an architect’s journey: pandemics, bad internet, and clé tile

by clé tile | published: Jun 9, 2022

photo by anita calero arboleda

it was one of those projects that would have taken our collective breaths away, even if it didn’t feature our tile—but which it did of course.

the home, casa loro, is situated on the pacific coast of panama, and looks like our fantasy of a tropical idyll: simple (but not stark) forms, thatched roofs, an indoor/outdoor vibe courtesy of natural materials and windows everywhere, and, of course, the tile.

cement tile in federal blue clads the soaking tub, which stands in a bathroom that opens up to a deck that opens onto the ocean (bliss), and the kitchen, clad to the rafters in clé fired opal zellige which echoes to perfection the glistening light coming off the pacific. the effect is integrated, natural, and essential—the opposite of decorative.

photos by anita calero arboleda

but dig a little deeper—because this is about so much more than aesthetics—and you discover a story about connection to local heritage and commitment to conservation. the home, owned by multi-hyphenate creative aerin lauder and her husband, eric zinterhofer, was designed by ivan and kristin morales of miami and panama-based IM/KM architecture & planning.

the firm describes its mission as creating architecture that has its foundation at the intersection of environmental conservation, restoration, and design. early on, they found themselves not just designing homes but an entire ecological reserve in panama. the couple clearly relishes the challenge of working in a place that’s hundreds of miles from the nearest design center, where they found themselves “navigating cowboy politics and unreliable distributors, nursing poor soil back to health and eradicating invasive species”.

photos by emily kinsky

the real payoff for the duo is the impact they are able to have on the environment—forest and species restoration, the creation of new livelihoods for local communities—and helping clients live in sync with nature. and the design of casa loro reflects that, from the way the buildings were sited to take advantage of ocean breezes, to the construction materials (renewable teak and bamboo), and finishes—like the tile—that evoke the natural setting of the house.

we recently had a chance to talk to kristin about their approach—and the extraordinary journey of creating casa loro which included living onsite (due to covid), with bad internet service, and homeschooling a lively, curious 8 year old.

first off, what three words describe your approach to your work?

our approach to design starts at the intersection of conservation and restoration, with a big focus on the social and environmental impact of our work.

photo by emily kinsky

we were blown away by the casa loro project: its sensitivity to environment and materiality and culture, the way you introduced color inside in a way that so evoked the lushness of the outdoors. can you talk a little bit about how you went about the design process?

overall, the design intent of this project has been to create a residence that relates and engages with its site. to blend interior and exterior spaces in a real way—that goes beyond simply installing a large sliding door. everything from the texture, color and lighting of the interior spaces was selected to further blur boundaries and to encourage inhabitants to use indoor and outdoor spaces indiscriminately. the texture and color of the wood facades is intentionally muted, and we included more colorful treatments of the kitchen and bathrooms throughout the project to provide a contrast.

when looking for inspiration on our projects, we always look to our surroundings. in this case, we drew from the forest and of course the nearby beach. we walked the property and collected several samples of seashells, stones, coral pieces, and seeds. as you can see in our mood boards for the project, we selected clé tile colors that closely resemble the natural materials we collected from the a further play on texture, we paired the clé zellige tiles [fired opal] with encaustic cement tiles of the same color family. the high gloss textured finish of the zellige tiles contrast against the matte encaustic tiles, and differentiate between vertical and horizontal surfaces while establishing visual continuity in the space.

photo by emily kinsky

this project saw you living on site during construction due to covid. how did that change the way you usually work?

with all our projects we tend to be very hands-on. living on-site actually made our process a bit simpler. we are always working, so our quarantine at the job site certainly made our commute a lot shorter.

photo by emily kinsky

how did it enrich the outcome?

being quarantined as a family—away from our home—at work was challenging. for 13 months we were away from our home, not to mention all our favorite toys, clothes, books, and tools. in our previous ‘tour of duty’ (2008-2011) in pedasi it had been just ivan and me—but now we had olivia. 8 years old at the beginning of the lockdown—she was in the middle of 1st grade. this was her 2nd year at her international school in panama city. we had a lovely routine of life in clayton—the former canal zone in panama city.

but suddenly that all shifted to living at a construction site and doing virtual school–with the spottiest internet service imaginable. in the early days of the quarantine we were more focused on not getting sick than on missing our home, but as the months dragged on and lockdown continued my mind wandered to memories of warm, sunny clayton. our task at hand was to (1) not get sick, (2) finish casa loro, and (3) try to live in the moment and enjoy our admittedly unique opportunity as a family.

our time at casa loro gave us firsthand knowledge of what living in this house entails. we were able to revisit view corridors through the house that had long been blocked by scaffolding and construction. we saw these corridors grow and change as the landscaping came in around them. we placed specific plantings along these corridors to further tie the design together. as a family we would often spend time gardening at casa loro on the weekends.

photos by emily kinsky

at 8 years old, olivia knew how to trim the bamboo hedge and how to shape the jasmine, taking care not to cut off too much. as you can imagine this was a very formative time for us as a family. we also were able to ascertain where we needed to modify pathways throughout the house and add meeting spots or areas of rest. in fact, we added 3 new deck areas due to our direct interaction with the house during our quarantine there.

after seeing casa loro complete, we’ve had time to reflect on the experience. yes, it was a remarkable adventure, but it was not a luxury vacation either. it was work, for all 3 of us. we were on our own, isolated in a very remote place, and surrounded by our work. we collaborated with olivia on her schoolwork, and she helped us with ours. after leaving casa loro in april 2021 and returning to our home in clayton for the first time since march 2020, we found that olivia had grown 10cm since the last tick mark we left on the wall. a lot of growth happened in those 13 months—olivia grew taller yes, but together we grew closer as a family and for that I am very grateful.

photo by emily kinsky

what do you think your lingering memories of this project will be?

my lingering memory is that of the client—enjoying their home, adding their own personal touches, and bringing the entire place to life in a way that only they could do. their first stay, i vividly recall sitting with them in the outdoor living room in the evening—the beautiful breeze, warm lighting, and lots of laughter all around. it was just as i had hoped but also so much more. i also remember after their third stay at the house, the client told me that it’s incredible how they are constantly discovering ‘new’ spaces in their home. they expressed that each new discovery had exceeded the previous.

i remember how many challenges this project brought, and how patience, dedication, collaboration, and hard work made it all possible. above all, i’ll remember the sunrise at the pool.

tile is part architectural, part decor. what role does tile typically play for you in projects?

oh tile is definitely architectural—it’s part of the wall, floor, surface. those planes define edges and spaces—and reflect and absorb light—the integral components to architecture. definitely architectural.

photos by emily kinsky

we love the story of how you and Ivan reinvented your lives…and also found this amazing opportunity to conserve and restore habitats and ecosystems as part of your journey. tell us a little about that.

fourteen years ago, we embarked on this path in panama. what began as a 9-month contract to observe the construction of a sprawling beachfront home, transformed into a project that was more layered and complex than we could have imagined. this project demonstrated that architecture is more than brick and mortar. when we arrived in panama, we had worked on led accredited projects in nyc for highly respected architectural firms for years. on the azuero peninsula, we could see the effects of our work on the landscape immediately. in fact, the stretch of ocean in front of our project was the only one that didn’t turn brown during the rainy season from stormwater runoff and erosion.

this was a lesson to us all: whatever we do, as designers and as people, has an impact on the world around us. for the first time, we saw how our projects are very much like pressure points in the body. when you push on one point it affects the other, for better or for worse. fourteen years later we’ve gotten better, but not perfect, at understanding which points to push and when. our goal is to try and achieve an environmental and social balance not just for our site, but for the surrounding ecosystem and community.

photo by emily kinsky

what’s next for you? tell us about a dream project!

our goal is to continue in our stewardship role at reserva panamaes while taking on a few projects per year—here, there, or anywhere—that would give us the opportunity to utilize our knowledge and share our experiences. creating architecture that is impactful while maintaining a relationship with the project and client beyond substantial completion, and to consider ourselves stewards of our work and to share this message with others—that is our dream.

photos by emily kinsky