- Travel photographer Prashant Ashoka, 32, built a home on the Palo Huérfano volcano in Mexico.
- The off-the-grid home, which has a rainwater swimming pool, is powered by solar electricity.
- The 800-square foot property, with its mirrored facade, is designed to disappear into the landscape.
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When most people go for a hike in the countryside, they will come home with Instagram shots or memories. But when travel photographer Prashant Ashoka went for a trek through the Los Picachos mountains, Mexico, in 2017, he returned as the owner of a plot of land – on the side of an extinct volcano.
"It was rough and wild, covered in huge boulders, mesquite trees, and cactus," Ashoka told Insider. "But it was beautiful at the same time."
After trekking through oak forests, along riverbeds and across highland plains, Ashoka met a local farmer and struck up a conversation. Ashoka told him about his dream to build a home in such a remote place. The farmer said there was a plot of land next to his house that was for sale and took him to a site that was high on the mountainside.
"I could understand why no one had bought it," said Ashoka. "There was no road access, no water and electricity, and it was on a 45-degree incline. Even for farming it was a useless plot of land."
But the Singaporean had already fallen in love with this piece of wilderness and knew it was here that he wanted to build his new home.
Blending into the background
Ashoka had moved to Mexico on a whim. He had been drawn to the UNESCO World Heritage city of San Miguel de Allende with its Bohemian vibe and rich heritage of writers and artists.
But Ashoka didn't want his home to be a blot on the landscape that he'd fallen in love with - he wanted it to blend into the background. Money and time dictated the size, and he started to sketch out his plan for his two-room home after watching YouTube videos. Ashoka also shared his plans with architect friends so they could give him pointers.
After getting his plans approved by a structural engineer, he hired a project manager to oversee the build. But while Ashoka thought it would be a year-long project, it took three years to complete. "The project changed from one year to three because I didn't have any experience in architecture, design, or building," he said. "It also took a long time to get building permission and complete the necessary paperwork."
"The project changed from one year to three because I didn't have any experience in architecture, design, or building."
However, the novice architect wasn't just creating a home, but an art piece. Ashoka's design for his house echoed the V-shaped ravine of the mountain range. He also wrapped the building in a mirrored facade so it would blend into the landscape. During the day Casa Eterea (meaning "ethereal" in Spanish) reflects the clouds in the sky and at night, the stars.
Using the landscape as part of the design
Ashoka installed solar panels to generate electricity, created a rainwater catchment system on the roof, and positioned the building so that it was able to naturally regulate in the desert landscape and use the mountain for shelter. Volcanic rock was also collected and used in the foundations of the house.
Including these eco-friendly elements, Ashoka said, felt like the right thing to do: "It was my first attempt at building a home and I wanted to do it properly."
In an effort to minimally disrupt the wildlife and the landscape, he created a mirrored glass that would be safe for birds. He worked with local glass designer Oskar Chertudi Maya to create a striped UV glass, which would be visible to birds, but not to the naked eye.
No luxury was sacrificed
The eco-friendly nature of the home doesn't mean Casa Eterea is devoid of luxuries. Ashoka designed a swimming pool and worked with local artisans to create a freestanding copper bathtub.
To execute the project, Ashoka, an independent photographer, had to learn light engineering skills. And that wasn't the only challenge he faced: During the summer, the region experiences torrential rain, which meant the dirt road Ashoka built to his mountainside property became impassable. Ashoka would usually travel each day from his home in San Miguele de Allende to the building site.
"Construction halted three times. I would also get my car stuck in the mud and I would have to shout down the mountain to my neighbors so they could come and rescue me," he said.
Ashoka said he was worried about what the local farmers would think about this modern house. But on the day the mirrored glass was installed, his fears were allayed.
"One of our neighbours who was walking past the house to tend his cows said, 'Your house is really interesting - it's always shifting, it's always moving…' I thought that was so great," Ashoka said. "That was my biggest compliment."
Final touches: Completing the interior and landscaping the garden
In March 2020, the pandemic stuck, and the construction industry ground to a halt. Luckily, Ashoka just had the interior of the house to complete. Over the next five months, he worked on this alone.
Ashoka also landscaped the garden. Alongside the cactus, he planted olive, pomegranate, and orange trees. "I think it's very romantic, [the] idea of being able to pluck fruit from the tree and taste what grows in the garden. I wanted that experience for people staying in the house," he explained.
Since the beginning of the build, nature has treated Ashoka to many unforgettable moments. "Every year from October to November the Monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico from Canada. One day I was sitting in the pool and I spotted five monarchs, then 10, and soon the sky was filled with them," he said.
In hindsight, he says he would have done some things differently. "I would have built the house on a stilt-like structure, rather [than] use a deep rock foundation. That would have been simpler, faster, and would have been a lot less invasive," he said. "I would be tempted to build my own home again, depending on the location."
"Hopefully," he added with a laugh, "somewhere flat."