New Zealand Architect Richard George questions conventional planning and how one might make a house more flexible and adaptable for the long term. Photography by Simon Devitt.
Too many houses are designed and built without questioning the core principles of design. In building relatively conventional houses, we still follow a given equation without ever asking why we build in a particular way. We don’t pose the question that asks whether the house building equation is correct in the first place. I believe we should explore how we construct houses, the materials we use and the way the building is assembled to open up new directions for habitation in our modern age. Why can we not build houses is such a way that they can be adapted just as easily if we wanted to move a TV from one corner of the lounge to another?
“At a time when so many aspects of contemporary life — occupation, residency, personal relationships — seem more transient than permanent, a changeable interior might be as much a metaphoric statement as a functional one.” Terence Riley, from the book The Un-Private House.
Housing construction using load-bearing masonry has been around since man started stacking rocks to form shelter. In New Zealand, we typically select timber as our favoured residential construction material. But at the same time, we still mimic the masonry vernacular with relatively small windows in large walls.
With the mid-19th century birth of modern architecture and the revolutionary usage of steel as the principal structural component instead of masonry, our reliance upon heavy walls to support a roof was turned on its head. From this point, the enclosing walls could effectively be freed from their primary responsibility of holding up the roof. That job could now be handled independently.
If we expand this theory and assume that we can now detach walls from their structural responsibilities, we can repurpose their function in a far more flexible way. This is not a new concept in the South Pacific. The traditional Samoan fale (house) is constructed using a series of poles that hold up a roof, with walls comprising of blinds that can be lowered or raised as required.
When I designed and built a home for my family in 2006, I investigated the possibilities created by detaching the structure from the spatial enclosure. This left the walls free so that we could rearrange them — and subsequently the house itself — according to the seasons. We could even rescale the rooms as our children grew.
The George house — a case study
The climate in Auckland is relatively benign. This meant that the design of the George house could allow for both changing climate patterns and shifting societal values. The design of the house questions the traditional residential model of inhabiting distinct cells within a fixed external skin — one that typically detaches itself from the immediate environment. Instead we developed a design that allowed changes to be made simply by moving wall panels, or by changing the material that made up a particular panel. Once the house was completed, either of these changes could be effected without the need for a building consent.
Construction of the house is neither particularly complex nor overly unconventional. It consists of a simple kit of parts based on an independent steel post and beam frame holding up the floors and roof, with different non load-bearing wall types that can be moved as required.
In the George house, our exterior walls have become sliding panels in the form of glass doors. By alternating clear glass with opalescent glazing, we can create privacy where required. If needed, and requiring only minimum effort, the clear glass can be replaced with an opaque material. Following the imperative of flexibility, all the materials within the sliding frames throughout the house can directly reflect the function and needs of the room they enclose, as well as the chosen lifestyle of the people they shelter.
In this way, the house can adapt as situations change. So for example if the occupants want an introspective, private dining area, the surrounding wall panels can simply be replaced with solid materials.
Following the Free Plan
Swiss-born French architect, painter and urban planner Le Corbusier was one of the pioneers of modern architecture. He first coined the term ‘free plan’ to describe a layout where walls were able to curve or incorporate windows that continuously span entire façades because they were no longer structural.
In the George house, we sought to advance this philosophy further. Our design aimed to ‘free’ the walls by mounting them on sliding tracks or converting them into storage units on casters. This in turn allows rooms to expand or reduce as required. Corridors can become part of neighbouring rooms by removing their dividing wall. Likewise, bathrooms can become part of a neighbouring bedroom. This had particular practical relevance to a young family. When we needed a cot to fit within our bedroom, we simply made the bedroom bigger. When we needed to install a small nursery off to the side of the bedroom, we moved the walls around to accommodate just that arrangement.
In this way, following free plan principles, spaces are liberated to have their purpose and size defined by the user. Of course this can present challenges but these can be overcome. With the help of an intelligent lighting system, lighting automatically configures to match a room’s size. As and when rooms increased in size and more lights become part of that space, they would automatically become part of that room’s lighting circuit. Plumbing fixtures such as a kitchen bench, showers, vanities and other staple features are all detailed as furniture pieces within their greater space. Nothing is fixed to the exterior walls. This sustains the flexible nature of the exterior skin.
Originally published in The Design Guide issue 2, 2014.
Architect: Richard George
Photographer: Simon Devitt
Since completing our own house, he is now an associate principal in Stevenson and Turner’s Wellington Office, a multidisciplinary practice that allows for the coordination of the architectural response and specialist engineering input. This collaborative process helps to produce new and innovative answers that one has little chance of creating alone.