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A (smart) house for all seasons
Deep in the Latvian countryside, just outside the medieval castle town of Cesis and at the edge of the Baltic State's largest national park, is a holiday home that is surrounded by pristine nature - and possibly the smartest house you will ever meet.
The approach to Villa A, perched on a gentle slope at the end of a quiet lane and up a short driveway, is unremarkable, giving one the initial impression of a low-level minimalist home that wouldn't look out of place in an urban environment. The first inkling that the site is out of the ordinary occurs when you walk towards a line of birch trees behind the house and encounter a spectacular panorama of a forested valley below, unfolding far into the distance.
From the front, the house appears to be encased in raw concrete and only one-and-a-half storeys tall. But from the borderless back garden which slopes downward, a swimming pool and three interior levels are revealed, characterised by blond wood floors, large glass panels and a strong sense of transparency. Winters in Northern Europe are notoriously harsh but during the warmer summer months, when the floor-to-ceiling sliding glass walls can be opened to connect with nature and the vistas just beyond, Villa A offers all the comforts of a contemporary home.
And then some. The owner, an I.T. entrepreneur who sees Artificial Intelligence as an everyday presence and the necessary next step in modern living, has built a fully-integrated Smart Home that provides a glimpse of the future in the here and now.
From the keyless entry system and the voice-activated sound and lighting system to the remote-controlled lawnmower and the obligatory Tesla in the garage, this is an eco-friendly, high-tech home automation showcase and a playground for gadget geeks. Alexa, the intelligent personal assistant developed by Amazon, is on hand to announce visitors, activate appliances, tweak the temperature in a specific room or simply carry on a conversation with an interested visitor.
The home takes full advantage of the expansive views on offer and there is a concerted effort to give the starring role to nature. The architecture is subdued and small-scale, the interiors are clean and functional, with oak floors throughout - almost half of Latvia is covered by forest - and the colour palette is mostly monochromatic, in hues of blond, black and grey.
The focal point is the second-level (or ground floor when entering from the front entrance) living room, which is an extension of the open kitchen. There are two guest rooms on either side of a concrete wall at one end of the living room. A flight of rail-less stairs juts out from the wall and leads to a study/office, with an open corridor leading to the master bedroom on the other side, above the kitchen and dining area.
The bedroom opens up to a large open terrace to take advantage of the view, and the outdoors is accessible from any room in the house. On the ground level next to the pool (swimmable between April and October) there is a sauna (a ubiquitous feature of homes in this part of the world), a wine cellar and a utility room that is well-stocked with logs to feed the fireplace.
The house is primarily a reflection of its owner and his love of nature. Local firm OutofBox Architecture handled the architectural elements while the interiors feature the work of Santa Meikulane of Lolot Design. "I like to work in many different styles but the interiors I make are not for myself, they're for the occupants," says Ms Meikulane. "It's important to feel the owner's personality - he's smart, likes simplicity and at the same time he is complicated too. He has excellent taste and even though he is able to buy anything he won't buy the most expensive things - sometime it's true that less is more."
The owner was keen to promote Latvian designers so apart from a sofa and some light fixtures from Italy, plus a pool deck from neighbouring Estonia, everything was sourced locally. "We have great local craftsmen," she says. "Natural materials are becoming less and less in the world, so it's important to use them in the right places - for me, the interior is all about the wood."
Completed in mid-2016, the Villa A project was jointly described by its architect and interior designer as being created "with maximum respect for the unique relief of the ancient Gauja river valley." It won Meikulane an international American Architecture Prize in the Houses Interior category - the award was presented in New York recently.