Moving home to Cambridge, New Zealand, had to have a hook for artist and teacher Grant and Karen. Swapping the city for a small rural town was risking being too quiet and conventional. Close to family, yes, but they needed an inspiring lifestyle too. They found their answer in an urban block in the business district where they have built a very unconventional house.
“They weren’t interested in buying land in a new subdivision,” says architect Christopher Beer. “Grant is an artist and stay-home dad, so he could see the possibilities of combining a small gallery and café with the house for their commercial possibilities. It also meant they could be part of the town community rather than isolated in a quiet suburb.”
Before they bought, they discussed the options for the 315-square-metre site with Christopher. Bordered on three sides by a main road and laneway, it could have two entrances, and they could build right to the boundary. This immediately led to discussions about a two-bedroom courtyard house – both for the privacy they needed and the outdoor space they desired.
“Courtyard houses are common overseas,” says Christopher, “and they offer a solution to the internal privacy and intimacy needed for small residential sites. So we started with a boundary brick wall, defined three internal courtyards and a U-shape floor plan. To maximise the sense of space, the building is no more than one-room wide at any point with views through the site. We have created strong connections and overlaps between the layers of the house and courtyard, making it a very social house.”
Each courtyard has a specific function. The front courtyard provides a buffer to the street, forms the house and gallery entrance, and creates an area for café seating adjacent the coffee hatch. A private bedroom block screens the central courtyard, a grassed family space overlooked by the bedrooms and the living wing. And then at the rear of the site, with laneway access, is a pebbled service and parking court.
The scheme reverses the suburban model of a freestanding house surrounded by empty space. Instead, the interior spaces have been moved to the edge of the site and the open spaces moved inside making them an integral part of the house plan.
In addition to bold planning, asymmetrical forms and industrial materials also eschew domestic conventions. The abstract assembly intrigues. Mistaken for a library, shipping container or power station, its function is ambiguous. “We didn’t use the language of residential architecture. The intention was to create an art object befitting the gallery function and its hard, urban surrounds,” says Christopher.
With no windows outward, large areas of raw corrugated iron and shed-like roofs, it keeps people guessing. The first hints of its domestic use happen at street level as you walk past timber slatted gates screening pebbled courtyards and potted plants. This semi-public house moves very quickly from abstract and mute to intimate and open. When you visit the café and gallery, you get a peek into family spaces – a social blending the owners enjoy.
Materials are a curation of those found in the area along with some new. Brick and corrugated iron are borrowed from nearby shop lean-tos, while the knotted cedar weatherboard signals its softer, residential function. When moving through the house, the bold, external materials and forms become progressively smaller and finer, as they layer from public to semi-public to private.
The brick garden wall maintains a strong presence inside the house, defining the courtyard edges and moving through the gallery and kitchen to reinforce the continuity of space. Cedar weatherboards continue inside to play a space-defining and textural role. They’re used to wrap the bedrooms and create flush, invisible doors, looking for all the world like an exterior wall from the front courtyard.
Cedar continues around the main bathroom to form a single screen with the bedrooms between the front and central courtyards. Both bathrooms are top-lit by skylights, to let sunlight flood into the cavernous spaces. They are the most private spaces of all, with self-closing, concealed doors. Walking into them feels like you have disappeared inside the wall. This sense of another world is reinforced by the lining of rustic split slate. “The uneven, cave-like surface of the slate brings a natural, primal feeling to showering,” says Christopher.
“It feels like standing on a rock beneath a waterfall. Visually, slate is luxurious and humble and when used in a bathroom brings warmth to a space which can often feel overly cool and slick.”
The galley kitchen in the second wing uses gaboon plywood and white plasterboard to screen the food prep area from the dining table and sunken lounge. “Grant and Karen wanted functionality first, but also a kitchen that sat within the home as a crafted, considered object,” says Christopher. “They didn’t want a separate pantry but described a workspace with food easily reached, which we configured as a countertop with shelving above, drawers below and the fridge to the side. Washing and cooking are done on the opposite side, and the galley plan gives it a very economical footprint.”
Grant and Karen’s home and gallery is a flagship project for New Zealand and proof of concept for how to build well with less space. It describes how to elegantly increase building density, reduce urban sprawl, reduce car dependency, and enhance lifestyles. Turning its back on the isolation of the suburban model, this social, community-spirited house offers a very promising addition to local development models.
Christopher Beer Architect
Photography by Patrick Reynolds
Antique slate floor, wall tiles and Tundra grey marble tiles from Artedomus
Plywood in Futura HPL by Plytech
Weatherboards in Western Red Cedar from JSC Timber
Red bricks from Monier
Zincalume corrugated roofing from Dimond
Aluminium doors and windows from Tasman Aluminium
Sunken lounge from King Living
Pelle armchairs by Lorenz+Kaz for Zeitraum
Portofino table by Vincent van Duysen for Paola Lenti from ECC
Palla chair from Bonacina
Tio chair and table from Simon James Design
Orbis pendant by Oriel Lighting
Bulkhead wall lights and floodlights by Superlux
Basin and WC from Vitra
Tapware from M&Z
Bath from Marmorin
Kitchen mixer from KWC
Range cooker from Belling
Refrigerator and integrated dishwasher from Fisher & Paykel
Espresso machine by Elektra
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