Small Home with Big Spanish Style
"This little village house was an accidental discovery," says owner Bruce Irwin. "We were just meandering—making our way up winding streets overlooking the sea—and at every crossroad, we chose the way that took us further up the hill. As we went higher, the houses got smaller, the street traffic lighter. Near the top was where we found this."
The London-based interior designer and architect and his partner, Pedro Font Alba, call their home "The Snail House" for the way it is largest at the bottom, then winds and narrows as it goes up "like a snail carrying its shell on its back," Irwin says with a laugh. It's located in the small fishing village of Almunecar, Spain, perched between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sierra de Tejeda mountains.
The quirky home, just 460 square feet, was a smart gamble. The pair immediately got to work renovating it, removing faux timber paneling from the walls and clearing away dropped ceilings and extraneous interior walls (likely 1950s additions) that subdivided the already small rooms. And they were delighted at what they discovered: Three ancient stone vaults were behind the plaster.
One framed the home's only bath, with a smaller one adjacent to that. The largest was an arched space, long and narrow, that the pair turned into their kitchen. "The feeling of warmth in this room is incredible," says Irwin, who added only small, modular furniture and appliances to keep from overwhelming the stonework, and contrasted the earthy walls with Moroccan floor tiles. "They're durable and, like the stones, they keep the room cool."
The same patterned tiles ground the sunny living room in color. The rectangular gathering space runs parallel to the kitchen and is just 8 feet wide at its largest end. "It's a corridor, really!" jokes Irwin. But rather than focusing on the room's limited square footage, "we wanted to highlight the building's character, to call attention to its strengths," says Irwin, noting that the ceilings are tall, around 11 feet.
Too, the walls throughout the house are very thick—a full yard in some places—and a window had been carved into the one separating kitchen from living room. The pair added a marble sill to the deep shelf, turning it into a space-saving bar and highlighting the walls' depth as an architectural element. "We also lowered the windowsills in this room so that they could double as window seats and bring in more natural light," Irwin says. To the exterior, they added decorative ironwork, crafted by a local ironmonger, to each of the ground-floor windows.
"We tried to source as many materials locally as we could," says Irwin. The smooth white marble was mined from a local quarry, for example, used to contrast the old, textural stonework in the bath. "It's a small room, so I wanted to add in reflective, white surfaces, reminiscent of the cool white buildings in town—their bright facades feel very Mediterranean and fresh."
Likewise, the couple painted the walls in the living area, entryway, and bedroom white, and then framed a doorway and the bar shelf with whimsical, sea-green murals. "We drew the patterns on the wall ourselves, using our largest dinner plates to trace the circles," notes Irwin. The pair dotted the decorative circle above the bar with a Portuguese ceramic sardine. "Fish are a central part of the culture here," he says, "and it's fun to add in little surprises."
Similar wall flourishes appear upstairs in the bedroom, where a periwinkle mural contrasts terrazzo tile flooring that mimics the look and feel of beach sand. The petite sleeping quarters make for a charming pass-through on the way up to a walled rooftop terrace with 180-degree views of the Mediterranean Sea. "It's a magnificent vantage," says Irwin. "Looking down to the east and west, you can see all the coves along the coastline, including a small lighthouse built during the Moorish period. So many layers of the town's history are visible from up here."
The ground floor, too, offers its own lively scene. "One day, we had friends over and—wanting a large place to stretch out and eat together—we set up a table right there in the little village lane," Irwin recalls. "As we were arranging the dishes and bringing out the food, a tour group happened by. We watched as a lady looked into our window and said, "It looks nice," and another came up and peeked, too. "No, it has no television," she replied. We just laughed. There were so many hidden treasures inside, things we never saw the first time we looked. We unearthed beautiful 18th-century bottles, big buried shells—this little place offered up more than we hoped to find here."
"We were here visiting Pedro's brother, and snorkeling—there's great snorkeling here, the water is so clear—when we stumbled upon the house, and it was for sale," says Irwin.
Little Rooms, Big Ideas
Owner/architect Bruce Irwin's smart solutions for snug spots
Go Modular. In place of traditional kitchen cabinetry, Irwin opted for small, modular units and paired them with an undercounter refrigerator and a compact oven.
Build In Seating. With limited room for furniture, Irwin lowered the broad windowsills in the living room to double as window seats. The taller windows let in additional light.
Add Reflective Surfaces. The owners outfitted the tiny bath with sleek marble paneling on the walls and floor to maximize light and make the room feel larger.