When you want to stay in the same house and suburb for a lifetime, a house needs to be able to adapt with you. The simple elegance of this concrete house conceals a large interior that can be easily reconfigured as needs change. Architect Megan Rule discusses designing a house for life using modern and traditional materials.
Text Megan Rule. Photography Patrick Reynolds.
Our house design had a lengthy gestation period while my partner and I saved up for the build: a design evolution defined by economy and contemporary crafting of a simple palette combining modern and traditional materials. Raw precast concrete, timber windows, plywood and exposed framing allowed us to build the house cost- effectively, with the opportunity to add details and higher cost materials at a later date if we chose to.
Within an easy walk of the local neighbourhood village strips of both Mt Eden and Dominion Road, the location suits a house for all ages. From the outset, I planned the compact multi-storey building on universal design principles: namely, that a housing unit needs to be capable of expanding and contracting to support our ever- changing requirements across a lifetime. By aspiring to meet our potential future needs, we now have a house that is adaptable and can cater for a diversity of living styles, ages and stages.
1. The studio is a double-height space, with the library bookshelf continuing up to form a balustrade for the loft.
2. One of two bay windows that bring in light through skylights.
3. The clear-finished pine plywood ceiling adds warmth and texture to the concrete room.
Surrounded by mature native trees and colonial villas, and within the context of a rapidly intensifying and multicultural city, the location favoured an ‘urban retreat’ concept – a quiet home where we could relax and recharge. To develop this idea into an empathetic and timeless solution, I looked to the residential and utilitarian building types found in the area: the villas, rural sheds, railway stations, and the elegant remnants of the Martha Mine pump house. These buildings have influenced not only the shape, but also many of the design details: I adapted ideas from an era where everything was hand-made, reinventing them for new purposes with new building techniques.
For example, the villa is often identified by a street-front formal entrance, bay windows, central hall and service yard to the rear, whereas this home re-orientates the villa to the passage of the sun and a modern lifestyle. A side entry, courtyards, open planning, and a vertical central hall use interior spaces more effectively and allow better use of the site and sun. Elements from industrial buildings reinterpreted here include large sliding shutters, the use of concrete instead of timber, double- hung timber windows, and corrugated roofing (also a feature of the classic villa).
Designing with precast concrete
Situated on an old lava flow, the site had some existing volcanic scoria walls made from rocks found around the site. This simple and utilitarian feature influenced our choice of prefabricated concrete panels. This robust and straightforward system, originally developed for commercial warehousing, allowed for rapid construction, with the bulk of the house going up in days. Our long design and research phase exploring high thermal mass materials and crafted timbers ensured a well-planned and efficient construction phase. The use of lift-into- place concrete panels suited simple box forms, and allowed wide room spans. We could achieve larger internal volumes with the thinner structure, and managed to fit three levels into a site that would typically accommodate only two.
In plan, there are two symmetrical concrete box modules divided by a central stair and service core. A garage and workshop are located on the ground floor, with living areas above and bedrooms on the top floor.
While the two spaces are similar in size and layout, each has its own individual character and orientation. Light-filled bay windows extend from both sides of the house, not only to link with the language of the surrounding timber villas, but also to expand the functionality of the interior and to structure the garden into a series of smaller spaces through the nooks and corners created by the house. It is simple yet intricate, creating a variety of experiences.
Building in concrete offered the added benefits of long-term durability and superior fireproofing. Although the initial construction costs are higher than timber, they are soon offset by savings in maintenance over lifetime of the building, and by the greater ease of adapting spaces to meet future needs.
Solid concrete is not just practical, either: it is a material that engages all the senses. Its acoustic and thermal properties, for example, are very different from timber. Our awareness of light and shadow is also heightened.
Future proofing for flexibility and city intensification
By creating a degree of flexibility or ‘loose fit’ with a concrete exterior structure and full-span floors, we could see the potential for two smaller residential units or live/work units operating independently within the single building. With this in mind, concrete was the natural choice on account of its acoustic and fireproof properties.
The layout also allows for a lift to be added, for easier access to the middle storey, which can accommodate all the living (including sleeping) spaces if required. When family and friends with wheelchairs have stayed, this mid-floor flexibility has been really useful.
In practice, the house has turned out to be a very user-friendly home, and is particularly peaceful – almost cathedral-like in character, due to its solid mass – in comparison to the typical timber-framed house. And while we have many ideas for adding finishing layers to the raw structure – such as timber linings, cabinetry, carpets and rugs – we have enjoyed its simplicity and strength and would possibly miss this if we completed the fit-out. We like to see it as an unfinished canvas that has the scope for further personalisation when and if we need it.
Flexible and adaptable structure allows changes in use and configuration over the building’s lifetime.
Industrial construction is transformed for a refined domestic scale.
Concrete is used internally and externally for maximum durability and longevity.
Profile: Megan Rule, South Pacific Architecture
Megan’s sensitive design work, which focuses on people, materiality and place, has been recognised internationally through publications and via her involvement in non- for-profit organisations. Her work features in the recently published book Worship: A History of New Zealand Church Design by Bill McKay and Jane Ussher, and in The Phaidon 21st Century Atlas of World Architecture. She has been a director of Habitat for Humanity, Architecture for Humanity and more recently co-founder and co-chair of Architecture+Women.NZ.
Her project work spans a wide range of building types, from small prefabricated structures, earth housing, accessible/adaptative reuse, churches, education environments, marine facilities, landscapes and theatre through to larger scale master planning. Megan is also a teaching fellow at the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Auckland, where one of her key interests is developing an architecture for diversity.
Site area: 400 square metres
Floor area: 270 square metres
Adam MacKenzie, consulting engineer
Concrete shell builder: Sabo Builders
Fit-out builder: Naturalcraft
Garden walls: volcanic stone
Cladding: Wilco Precast Concrete Panel
Windows and doors: Westpine cedar and pine
Linings: grooved plywood
Flooring: clear sealed concrete
Kitchen: clear sealed hooppine plywood by Naturalcraft
Stair: clear sealed pine by Naturalcraft