Clustered together at the centre of the Seatoun Waterfront development in Wellington, these interlocking courtyard houses challenge the suburban archetype of detached houses on discrete sections. Nick Barratt-Boyes of Studio Pacific Architecture presents a different model for contemporary suburban life.
The traditional approach to suburban development in New Zealand cities sees each house sited approximately at the centre of its section. The original need for fire separation and easy passage of natural light from all faces via front yards, side yards and backyards has become a cultural norm.
However, our city boundaries can no longer cope with continuous horizontal suburban expansion. If you look at the freestanding house as a model for ‘densification’, there are many flaws in the concept, not the least being the unusable shady strips of land between houses.
As a viable and potentially more attractive alternative, the courtyard house plan splits the suburban house. It allows the public ‘living’ spaces and more private bedroom areas to occupy the edges of the plots. What would have been the side yard area becomes interstitial space and is treated as a glazed entry lobby. And a strategy of shared party walls and interconnecting spaces replaces the typical exterior configuration of a suburban house.
As a result of sliding and offsetting the respective volumes, sheltered central courtyards are created. These are particularly appropriate in the case of this Seatoun project. The very exposed nature of the coastal site means that light and sun access to the interior of the buildings is effectively maximised.
Public versus private space
A starting point for us was the blurring of boundaries between what is traditionally regarded as public and private areas. This is done through the deliberate absence of fences at the street boundary, the way in which materials and paint colours slide across neighbouring houses and the ‘folding up’ of exposed aggregate concrete panels in the laneway to form the walls of individual garages. This gently encourages more engagement with the surrounding environment.
We then located kitchens to open onto the private courtyards as well as connecting to the intimate landscaped lanes that lead down to the sea — sliding slatted screens can open or screen the lane as required. These semi-public spaces have become like the traditional street-facing verandas of old, creating a convivial in-between zone.
Creating variety within unity
The thirteen houses within the complex comprise two basic models: the 16m deep single story house (120m2) and the 20m deep double storey house (160m2). The single-storey houses are spaced between the two-storey houses so that views and sun are maximised. Living spaces face north and clerestory windows ensure good light and connection to the outside.
We began with the blurring of boundaries between what is traditionally regarded as public and private areas. These living areas open directly out and wrap around the sheltered courtyards optimising natural daylight and views. Typically they have timber floors and a soft palette of natural tones to the walls and ceilings.
Kitchens are simple and durable and create a background to the living areas with central islands defining the space between dining and the kitchen.The surface of the courtyard is treated like a patchwork where living rooms and bedrooms engage with the paved outdoor space via floating deck platforms.
Second-storey spaces are carefully arranged to allow views out to the harbour and hills with minimal overshadowing. Two-storey houses have a number of planning options allowing a downstairs main bedroom (in lieu of second living space) or additional living space upstairs.
The Seatoun Waterfront development effectively and attractively challenges the typical approach to subdivision developments.
Establishing local character
We wanted the materials and ‘tone’ of the houses to match the exposed nature of the site. Typically the cladding is a combination of plastered concrete block and painted weatherboards. To tie into the lanes, the exposed aggregate of the lane is ‘folded up’ as a precast concrete element to form the wall to the garages for some of the units. The mass of the concrete block is also effective at reducing noise transference between dwellings. Because the houses are built right up to their boundaries, a lot of effort has gone into incorporating concealed utility services in recessed cupboards along the lane edges.
Written by Nick Barratt-Boyes of Studio Pacific Architecture
Project – Medium Density Housing, Wellington, New Zealand
Photos – Simon Devitt