Nelson architect Jeremy Smith writes about transforming a commercial construction system into a cost-efficient, robust and poetic family home. Text Jeremy Smith. Photography Patrick Reynolds.
Architecture to us is about questions. What is important? Who needs what? What makes it sing? Questions allow us to break a project down into key elements and make each of those elements work harder to achieve a solution. And with all of us living quite differently from our neighbours, and each site having its own peculiarities, every project involves different questions and therefore provokes different answers.
The Tiltpanel House emerged from a simple question about concrete. Despite a minimal budget and a sloping section, our clients had this poetic idea of living with concrete walls inside and out. Think of the thermal mass, the texture of the concrete, the deep walls, the robustness. Our clients were well-read, clever, artistic and interested enough to know this wasn’t an easy or everyday question. And we like questions – or, more to the point, we enjoy solving them. In this case, we needed to find a way to build economically with concrete on a tricky site, and then to create a home rather than a squash court.
The site looks west over Tasman Bay, bordering a bush reserve to the north. On our first site visit we discovered that very few, if any, of the neighbouring houses had any form of flat land on which to play, or even venture outside. Building big and square seemed to be the norm. Discussions quickly turned from matters of concrete to the idea that family life could be more fun if you could access the potential playing space outside.
This solved the first half of the question. By adopting a rectilinear plan running along the contour, we found space for a lawn and a garden. As the width of the house reduced, so did the excavation and footing complexity, allowing us to borrow from commercial concrete practices. We would build a perimeter with precast concrete panels, each arriving on site on the back of a truck to be craned into position. By pouring each panel twice in the yard we were able to create a sandwich-like insulation for cost efficiency.
But there isn’t any singing in that. The question remained how to domesticate a home out of these large bits of concrete. It required a finer grain of texture and warmth to reduce and soften life within the house, while still allowing the concrete to contribute its essential properties of robustness and strength.
With the clients’ brief in mind, and looking at western sun shades, we wondered if alternating concrete with openings, and articulating light onto the concrete, could simply reduce its scale. By separating each concrete panel from its neighbour, and varying the scale and size of individual panels relative to the space inside, we developed a barcode-like aesthetic. Panels became independently legible, both inside and outside, with the gaps between being glazed. A pattern emerged: solid, view, solid, view, solid, view. Each panel was somehow made familiar, smaller and more friendly.
Within these perimeter concrete walls the plan became looser, less rigid. We canted the back wall on level one to orient life to the view and garden, with the lower-level circulation at the front, the upper at the back to make strong connections with all aspects of the site and access to the daily movement of the sun.
The outcome isn’t anything like a squash court, thanks to all the light, some careful concrete sanding, lush carpets and the support of timber cabinetry and an acoustic timber ceiling to soften the hard surfaces. The concrete walls have a beautiful, even and absorbing matt finish that, when interspersed with light, provides more of a permeable, and less formal, surround in which to live than might otherwise have been the case.
One of the project awards that best recognises our clients’ liking was from the Concrete Society, a commendation given ‘in recognition of a residential building of outstanding achievement in the advancement of concrete practice in design, construction, rehabilitation or research’.
It has been nice to be asked to revisit the questions and answers to a house project that was built in Nelson in 2009, of which we remain very proud. This is a house in which a family has grown almost twice as large but continues to live well, and whose process and design remains current.
Jeremy Smith is a director of Irving Smith Architects, a niche architecture practice based in Nelson. The firm works in a variety of sensitive environments throughout New Zealand and recently overseas.