Bridging urban and suburban conditions, two concrete townhouses respond to their context in bold and uncompromising ways.
Architect Gerrad Hall revisits the twin houses he designed for himself and his mum a decade ago, and finds their durability and flexibility are as relevant as ever. Text Gerrad Hall. Photography Patrick Reynolds and Tash Hopkins.
This project began after I went to an open home for a halfway house in Herne Bay back in 2000. Mum had been through it, too, and we agreed to go halves, remove the old building, and build two houses on the site for ourselves.
I had designed and built a house for myself a few years earlier, which to my surprise won Home of the Year in 1999. Although the composition and courtyard planning of the house were interesting, the reality of living in the space was somewhat disappointing. It was cold in winter, it seemed to amplify and echo unwanted noise, and its expansive openings and maximum connection to the outdoors required a myriad of blind and curtain operations to provide privacy.
So with a second opportunity to build a place for myself, I set quite a different brief.
The site we selected fronted onto Jervois Rd, a 12-metre- wide strip sandwiched between a 13-storey 1980s apartment building and the Ponsonby Bowling Club, and the rear, northern boundary overlooked suburban housing.
Planning and outlook
The two units naturally divided the site into a front and a rear lot, with the rear house open to panoramic harbour views from the upper floor. My mother is obsessed with sea views, and I wanted to have my business directly fronting the road, so it was an easy choice of who went where.
In the rear house, the living space is set on the top floor to maximise the views, and a platform lift was included to improve mobility access for the three-storey layout. Bedrooms occupy the middle level, with the ground-floor entry set between the garage and a utility space that could be a home office, guest quarters or second living room.
My house on the street side has the living spaces on the middle floor, which sits one metre above the street and gives views across the neighbouring bowling green to the harbour. Along with the views, a walled-off private courtyard garden to the south/street side extends the sense of space. Three bedrooms occupy the top floor, and the partially dug-in ground floor was set aside for a 50-square- metre architectural office and a double garage.
Precast concrete for residential use
During the long design phase of this project, I studied with interest the commercial and institutional projects of Architectus. To me, their New Zealand work seemed to take the touchstone of the Group Architects but twist and upscale it using concrete, rather than timber, as the core material. I aimed to take this approach back to a domestic scale, and soften the concrete with timber and furnishings to suit residential.
The other major influence was the Congreve House Pip Cheshire had designed around 1992. The unabashed raw blockwork and concrete structure were offset with beautifully crafted, playful elements including gloss colour splashes and timber detailing. Both of these references relied on high levels of detail and craft to succeed, which sat well with the type of work I enjoy doing.
I chose precast concrete as the main building material and elected to leave it exposed inside and out as an expressed superstructure. I had not designed with precast before, so the exercise became how to model the main forms with this very planar and rigid material, while retaining subtlety and refinement in the three-dimensional form and detailing, to create an urban sanctuary.
The expressed concrete superstructure would provide a rustic cave with acoustic privacy, thermal mass for heat storage in winter, cool surfaces in summer and a sense of permanence and belonging my first house didn’t achieve.
I used warm, refined materials inside to civilise the concrete and bring it to life with the contrast of timber and gloss coloured doors. Perforated acoustic panels and curtains soak up reverberation and counteract the echoes of living with hard surfaces beside a busy road. The structural materials and details are expressed and celebrated, with most surfaces left matt and close to their natural state. The porosity and breathability of these surfaces creates a very low-humidity environment, a huge bonus for Auckland summers.
Many people think raw concrete is cold, but the reality of living in a house like this is that you can soften it visually to the degree you need with rugs, furniture and textiles. And, when designed right, concrete heats up in the sun and then naturally releases its heat when the temperature drops at night. You feel protected from the elements – rain and wind don’t shake and pound the house like they do a timber building.
I have been told the houses look pretty sombre from the exterior, which is fine in my view, as their neutral character will also aid their longevity and their adaptability between residential and commercial use. The fact the buildings don’t give too much away on the outside also heightens the surprise of entering the warm and richly detailed interiors.
With forms and materials robust enough to handle the noise and pollution of a busy main road, it also succeeds in breaking down scale detail as befitting domestic use. The use of concrete for durability, thermal, fire and acoustic control. Detailing and crafting ‘industrial’ precast concrete panels to achieve texture and character.
Judicious use of playful colours to offset the grey concrete and black aluminium.
Timber acoustic panels to dampen sound and add warm, textured surfaces to the living spaces.
Gerrad Hall of Gerrad Hall Architects
Gerrad’s work flows from a collaborative investigative design process that moulds site opportunities with the client and architect’s vision for the project. Each project is a unique, thoroughly considered and detailed “work” characterised by robust materials and expressive detailing to create a joyous sensory experience at a human scale.
Floor area per house: 260 square metres
Site area per house: 250 square metres plus the right of way
Builder: Sam Wood at Built By Wood
Engineer: Oisin Frost at No 8 Engineering
Landscaping: Mark Parsons at MFP Landscaping
Precast panels: Wilco Precast
Cedar: Herman Pacific
Kitchen and cabinetry: Stainless steel and laminated panel
Lighting: Halcyon and ECC lighting
Aluminium: Nu-Look by Kumeu Aluminium