When a new house is so drastically different to its neighbours, it’s sure to attract attention, invite intrigue, become a landmark – an icon even. Small House, located on a steep hillside in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, is one such house. Designed and built by Gold Coast practice Studio Workshop, the spacious 1.5-bedroom house is formed with concrete and clad with a dynamic timber screen that balances beauty and practicality, malleability and solidity. “It was a response to the climate, site, quality and capability of local labour, and the longevity of materials,” says Rory Spence, director of Studio Workshop.
Small House is home to an Australian expatriate who has lived in the region for 30 years, and it is the first of three structures to be built on the site (which was excavated by hand using jackhammers and picks). The west-facing two-storey house is accessed via a paved garden entrance on the ground floor. Designed for entertaining, it has a games room that opens to the swimming pool, and a flexible bedroom and bathroom. The open-plan kitchen, living and dining area are upstairs, with the master bedroom, ensuite and home office adjacent.
Materials, massing and the desire to maximise the views – the latter of which attracted the client to the site in the first place – influenced the dominantly geometric form of the house. Much of the local architecture is constructed using timber that is not properly seasoned and therefore deteriorates due to the climate and weather. Studio Workshop instead utilised concrete for longevity and an off-form aesthetic, pairing it with timber to balance the robustness.
This, however, had its challenges. It was difficult to find local labour capable of providing a refined and precise concrete finish and sourcing exact materials was not reliable. “We had someone from Australia go over and do the actual formwork, but even the formply wasn’t straight there,” Rory says. The cantilevered stairs demonstrate the skill of the formworker – as well as the opportunities in the more relaxed building codes. “It allows you to have some grand moments without being overly constrained,” he says.
The mixed-hardwood ceilings include Kwila (also known as Merbau) and blonde timbers, although the intention was to have all the same species of timber. “You never know what you’re going to get, and packs of timber might include three different species of hardwood so you just make do,” says Rory. Lining the ceiling keeps the timber out of the sun’s harsh rays, while the polished concrete floors endure the wear and tear.
The timber screen is an aesthetic and practical response demonstrative of Studio Workshop’s approach to architecture from design through construction. “We try to push the boundaries creatively in terms of experimenting with materiality and construction methods to reduce fabrication, costs and on-site labour,” Rory explains. The screen began as a digital-craft research experiment in how timber and a CNC router could be used to create complex custom forms. Studio Workshop fabricated its first timber screen as a backdrop for a construction company’s reception area and has since developed it for residential application – Small House being the first.
The undulating form of the screen explores malleability and is based on achieving efficiency in materials. It is made with Accoya – a type of pine treated to extract and block moisture for greater longevity – and stained to match the Kwila throughout the house. Made in the practice’s Gold Coast workshop, the screen around the master bedroom and bathroom combines shorter and longer timber members that form the height of the screen and provide the three-dimensional manipulation. The full lengths were made into panels, flat packed and shipped to Port Moresby for installation. Studio Workshop also fabricated the swivelling shutter doors, which have the same form but without the wave-like effect, as well as the built-in seating, internal joinery and other timber components.
Architecturally, the timber screens serve multiple purposes: providing privacy, blocking the sun and reducing afternoon heat. They let light in to striking visual effect, allow ventilation, let heat escape, and provide a distinctive characteristic amongst the vernacular housing and typical apartment blocks of Port Moresby. “It is certainly idiosyncratic and gives a radically different feel,” says Chris Knapp, a director of Studio Workshop. “It’s an exuberant response to the traditional brise-soleil.”
The original concept had openings cut into the screen for windows, but the design team decided against it once on site. “Having that degree of control and ability to evaluate the screen once in situ was valuable to the ultimate outcome,” Chris explains. This is also true of the balcony that projects from the southern end of the house as well as the window frames. The balcony (or “gang plank,” as Rory refers to it) breaks the hard geometrics of the house and offers a faster means of ventilation when the shutters and screens are closed. The angled window fins break the planarity of the walls and help to obstruct views into the house.
Balance Enviro Solutions did the landscaping, which includes a green roof with highly resilient plants. Studio Workshop shipped the soil, drainage cell and low-bitumen paint from Australia, and sourced the plants from local roadside sellers.
As a response to climate, site, materials and labour, Small House is very much a product of its place, despite being so disparate to its neighbours and the vernacular architecture. Progressive design has the potential to provoke and to challenge – what the architectural impact of Small House will be is unknown. “We’ve landed this pretty radical thing on the hillside in Port Moresby and we don’t know if people going to love it or hate it,” says Chris. “Hopefully it’s something that stimulates and elevates its local surrounds, where architecture is quite devoid, and creates resonance and brings joy or wonder.”
From the inside it certainly brings joy and wonder to the occupants, as Rory describes: “You’re in a tropical environment with the luxury of higher end finishes. The view is amazing, the sunset is incredible and the house feels so grand. You sit in there and everything just feels so epic.”
Photography by Peter Bennetts
Portland couch, Kai dining table, console table and end tables, and Gainsville dining chair from Domayne
Bleached hemp rug from Domayne
Basalt Blue Moon honed tiles.
Granite Ebony flames tiles
Sink and mixer from Blanco
Gas cooktop, oven, microwave and dishwasher from Miele
Bar fridge from Vintec
Toilet suite from Fienza
Tapware and shower rails from Astra Walker
Concrete basins from Wood Melbourne
French door fridge from Samsung
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