Nothing lasts forever, but we usually expect buildings to stick around long enough to become familiar parts of a neighborhood or district. When Alberto Mozó designed a new retail and office building for BIP Computers in Santiago, Chile, however, he knew it might not remain for long. The modest-size, three-story structure sits on a site zoned for a 12-story building, so the economic pressure to erect something bigger began as soon as it opened in 2007. But instead of being discouraged, Mozó took the notion of uncertainty and made it an essential element in his design.
First, he inserted the 17,225-square-foot building between a pair of existing houses on the site, creating the sense that the new structure had merely been slid into place and could just as easily be removed. He retained 80 percent of the two houses, then renovated them for use as computer-assembly space, storage, and customer service. “We wanted to rescue the existing structures as much as possible,” says Nicolás Moens, the owner of BIP Computers, “because they were seen by the community as old country houses in the middle of the city.” While the houses date from 1939 and have tile roofs, Mozó used a very different design vocabulary for his BIP Building to set it apart in terms of time and materiality. Rather than firmly rooting the new building in its context, the architect set it on a concrete podium that separates it from the land and gives it the sense of floating 11⁄2 feet above grade.
He used a single size of laminated pine timbers as the essential element in the building’s structural system, bolting them together for ease of construction and—just as important—ease of dismantling. He selected the size—31⁄2 by 131⁄2 inches—because it reduces the amount of wood waste during cutting and was available from a wood-company catalog. The standardized component—which he used for all of the building’s pillars and beams, as well as a dramatic, curving stair—also provides a great deal of flexibility for reassembling the building on a different site, allowing the structure to take different forms and serve different functions in the future. The design embodies a concept that Mozó calls “transivity,” by which he means the ability to change over time.
The project’s standardized and simplified construction allowed unskilled workers to do much of the labor and to proceed quickly. According to the architect, the building’s two long facades were assembled on-site, then tilted in place in just one day.
“I always make an effort to understand a material’s proper dimensions when I design a building, so I can avoid bluntings or leftovers,” explains Mozó. “The client pays for the material, but that shouldn’t include waste.” Instead of fitting the materials to the design of the building, he worked the other way around on this project. “Material efficiency was key in conceiving the module of the building itself,” states Mozó. “Developing a project that would be friendly to the environment was important to the client,” he says. Because the client emphasized the need to be environmentally responsible, Mozó sourced the wood from renewable forests in Chile. For about half of the curtain wall, the architect used an innovative type of laminated glass that has a middle layer of napa—a fiber used in bedcovers and jackets. The napa makes the glass a translucent white, reducing heat and glare at workstations inside and providing some privacy where needed.
To maximize flexibility, Mozó eliminated all interior partitions, leaving only the structure’s crisscrossing columns to imply a certain spatial segmentation. Twenty-inch-square, precast-concrete pavers create a neutral walking surface for all three floors. The concrete provides thermal mass to slow changes in temperature and reduce the energy needed to heat and cool the interiors. BIP uses the ground floor as a store, the third floor as offices, and the second floor as space for expanding either the store or administrative areas. Right now, the second floor serves as a gallery for emerging artists.
Now in his mid-40s and running a five-person studio in Santiago, Mozó is developing an international reputation as an architect whose command of materials and innovative construction complements a strong commitment to sustainable design.