A concrete block townhouse graces the city edge

Concrete block house Hamilton

This concrete block townhouse shows how one couple successfully made the move from the suburbs to the city in one of New Zealand’s fastest-growing centres. They, and the architect Adam Mercer, offer their views on this social yet private building. Text Andrea Stevens, Photography Simon Devitt.

Defying the New Zealand dream of retreating to the coast for retirement, Pam and Stuart Bayes moved right into Hamilton’s centre, to remain close to family, friends and work. A residential site they owned, right on the CBD border, had been rezoned high-density. Initially they had wanted a large family home to accommodate grandchildren and friends, but after meeting architect Adam Mercer, their thoughts turned to a medium density development, which would provide the space they needed and deliver more flexibility than one house alone could offer.

In the end, they built three apartments. which can be rented out, host extended family or guests from overseas, or be sold individually at any time. It gave them more options and flexibility for the future. The couple live in the unit nearest the street and with the best views; it is named Apartment X – an idiosyncratic choice to reflect the innovative nature of the whole project. Two smaller apartments are stacked down the slope.

‘We looked at other apartments in town but they didn’t have the space we were after, especially outdoor space,’ says Pam. ‘We wanted a house so that grandchildren would come and would love to come.’ They needed a social house to accommodate not only extended family but also their wide circle of friends.

Concrete block house Hamilton

The city location immediately meant they were close to family and friends, but it also brought restrictions in terms of privacy and security. In addition, this project would naturally set a precedent in the street for how a medium-density character might be developed. ‘We wanted something to meet our personal needs,’ explains Pam, ‘but we also wanted something unique that would be of value to the city. Suitable for where it is and usable for myriad purposes.’

So the apartments needed to mediate between the commercial buildings along the northern boundary (which they overlook), the stately residential buildings on two sides – whose owners had to sign off the planning consent – and a tall apartment building across the street. These opposing characters have been managed by the architect through careful use of scale and massing. But he has used robust materials, thus creating a bold vision for the future.

Concrete block house Hamilton

Commercial materials and structure give the three apartments a grander scale and generosity of space inside, unrestricted by the limitations of typical domestic timber construction. They use the site much more intensively than the current residential pattern, but the building doesn’t go to the maximum allowable height, some 20 metres, so the neighbours immediately saw its value and it was approved via a compulsory planning consent. It creates ‘a nice urban edge to their backyards’, notes the architect, ‘not a no man’s land of weeds and poorly maintained trees in the gap between houses. It has been a successful urbanising of a city site.’

Raw concrete block was used for its economy, low maintenance and familiar human scale. But it also adds a wonderful texture and foil for plants, art and timber fittings. It is this combination of hard and soft, rough and smooth that makes the apartment feel more crafted and less industrial.

The first indication that this is something unique is the 10-metre high, almost full width, windowless concrete-block street elevation. It was designed as a 400 mm thick Trombe wall for a three-storey-high stairwell and ventilation stack, and it also created privacy and security to the street. The council did suggest to the architect he design some windows in it, but its functional nature and screening with plants won the day.

Inside, the drama of the vertical stairwell is revealed. Glass balustrades, floating stair treads and the soaring block wall are top-lit to reveal their texture and character. Despite the hard industrial materials, the control of volume and scale make for an elegant space, which then opens up to an enormous living area and concrete courtyard with views across the city.

Concrete block house courtyard design

The passive solar strategy is evident everywhere. The canopy depth allows sun to reach the back wall in winter, but the interior is fully shaded in summer; to cool it, the owners open the door to the basement garage, where cool air is drawn into the stairwell as hot air escapes through skylights.

In a country where the main building product is timber, this apartment offers quite a different experience. It is subtly lit as the grey blockwork absorbs light as much as it reflects it. And a well-designed acoustic ceiling in the living space provides a subdued ambience. ‘It’s a very calm space; there’s no creaking of floorboards or timber beams,’ says the architect. ‘The comfort comes from its scale and solidity set about with rich timber finishes. In many ways, it is an exemplar for inner-city living.’

Stone tile bathroom

Originally published in The Design Guide issue 4, 2015.

Architect: Mercer and Mercer Architects
Photographer: Simon Devitt 

Architect profile

Adam Mercer is a registered architect and the director of Mercer and Mercer Architects. The practice has offices in Auckland and Hamilton; recent residential work includes public housing, apartments, coastal retreats and bespoke residences. Commercial projects include heritage work in Auckland’s Britomart precinct, multi-use developments, factories, and commercial and retail developments.

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