity pool. It was a moment of peace. Warmed by the sun, we splashed our toes in the cool water as it tumbled over the edge and spilled into the Pacific.
Anyone who’s ever built a house in a (very) natural habitat knows that achieving a feeling of “one with nature” takes a lot of work. I’m thrilled that the infinity pool is sleek and seamless; I love that it feels cool and effortless, but getting there was the result of months and months of design, redesign, and back-and-forth between my team, the architect, and the builder.
Working hard to appear effortless is often the case when it comes to architectural details. Fundamental building blocks of a home—things like the windows, built-ins, and railings—anchor the fun stuff. When you get it right, they often go unnoticed, but these details are worth a shout-out. So, let’s take a moment to celebrate a few unsung architectural heroes.
The Front Door
When we bought our Sayulita lot, a small, run-down house stood on the property. It wasn’t much to behold, but from the moment I laid eyes on that original, dilapidated front door—which led to the original, crumbling courtyard—I knew for a fact I wanted to preserve it.
The door was too small to fit Casa Rosada’s grand scale, but our architect had an inspired solution: Out of concrete, he created an architectural arch around that original door. I love the result because it looks like we found an ancient courtyard and built a modern home around it.
If you’ve been following along with us on this series, you know that the arch feature has been a hot, and sometimes contentious, topic. Our architect is not a fan, but I think they can be beautiful and functional. After hours of debate, we laid some To-Arch-Or-Not-To-Arch Ground Rules that helped guide future decisions—and curb future debate.
Here’s where we landed: All the really big windows that open to the ocean are rectangular and incorporate pocketed glass doors. All the interior openings are arched. It works because rectangles provide maximum exterior views, and arches soften the interior transitions. (As with every rule, there’s an exception. The smaller-scale windows on the sides of the home are framed-steel arches.)
Enrique, our architect, and I are calling the home our love child—it’s a little bit him and a little bit me.
When you build a home on the ocean, your building options become limited in many ways that other homes aren’t. This extends to exterior features like the balcony railings, where metal would rust and wood would rot. Enrique suggested a glass railing to preserve the view and keep a clean aesthetic, but to me, a glass railing is way too modern and sterile.
Josh and I found the answer on the side of the highway. When you’re driving down the road in Mexico, you’ll see a traditional Mexican zig-zag pattern all over the place, including on really basic Mexican buildings. It’s a common “breeze block,” which is a cement or concrete screen that provides some shade and promotes ventilation.
Enrique was horrified when we suggested incorporating this pattern into a concrete railing, but we knew we could use it as inspiration and make it more elegant. After increasing the scale and changing the proportion so that it balances the rest of the structure, it feels very chic!
Imagine taking an 8x10 sheet of paper, holding the edge up to your wall so that the paper is parallel with the floor, and curving the sides down. Now imagine forming that out of concrete and plastering it over it. That’s what we did for Casa Rosada’s lighting, and I could not love it more.
Covered with the same chukum as the walls, these quiet, built-in sconces emit light in a moody, romantic way that is just perfect at night. Above, the concrete sconce and "lampara palma" details illuminate the hallway.
Arched Wall Niches
This architectural design feature comes in handy for two of my favorite things: throwing parties and accessorizing. Built into the wall, they’re like little interchangeable display shelves that you can use to showcase anything from flowers to sculptures to pottery.
These niches vary in size throughout the house; the smallest is about a foot tall, and the largest is around 4 feet. The one in the powder room is pretty large, and I intend to have a large floral arrangement in there most of the time. A tiny light at the top of each niche makes them especially pretty at night.
Maybe it’s weird to have a fireplace in a beach house, but I love a fire—and at night in Sayulita, it can get chilly. Unlike most fireplaces that are level with the ground, we positioned ours in the dining room, about 30 inches off the ground at the end of our 20-foot-long dining room table.
The fireplace is inset into the concrete wall, covered in plaster and chukum, so that it blends with its surroundings but has a dramatic but sensual shape. When I dream of vacations with family and friends at Casa Rosada, this is one of my favorite visuals: As the sun sets over the ocean, the fire gives off an intimate warmth, fanning the flames of conversation and laughter.
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