This house design represented that eternal architectural challenge for any architect – a home for my own family. The house on the valley is the second house I have designed for us, but this was the first time I was contemplating a home to last us beyond our current or foreseeable needs, and into an extended future where various and unknown scenarios needed to be accommodated. Maybe I had forgotten how I felt at the first attempt, but the mental anguish and constant (re)contemplation of multiple iterations experienced with the design of our Valley Road home was far more than I expected this time around. Perhaps I had increased my personal and professional expectations since then, or saw opportunities to test some personal philosophies and try out different materials on myself, but it proved to be quite a different proposition being my own client.
The early design brief was not unusual, being a fluid and changeable feast depending on the latest imagery inspiring us or practical imperatives like budget pushing us to review and re-prioritise our wish-list. We now had three growing children to consider as well, and awareness that traditional housing typologies seemed to be becoming less relevant in a world where multi-generational living was gaining traction again, even if not for all the right reasons. Being sandwiched between kids who may not leave home for many years and aging parents, flexibility in planning and function was the key. Over time, my challenge was becoming clearer – to create a home that can change modes with an evolving family demographic at its various life stages, now and into the future.
I won’t pretend that the idea of a Rubik’s Cube inspired me, but on reflection it has some resonance with the design philosophy and built outcome of the architecture. The form is primarily cubic; contained within a monolithic, timber-clad block is a series of spaces whose uses can shift and alter to accommodate alternative demands over time. The users move through re-definable rooms in order to find their best fit. The house stays stationary as we, the occupants, revolve location and orientation depending on our own life stages and needs. Flexibility built into the fabric of the home to allow us to remain in this same address for many years to come. Moving house but going nowhere.
So what are these spaces? And how does the planning offer this flexibility and ambiguity of function?
Essentially, the house eschews any notion of the open plan. In my experience these homes photograph beautifully and allow the owners to live in often impressive and dramatic spaces, but critically they offer little or no control for the end-users in respect of functional, climactic, acoustic & visual management of the house. These houses have just one gear – display home. They look great in the showroom but once you’re on the open road you realise that you can only drive it at one speed. And that’s already been predetermined for you by others. How frustrating. If the house is a machine for living in, then I want to have hold of the levers.
The implications of a house design philosophy that targets a display-home mentality is that the focus on how we live is replaced by the focus on how we are seen to live. This creates a multitude of issues, but let’s focus on our core considerations of passive solar design, sustainable housing and energy efficiency that rely directly on getting the architectural design right in the first place. After all, I wasn’t trying to design a treatise on architecture; I was simply doing what most of my clients ask of me and design a home to be built at a reasonable cost that responds to the site and its specific conditions, is energy efficient, offers flexibility over time and ultimately feels great to live in. In my experience, to achieve any or all of these the greatest investment you can make is in the design of the house.
So after an extended design period which saw several iterations but all moving closer to the answer we were seeking, the road to completion became clear. Although potholed with all the usual frustrations and anxieties, and with ever decreasing opportunities to second guess decisions as tiles were laid and doors hung, we navigated the construction and watched the house we had agonized over take shape. Of course, ultimately it was in the living there that we truly tested out our theories that fed the final design. Does the house fit our needs? How are we living in it? Is it working as we imagined?
Thankfully, I can report the way I imagined our family filling the house has been just as I imagined over concept plans conceived two years ago. The flexibility already being tested in various ways and easily coping. It’s not a big house either, but it feels generous and intimate all at the same time to me. It’s hard to judge your own work as an architect, but as a client I can say we are really pleased with the result.
One last thing: this home is not air conditioned, either. It is cool in summer and warm in winter through thoughtful passive solar design, insulated framed wall construction and sweep-fans throughout. Being a coastal home, any residual heat upstairs is flushed out with the sea breezes well before we retire. Maximum cross ventilation ensuring cool nights all year, and a deliberate avoidance of thermal mass in the upper floor construction means the building envelope is instantly cooled as the temperature falls in the night. Natural lighting also minimizes our use of artificial lighting all year and in all rooms. Our power bills are currently approximate 30% of similar houses in the area according to our electrical supplier (this achieved without solar panels). Add-ons like solar panels, water tanks and grey-water recycling are great but they only supplement the far greater gains that sound passive solar design principles and clever material and construction methods offer.