This new house brings some of the playfulness, informality and communal living we associate with beach culture to a Wellington suburb.
THE HOUSE: Beach houses in New Zealand were once very informal places, and some still are. Property boundaries were seldom understood, let alone protected by high fences. Cricket on the beach was the most serious event of the day and children roamed between houses grazing from fridge to fridge.
While you can still find these places, they’re not as common as they were, and they’re even more rare in the suburbs of our contemporary cities. Like most other suburban houses, the fridge in this house is behind locked doors, but we did make a few gestures that invite the kind of informal sharing we once expected at the beach.
Our client lives in the house next door and this is a new rental property. So, consistent with our aspirations for more casual interactions in the suburbs, we conceived a common garden between the two properties by adding steps that reflect the existing steps on our client’s side of the boundary. One day, those steps could also extend to the bottom of the site and across public land to the beach below.
Perhaps there will be a time when our concern for individual security gives way to a bigger concern for collective resilience and the path can become more of a suburban alleyway – a shortcut to the beach for a wider circle of friends and neighbours.
We devoted the rest of the outside area to a modest garden and space to hang the washing. Being the only flat and private outdoor area, we wanted to avoid a standard-issue washing line that might compromise the ambience, so we integrated one into the house itself.
The interior opens generously to the north and east, with two significant skylights to let in as much of the scarce afternoon sun as possible. The relatively steep monopitch ceiling is an important part of the view, so is carefully detailed accordingly.
Because we didn’t know who would live in this house, we just imagined they would be the sharing type with a need to do lots of colourful laundry. In any case, both the potential suburban alleyway development and the built-in washing line provide the framework for a certain kind of creative lifestyle. One that has its roots in the playful informality we might find at the beach and could so easily set the tone for a contemporary suburb.
SEOUL BIENNALE: Roads in this suburb typically follow the contours of relatively steep terrain and only occasionally connect to roads above and below, so the blocks can get very long. A network of existing pedestrian pathways zig-zag up the hills between the roads producing a warp and weft system of roads in one direction and paths in the other. The pathway system though, does not yet form a complete network. Paths through one block are often curtailed by another making pedestrian movement through the suburb unnecessarily circuitous.
Extending the project of our modest house, we also developed a map of the suburb that showed where the existing pathways are, and where they could be. We added pathways to approximate the distance between two Manhattan streets, around 75 metres. Working with students at the Wellington School of Architecture and New York based Dongsei Kim, we exhibited a hand-sewn version of the map at the Seoul Biennale for Architecture and Urbanism (SBAU) in 2019. This map began to expose how much land would be unlocked by access provided by new pathways. The suburb is currently relatively low density, about 33pph. If this land were developed, even in relatively low-density ways, the density of the suburb could dramatically increase. A higher density environment would introduce more pedestrians, and these pathways would begin to develop a culture of their own.
Low density suburban houses, and images of the rotating washing line and lemon tree that are often associated with them, would shift. Like the modest house we developed, the building envelope would be pushed up towards the public spaces of driveways and pathways. Outdoor space would remain important. Some of it shared, some not. Some for shared gardens, some for hanging the washing.
What was the brief?
The brief was to design a small and affordable speculative house that would protect sun and views for our client's house to the south, and could be rented out to the nicest people in the market.
How is the project unique?
The pathway between this house and our client's existing house led to further research on how the whole suburb could become more pedestrian friendly. This design research was done in collaboration with a public health researcher at Otago University, Jenny Ombler, and has been published in a book called "Designing for Health & Wellbeing" published by Vernon Press in 2018. The same design research on pedestrianizing the suburb was exhibited at the Seoul Biennale for Architecture and Urbanism in 2019.
What were the key challenges?
The site is relatively steep and the setback lines impose significant constraints. Importantly, there is only one small area available for outside living. After having a washing line rather compromise a house I designed as a young architect, I was keen to make sure that didn't happen again.