When London residents, Milan-born Roberto Sidoti and his Mexican wife, Pia Hagerman started searching for an alternative to their intense London work lives, they imagined a small house by the sea somewhere in Mexico. What they ended up with was entirely different. Their cherished Casa Nalum is a large home that seems to almost float in the breeze-blown palms and is the embodiment of living with nature.
Roberto, an engineer by training and an investment banker by trade, always loved the sea, sailing and diving and his wife Pia, a buyer for Armani, is Mexican. So, Roberto explains, when the couple decided to “reinvent” themselves it was only logical they would look toward a new life on the Mexican coast.
While it might be an easy choice to leave London’s cold and damp for Mexico’s sunshine, it is not easy to throw aside successful careers and the sophisticated pleasures of one of the world’s greatest cities. That is, Roberto says laughing, until he took his first vacation in the then sleepy town of Tulum. “We stayed in a cabana on the beach and I looked around and saw the most beautiful place in the world.” Pausing in a moment of reflection, he continues. “I also saw in it all the dreams we had for our lives.”
Almost on the spot, the couple decided to buy property. Roberto admits the fact that his wife was Mexican and her family knew the area made what was certainly a risky decision, a little bit less heart stopping, but it still was a life-changing move. They bought a modest home in a nearby village, but the couple had their eye on something else even bolder, a completely unique property in a nearby-protected biosphere.
The biosphere, a nature reserve is called Sian Ka’an (Mayan for “where the sky is born”). It is a UNESCO site made up of 1.3 million acres of land, beach, dunes, mangrove, and forest. The sanctuary, however, was not open for development. That is, until almost the exact moment when Roberto and Pia moved to the area.
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The couple had visited the reserve. It was a magnificent experience but clearly not an easy trip. The roads were unpaved. The land was wild. At times during their exploration, the jungle was so thick they needed a machete to make their way. Despite the difficulty, they were drawn by the raw beauty and the ever-present fragrance of the sea. They were convinced they had found their spot, Roberto says almost breathlessly as if reliving the moment in telling. The Caribbean was on one side, a lagoon on the other. “It was raw beauty!” he says. “It was like a call from within.”
Fortunately for the couple, the protected area was just being opened for a very few properties to be built. The construction regulations were rigorous. The homes had to be in harmony with the protected land and had to honor all the protocols of sustainability and the integrity of that land. Rather than viewing the rules as an onerous burden, the couple was pleased with the opportunity to build a home that respected the environment. “My goal was to build a house that was perfectly merged with nature,” he explains. “I wanted it to be sustainably built and respectful of the Mayan traditions of the area.”
And so they set out to create a self-sufficient retreat heated by the sun, cooled by the breeze, subtly integrated into the surrounding palm forest. It was not an easy task, but a rewarding one, explains Roberto. First of all, there was the surrounding jungle, flora and fauna that he did not want to disturb. To that end he built the house on stilts with a minimal footprint. Rather than cutting trees that were “in the way,” they built around them. In one case, even cutting a hole in the terrace to accommodate a particularly tall coconut palm.
The couple chose to use local materials and natural textures wherever possible. The multi-level roof of palm fronds references the traditional palapa, the signature open-sided thatched roof architecture of the region. The woods used to frame the house are local, such as the red hued chico zapote and the dark irregular grained chechen. Although it was structurally necessary to incorporate concrete, that material is tinted a terracotta color with a natural pigment from the bark of a chukum tree.
The result is that three-storied home on stilts seems to float discreetly in the trees as if a part of the forest itself. The first floor is given over to the staff. The second floor has three simply but elegantly furnished guest bedrooms. It is, however, the social area that is Casa Nalum’s focus, says Roberto. The open-sided space offers 360-degree view of the Caribbean, the forest and the sparkling lagoon. With its soaring thatched ceiling, a sand color sprawling sofa and soft white fine netting, the home, says Roberto is “almost perfectly merged with nature”.
That homage to and reverence for the natural world found in the materials used and design of Casa Nalum, Roberto says, is similar to and takes its cues from the work of architects such as Manolo Mestre and Enrique Zozaya. Both of these Mexican architects seek to showcase the environment and use local materials in the construction. Mestre is known for minimizing the boundaries between interior and exterior. Zozaya’s structures are easily identifiable for their organic quality and the way in which the buildings seem to emerge out of the landscape rather than the home imposing itself onto the terrain.
“The vernacular techniques of these architects fascinate me,” says Roberto of his influences in designing Casa Nalum. It too, like a Zozaya home, seems to rise out of an almost pristine terrain of coconut palm and precious and endangered chit palm forest. The home, on a backdrop of nature, is surrounded by purple morning glory, sea lettuce and sea grape. The sea, just steps from the house hosts the second longest barrier reef in the world, a garden of tropical sea life.
Living in the protected biosphere, Roberto says, is a privilege. He and his wife Pia, who is responsible for the elegant interior with its subtle palette and understated collection of regional pottery and textile and art, are committed to the environment, culture and communities in the area. They believe it is their family’s obligation to contribute to the education and well being of the nearby Mayan villages and to actively protect the environment. The couple even provides opportunities for guests (who include celebrities such as Mick Jagger, Miuccia Prada and Eva Longoria) to participate in beach clean up initiatives and other environmental activities should they choose to.
And on learning to live at a slower pace, Roberto admits the less frenetic life took getting used to. But what a joyous surprise, he says of his life with his wife and three young children. “We can live here and still enjoy all the flavors of life!”
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