Architect Dominic Glamuzina discusses the suburban condition and our changing attitudes to boundaries, openness and privacy. His house design in Cox’s Bay, Auckland, brings modern planning to a heritage neighbourhood, but takes its cues from a more democratic past. Text Dominic Glamuzina. Photos Sam Hartnett.
The suburbs are contentious places, maligned by urban planning critics for their expansive use of resource, lack of infrastructure and generic architectural outcomes. And yet we are drawn to these places, we feel a certain control over them. They have been our slice of paradise since the first quarter-acre blocks were carved up and wrapped in a protective layer of picket fences and council regulations. Proximity to the street, yards as buffer zones, fences, hedges, sunlight angles, height infringements . . . the history of the suburbs tracks our relationship with these boundaries.
The original optimism of the suburb – a connected neighbourhood where we all knew each other, with open front yards for the kids to play – has given way to a concern for security, privacy and car parking. With the inevitable densification that is coming, we will again need to reconsider our relationship with the edges of the suburban lot. How can we convey a sense of community while still maintaining the privacy that we require?
Inner-city suburbs in Auckland, such as Cox’s Bay, provide lessons for how a renovated denser neighbourhood could work. Within walking distance to blocks of shops and amenities, the narrow streets are waiting for the redundancy of cars in order to create more walkable neighbourhoods. People are drawn to the village feeling of these places, with their low fences and homogeneous character.
Building new in an existing neighbourhood
This new family house in Cox’s Bay is surrounded by an eclectic collection of suburban houses: villas and bungalows frame a pocket of state houses and duplexes while, further down the street, contemporary newcomers display various degrees of assimilation into their context. There is a real park-like environment with many houses set far back from the street. However, with kitchens at the rear and living floors elevated by half-basements, the front yards of neighbouring state houses feel abandoned by people and relegated to car parking.
This project provided an opportunity to reclaim the front yard as a living space by making a denser floor plan at the back of the site, with more compact and private urban courts within the new footprint. It borrows concepts from the existing context, such as repurposing historical motifs, but crosses them with a contemporary plan to stitch the site together and create more usable space.
The brief went beyond the typical three-bedroom house to include an office, a pottery studio, a children’s playroom, and a mezzanine above the master bedroom – a place for escape and views across the rooftops. The client required a diverse series of spaces within a limited budget, yet wanted to keep the house within the council planning rules in order to sidestep the need for a resource consent.
Flood plains and aggressive southern boundary height controls dictated a single-storey dwelling. So instead of going up, we decided to create an expansive single-level house that could maximise its connection with the ground. The design borrows the original state house location, but instead of disconnecting from the front yard – as the old house on the site did – we have opened the new house onto it, and raised the lawn so that the site can be fully utilised.
An intricate and multi-use plan
The front of the house is almost villa-like, with a deep-set porch and central entry flanked by the living room and the office. From the entrance, you are led into a large, central corridor, which spans the length of the house and links a progression of discrete living spaces. The playroom is located centrally between the two main living spaces, and has a large sliding door that merges the room with the corridor. An alcove opposite has a timber seat that forms a useful waiting or observation point in the corridor.
The alcove and playroom look across an ‘urban court’, which separates the street-facing living room from the kitchen and dining room, which are central in the plan. This layout, with its central courtyard and hallway, enables rooms to be separate but still interconnected, and provides acoustic separation yet allows the parents to oversee children’s play.
At the rear of the site, two bedrooms open onto a small south-eastern courtyard; continuing the circular loop through the plan, a small pottery studio and third bedroom lead to a flight of steps down to a single-car garage to arrive again at the front yard. A contingency is offered by the plan, with its series of extracurricular rooms that can absorb other ways of living as the need arises. And perhaps, under future planning rules, the house will expand upwards to become part of a denser, taller neighbourhood.
Like the placement and form, materials are also a blend of old and new. The exterior cladding makes reference to the old state house, with articulated bagged brickwork atop a continuous plastered base. But instead of the steep gabled roof of the 1940s ‘staties’, a low-pitched roof signals its modernity and creates an understated, almost humble presence in the street. Inside, materials are generally robust and textural – utilitarian at times, but still with pockets of crafted detail.
Concrete floors are used throughout to provide a softened industrial aesthetic and for thermal mass, with underfloor heating for the coldest winter days. The timber structure is exposed to define the main living spaces, and to provide a softer material for acoustic damping. The client has introduced bold colours, patterned wallpapers and eclectic furniture to the interior to create a layered family space.
As an assembly of reworked suburban elements, this house is a contemporary interpretation of suburban living. It shows its colours through the functional front yard and low fence, but maximizes habitable indoor space with the compact plan and a progression of courtyards that join the house to the site boundaries. It seeks to rediscover a sense of neighbourliness and neighbourhood by opening to the street, minimising the car parking and making the front yard truly habitable.
Main bedroom and loft
To use the tall ceiling height, and grab a view across the rooftops, a small loft has been inserted within the main bedroom. Accessed by a sliding ladder, the plywood-lined spaces a quiet reading or sleeping nook.
The Cox’s Bay house was designed by Glamuzina Paterson Architects in Auckland. After eight years in partnership, Dominic Glamuzina and Aaron Paterson now practice independently, each continuing to pursue architectural ideas and theory to find design solutions of intellectual and artistic rigour.
Photographer: Sam Hartnett.
Originally published in The Design Guide issue 6, 2016.