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SelgasCano's new HQ goes back to nature The north-facing wall is a 20mm-thick curved window made of transparent plexiglas, while the opaque south-facing wall uses a ‘sandwich’ of fibreglass, polyester and insulation Steps lead up from entrance level to the tubular space with its long row of workstations – all of them hotdesks Wooden planks are used for paving outside the tubular structure Concrete steps cut into the earth lead down into the office’s entrance
21 Oct 2009

SelgasCano's enchanting office

Words by  Photo by Iwan Baan
  • Architect: SelgasCano
  • Client: SelgasCano
  • Location: Madrid, Spain
  • Cost: Undisclosed
  • Duration: 2005 - 2007
  • Floor Space: 61 sq m

Spanish architecture firm SelgasCano created an office fit for fairies two years ago, but kept it under wraps until now…

“What is being sought with this studio is simple: to work under the trees,” goes the blurb accompanying the amazing images of this Spanish architectural practice’s own office. No Photoshop was used in the making of this particular project, we promise. Simply go into the woods to the north west of Madrid, around eight miles from the city centre, and the big surprise is this futuristic workplace, which is home to SelgasCano.

Husband and wife team José Selgas and Lucía Cano, who both graduated from the Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid in 1992, before starting their professional partnership 15 years ago, had a strong eco-ethos when it came to this project.

“We have been working in this office for two years,” explains architect Jose Jaraiz, giving some background. “The old office was a hired place, so we decided to move to another one. It was not very difficult getting planning permission.”

Selgas and Cano had already worked in the forest before, on a house in La Florida in the outskirts of Madrid. Here they built a family home that was inspired in part by Le Corbusier’s 1957 Convent la Tourette in Lyon, where the central cloister was left unlandscaped for vegetation to develop unfettered.

Then, as now, for the SelgaScano office, the architects instead gave themselves restrictions: to build only in natural clearings among the pines, laurels and acacias, rather than fell any trees.It almost goes without saying that these architects have a bit of a thing for trees: “It’s about not making a barrier to nature,” explains Selgas.

The design detail really comes into its own courtesy of some very clever use of materials. The north-facing wall is a 20mm-thick curved window, made of transparent plexiglas, thus offering views of the flora and fauna outside. The glass was milled at the edges, so that a film of silicon sealant could be injected to protect the structure from the elements.

“When the raindrops hit the plastic, sometimes there is a sound, sometimes you let yourself get carried away”

The opaque south-facing side meanwhile, where the workstations are situated, is constructed from a 110mm-thick ‘sandwich’ comprising fibreglass and polyester with translucent insulation in the middle, which offers shade from direct sunlight. This being Spain and not the dreary UK or sunlight-deprived countries of Scandinavia, during the daytime, there’s no need to supplement the sun, whatever the season.

Cano asserts that “Winter or summer, we don’t use artificial light. Never.”

This is not strictly true: there is no fixed lighting, but staff simply use task lights when they are meeting those late-night deadlines, working on projects such as congress centres and auditoriums in Badajoz in south-west Spain, Cartegena in the south east and Plascenia in the north east of the country as well 20 villas in Madrid.

Being at one with its surroundings, in the summer the forest’s leafy canopy offers some shade to the office workers from the glare of the Madrid sun while in winter, the fact that there are no leaves on the trees means the building can benefit from as much natural heat from the sun as possible.

“It’s the most eco-friendly kind of energy ever used. We barely need heating,” explains Selgas. And what happens when it rains? “When the raindrops hit the plastic, sometimes there is a sound, sometimes you let yourself get carried away.”

They also had to be quite canny about not just what materials they specified, but how they specified them.

As Selgas explains, “It was impossible to persuade a company to get involved in such a small building from start to finish, forcing us to contract out the work with a timetable that fitted in with when companies were available.”

By way of example, the polyester part of one side of the office is made up of two different sized pieces, one straight, one curved, both more commonly found on the roofs of railway carriages; because the manufacturers usually produce in bulk and the project only required a few metres of each, the architects had to wait until German railways placed a big order before they could get their hands on it.

Close cooperation with suppliers was also needed for getting the Plexiglas installed – one firm bent the sheets, while another firm assembled them. Of course, provision of services can’t be neglected either, and to this end, at one side of the building, a hinge on a steel frame can be fully opened using a system of pulleys and counterweights operated by a hand crank for varying degrees of natural ventilation – think a rather more sophisticated version of unzipping the flaps on your tent to let the air circulate while camping. The building’s tubular shape encourages air to flow right through it.

Although it’s pretty hard to miss a 19-metre-long tube in the middle of all this greenery, Selgas and Cano kept part of the building below ground. Concrete steps that cut into the earth lead down into the entrance while a shallow concrete trough forms the building’s foundations. Wooden planks are used for the paving leading outside the building.

Half a dozen staff work in the office and in keeping with the minimalist aesthetic, the space configuration is suitably pared down as well. Everyone hotdesks, Selgas and Cano included, sitting in pairs at a row of white-lacquered work surfaces, cantilevered from the concrete base of one wall.

Shelving runs between the desks. Colour comes courtesy of sections of one wall painted a vibrant shade of chartreuse, and in order to divide the front part of the building from the rear, the floorboards have been painted lemon yellow and white respectively.

For all of its plaudits – and reading the architectural blogs, there are plenty of those – this office has its detractors too. “I’d feel like a rat in a test tube if I worked there,” says one forum post; “Reminds me of being on a train,” says another.

It certainly makes a bold statement, and working there must be like going on a field trip every day, even if there is no privacy – nowhere to bitch about colleagues, nowhere to have those crucial promotion chats, nowhere to have a quiet word.

The potential for claustrophobia must be palpable, but Selgas is having none of it, and he works there after all. He simply states: “It’s like a greenhouse adjusted for people.”

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