Two hours west of Mexico City, high up in the mountains, three dark wooden structures are tucked among shrubbery, fruit trees, and swathes of pine and oak forest. This stretch of land is home to Reserva el Peñón, a 450-acre nature reserve where 80 families live, harvesting rainwater and living lightly on the earth. And this multibuilding residence, designed by architects Javier Sánchez and Robert Hutchison, is among La Reserva’s most ambitious.
When Sánchez and his wife, Lorenia, bought a plot of land within the reserve, they had plans for it to become a family getaway. “We were looking for a space that could push us into learning about the environment, food production, water, energy—about building in a different way—mainly because our two daughters are interested in those ideas,” Sánchez says. “So, when I acquired the land, I was already thinking that this house could honor that; that it could speak to [my daughters] and make them proud of what we could accomplish with a house.”
For help, Sánchez enlisted his close friend and frequent collaborator, the Seattle-based Hutchison. What the pair created—the Rain Harvest Home—is not only a paragon of regenerative living in a region where water availability is high yet not locally abundant in some areas (a scarcity partly fueled by rising temperatures and growing populations), but a structure that innovatively engages nature at every turn. “Within this project was the realization [that it’s] not just about conservation of water and energy, but how you make them part of the experience,” Hutchison explains.
The pair began with a plan for a deconstructed house; its three pavilions—for living, working, and bathing—are scattered across the property for maximum interaction with the surrounding environment. In fact, more than two-thirds of the living pavilion is covered outdoor living space. In place of walls, thin steel columns support the roof’s perimeter while appearing to tiptoe along the ground. There is no air-conditioning or heating; only a small portion of the house can be sealed off behind sliding doors. Instead, nature filters in and out. Looking east in the morning, one can see the Nevado de Toluca volcano silhouetted as the sun rises behind it.
Connecting the main residence to the neighboring pavilions are pathways that cleverly double as keylines (landscaping features that maximize the beneficial use of water resources), which, along with the property’s flat roofs, channel rainwater into a nearby reservoir. (All of La Reserva’s properties share a reservoir, but the Rain Harvest Home was the first to have its own.) An on-site treatment system makes stormwater drinkable. Treated wastewater is used in toilets or to irrigate the property’s orchard and vegetable garden. Together, La Reserva and the Rain Harvest Home collect 30 million gallons of water annually.
The architects also took steps to restore Sánchez’s property’s microclimate—spoiled by previous agricultural activities—by improving the soil’s fertility and ability to withstand erosion and flooding. “We’re trying to create a landscape that will not need water in the dry season,” Sánchez says. “That means having fruit trees that are endemic or shrubs and bushes that grow without help from mankind.” Here, the most important element is not the pavilions—or even the humans occupying them—but nature itself. “The vegetation here is incredible,” Hutchison notes. “The buildings literally disappear depending on where you’re walking.”
The wish to tread lightly also informed Sánchez and Hutchison’s material choices; the pavilions are made of wood, which is rarely used as a structural material in Mexican architecture. “I’ve been visiting Mexico forever and finally, I was going to build a concrete or masonry house,” Hutchison says. “But then Javier said, ‘These buildings need to be light on the land, and they need to be wood.’” The architects chose wood over the commonly used concrete for good reason: The latter’s carbon footprint is enormous. “This is where the overlap of the Pacific Northwest and Mexico became quite interesting,” Hutchison continues. “Mexico doesn’t have a contemporary building culture related to wood, so how do you create these wood pavilions and make them truly Mexican and site-specific?”
Unlike the main living pavilion, which frames distant views, the bathhouse is surrounded by bushes and shrubs. “The only relationship you have is to the vegetation, to the water, to the sky,” Hutchison says. In many ways, this building is the property’s heart, where water is not only captured and recycled, but celebrated. Its circular cold plunge pool is open to the sky through a cutout in the roof above. During a downpour, rain falls through the opening, forming a circular sheet of water that fills the pool before slowly submerging the surrounding floor. In a heavy rain, moving between baths requires walking through the pooling water. “The best moment is when it’s really raining,” Sánchez says.
For both Sánchez and Hutchison, the Rain Harvest Home is not only a replicable model for sustainable living, but it also represents a shift in their understanding of architecture. “When we talk about water, energy, or materials, we’re always talking about how they’re sourced and used,” Sánchez says. “[But] it goes beyond just being more efficient; it’s about celebrating [these resources], and that’s something that can be replicated anywhere. How do you celebrate water? How does water celebrate life?”
On this plot of land high up in the mountains, Sánchez and Hutchison have provided a compelling answer.