Casa De Umbrella

Completed in 2009, Casa de Umbrella is a highly unusual house clad with a plaited bamboo ‘skin’ that extends, like a huge tent, over a supporting steel structure. The purpose of the woven bamboo is to filter out the sun’s direct rays, but it also adds a rare touch of magic and experimental originality. As the house name implies, the design employs the metaphor of a bamboo parasol to shade the living areas.

Located in Sankampaeng province some 42 kilometers to the east of Chiangmai in a broad valley fringed by mountains, the house lies within the Chiangmai Highlands Golf Resort adjacent to the third green. Radab Kanjanavanit, the owner of the house, is a structural engineer and Managing Director of RKV Engineering Consultants. He is a self-confessed golf addict, but a 4x4 vehicle, two powerful Suzuki motorbikes and four mountain bikes in the carport, all superbly maintained, speak of a passion for other outdoor activities; indeed, he is one of Thailand’s foremost yachtsmen, and he regularly features on the leader board of the Phuket King’s Cup, Asia’s premier yachting event, sailing his trimaran ‘Cedar Swan’.

The architect of the two-story house is Somchai Jongsaeng of DECA Atelier, a Bangkok-based designer whose own residence I published in 2001. Somchai worked in close collaboration with the owner who was enthusiastic to experiment with structural and cladding solutions. The supporting structure is playful, with 100-mm-diameter inclined RHS columns beneath the bamboo umbrella while electrical services are surface-mounted in conduit. Various mechanical and electrical devices supplement the natural ventilation to ensure comfortable conditions. These include misting devices and outdoor radiant heating, for nights can be very cold in the highlands.

The open texture of the bamboo umbrella permits the house to breathe. The reception area and kitchen/breakfast area, located on the ground floor, are naturally ventilated while the living area and the dining area on the upper floor, accessed by an open-riser steel staircase, are both open-sided. There is a sense of living in a huge sala with immediate visual and olfactory connection with the natural environment. In the afternoons, an intermittent breeze springs up from the northeast to stir the air and there is a pleasant sound of wind chimes suspended from the eaves. The roof has wide overhangs, yet the openness of the main living areas requires that bamboo chick blinds be lowered when it rains heavily. The bamboo umbrella performs a secondary function of protecting the house occupants from the occasional miss-hit golf ball that soars over the third green.

A steel bridge gives access to the bedroom wing from the living area. The airconditioned master bedroom, which has an attached open-to-sky bathroom, extends to a sheltered semi-outdoor space with a bed and mosquito net for sleeping under the stars on cool nights. The bedroom is the most personal space in the house and here there is an opportunity to display contemporary art works. Overall, the house is light and airy, relying on the cool breezes in this mountainous region to refresh the living areas. The transparency of the house becomes increasingly evident at dusk when, from a distance, the organic profile of the roof merges with the skyline of the distant hills. Once the golfers and their motorized carts have departed in the early evening, the house becomes quiet and secluded.

A 25-meter lap pool and outdoor showers contribute to a relaxed, resort-like ambience, and a small gym and massage room overlook a retention pond at the edge of the golf course that assists in cooling the house. A timber deck extends from the living room over the pool.

Materials include thermoplastic tiles on the external roof and walls, plaster/cement rendering on internal walls, polished cement floors and stained chipboard. But the predominant memory is of the unique bamboo cladding, resembling a permeable brown cloak draped over the structure and suspended over the open veranda. The bamboo was specially selected and was recommended by artisans who had worked with the architect on a project in Chiangmai. The material was placed in water to make it pliable and then rendered with a chemical solution to enhance durability.

Radab Kanjanavanit is the owner of another impressive house, also designed in collaboration with Somchai Jongsaeng, located on a cliff face near the Yacht Marina in Phuket. That house, too, is experimental, incorporating a variety of bridges, elevators and terraces as it steps down the precipitous slope, in the process framing impressive views of the ocean. Some of the structural details, like those of Casa de Umbrella, reflect the owner’s expert knowledge of yacht technology.

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