The Shores of Sayulita

Using Mexican design sensibilities, Seattle architect Robert Humble built a contemporary home and vacation rental

By Rachel Gallaher December 27, 2023

The rooftop deck features a pool, fire pit, and seating area that provide expansive views of the Pacific Ocean.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

When architect Robert Humble and his wife, Nicole Johnson, first visited Sayulita, Mexico, in 2009, it was the kind of sleepy little town that adventurous travelers hope to stumble upon. Surfers, artists, and yoginis mingled with the local community, and everything moved at a slower pace so often prevalent in tropical climates.

“We liked it, but at that time, it was a little too sleepy,” says Johnson, an ICU nurse and the founder of Unwound Retreats, a company focused on helping nurses battle burnout. “We were there for about nine days, which was about three or four days too long.”

Today, Sayulita has become a popular vacation destination. In 2015, it was named a “pueblo magico” — a designation reserved for towns throughout Mexico that provide visitors with a “magical experience” due to their culture, history, or natural beauty.

In 2016, Humble and Johnson returned to Sayulita for a wedding and noticed that the town felt different — in a good way. Several visits later, “we kept falling more in love with it,” Johnson recalls. “One day I was talking with Rob, and I was like, ‘I want to live life a little differently. Let’s try something more adventurous.’”

That adventure took the form of a house that Humble — a founding partner and principal at Seattle architecture firm Hybrid — and Johnson could visit to escape city life (and winter weather) as well as rent out as a source of passive income. They lined up tours at six properties and booked tickets to look for the site of their future vacation home. They eventually moved “location” and “views” to the top of their must-have list.

Needing an architect of record — and someone familiar with building in the area — Humble enlisted Adrián Rámirez of Palma, an architecture firm with offices in Mexico City and Sayulita. “It was important that our house reflected Mexican culture and design,” Humble says. “We had to learn about the regional building culture and typology and what was available, materials-wise. Wood-frame buildings aren’t prominent in Mexico — there isn’t even much of an industry for wood cabinets or window frames.”

Inspired by industrial architecture, Humble designed a modern, five-story concrete block structure that takes advantage of the steep hillside. The house, dubbed NICO Sayulita, boasts five suites and two open-concept common areas. Raw materials — concrete, steel, brick — are visually softened by wood furniture, pigmented cement tiles sourced from Guadalajara (used for both pools), and views of the surrounding forest from every room.

“The whole house is very open,” says Rámirez, who, in addition to helping with the design, acted as the general contractor for the project when the original hire stopped showing up. “We wanted it to feel connected to nature. You can look out over the jungle towards the open ocean and watch people surfing all day.”

The central hub is the kitchen and dining area, which features custom stainless-steel workspace and shelving units built in Mexico City and transported to Sayulita by truck. A long, rectangular pool, outdoor shower, and sitting area round out the space, which is open on two ends, allowing for better air circulation and direct views into the tree canopy.

Private rooms all embrace a contemporary, minimal Mexican aesthetic with handcrafted wooden beds, custom artisan-designed furniture, and breezy linen curtains that exude simple luxury. The lowermost Jungle Suite has a brick floor and oversized circular tub, both hand-laid by a local craftsman.

The Jungle Suite features a brick floor and a large circular tub.

Photo by Alex Herbig

“Everything was so detailed and done to such a high standard,” Humble says. “They weren’t going out and buying the bricks to make the tub. They were making the bricks themselves.”

The higher one climbs in the house — a central stairwell runs through all five levels, its sawtooth concrete staircases bringing to mind the work of noted Mexican architect Luis Barragán — the brighter and airier the décor feels, both in palette and materiality. The open rooftop deck (which has a tiled pool, a fire pit, and two seating areas), offers sweeping, unobstructed views of the surrounding hills and the Pacific Ocean.

Staying at NICO Sayulita provides the space and privacy of a traditional vacation rental, but Humble and Johnson have retained Sayulita at Your Service (SAYS), a local concierge service, to manage the property. Run by two longtime Sayulita residents, the team can handle every point of your stay (airport pickup, personalized cooked-in-home meals, rooftop massages, in-town activities) and help tailor your vacation no matter how many or few are in your party.

The kitchen functions as the center of the house and dining area.

Photo by Alex Herbig

“This is by far the most fulfilling project I’ve ever been involved in,” Humble says. He and Johnson officially opened NICO for reservations earlier this year, hoping their home’s ultra-modern sensibilities will fill a gap in the local hospitality industry.

“This house isn’t done in a traditional Mexican style,” says Rámirez, who studied architecture at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, “but it embraces Mexican ideas and materials but uses them in an updated way. The exposed cinder blocks — that’s how everyday people build their houses, and that feels very authentic to me.”

The pool and outdoor shower are open on two ends for better views.

Photo by Luis Diaz Diaz

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