Crossroad House – An alternative to Volume Housing.
Presented By Anthony Rigg
Copyright – Bleuscape Design Pty. Ltd. All rights reserved
- Anthony Rigg
In 1960, the Australian architect Robin Boyd published his seminal text ‘The Australian Ugliness’. It took aim at what he called ‘the stylistic cowardice’ of suburbia. He criticized housing, in particular, the McMansion, describing it as nothing but decorative kitsch. Fast forward 55 years and one has to ask, has anything changed? If Boyd were still alive today, I wonder what his perspective would have been about the current state of affairs.
For many legitimate reasons this reality is understandable, considering the cost differentiation between custom versus mass assembly. Generally speaking, the starting point for most architecturally driven projects begins at approximately $2500 per/m2. By-and-large, this puts architectural design out of reach for the majority of families who are looking to build and own.
With the plethora of options presented by the project home builders, the prospective buyer can choose a design that they feel suits their needs and buy off the plan. In most cases, the chosen house links hands with complementary green fill subdivisions where the land size and budget match. The playing out of this scenario is very typical and has been somewhat unchanged for decades.
While choosing this pathway allows for the average family to begin their journey into real-estate acquisition at a price point that is affordable. There have always been big question marks that surround certain aspects of project home design and procurement.
Many, if not all project home companies produce houses that are focused, not on design, but rather turnover and profit generation. To stay in the game they construct in time-saving ways, using readily available and cost effective materials. In most cases, having a monopoly over certain supply chains due to the amount of product used. By limiting the choice of options to simple aesthetic variation, allows them to remain in control of the selections offered and their refined building processes.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with smart business practice that generates profit through processed systemization. In the case of low-cost house building, it often comes at the expense of maximized liveability.
What do I mean?
•Volume house design has little-to-no integrated solar passive design e.g. cross ventilation, controlled natural sunlight and correct orientation, etc. This means that one must regulate the internal temperatures using mechanical means. Yes, for a few extra dollars there are green options; however these are often add-ons, attached to appease building authorities and achieve the minimum allocated star ratings.
•By limiting the choice of finishes, the prospective homeowner is only able to individualise their home through a restricted material pallet. Cost sets these options and is controlled by the company designer or developer’s covenant.
Both these factors when combined with the restrictive site orientation, produce a model of occupancy that is inherently the same as one’s neighbours in both aesthetics and positioning.
I believe either knowingly, or at the subconscious level, this proliferation of housing can contribute to what Alain De Botton calls ‘Status Anxiety’. Through these controlling processes, the prospective homeowner has limited ability to express personal taste through built form. As a result, they are reduced to searching out a spatial identity through things - materialism.
In residential architecture, there should be an individual sense of domestic life – Daniel Libeskind
I am not saying there is anything wrong with owning nice stuff, however when it’s the only option available for expressing personality, there emerges an inherent emphasis on acquisitiveness, rather than achieving relevance via functional ‘whole site’ design. It eventually becomes more about the decorative. When architecture is fundamentally about decoration through the accumulation of things it removes the beauty of simplicity and creates kitsch. For example, bigger and better home theatres systems or Ducted Ac Systems, multiple bathrooms associated with individual bedrooms and guest suites – all supposed ‘value-add’ elements that are nothing more than labels to put on a real-estate sales pitch.
Materialism is an identity crisis – Bryant McGill
The second observation is about conservatism and the innate fear, that to build anything other than volume housing puts the owner at risk of financial loss. As a nation, we have developed a level of trepidation toward constructing anything other than ‘the norm’. While this typical mindset is often the fall-back position, the project home industry that feeds us with this housing typology, markets prolifically to keep the cycle in motion, and there are many feeders. For example, real-estate agents, banking institutions, councils, planning bodies, policy writers and conservative developers and designers. When combined, all these organizations create a circular effect where each benefits from the other. The public most often follows in suit because it is the only option available.
2. To look forward we have to look back
So what is the answer? Is there one?
If we look back in history, there have been examples offering glimmers of hope.
Even though the likes of Pettit and Sevitt and Graeme Gunn made a significant impact and contribution in the late 20th century, the legacy they created has not been sustained by the architectural profession nor the broader community as a whole. The juggernaut that makes up the majority of current housing stock has been left to its own devices for almost 25 years. Since the seventies, its stranglehold over low-cost housing has been all consuming. It has, and continues to remain, the dominant force in Australia’s offering of the single detached housing model.
3. Personal History
As part of the design profession, one is exposed to so many different situations and yet, from within the industry, certain patterns and trends emerge. For me, one of the most significant observational consistencies is as follows:
What moves us as human beings regarding the environments we occupy, is often not the spaces we create, but rather the external influences that affect them.
Sanitarium Health Food Company – Cooranbong NSW
Personal example: I remember growing up as a kid in the small town of Cooranbong, NSW Australia. Half an hour’s walk from the family home through the bush was the local Sanitarium Health Food Company. At a certain time, every day the smell of freshly baked Weet-bix would waft over our house working its way north-west as the afternoon south-easterly blew. When I moved out of home and would come back to visit my parents, the smell of Weet-bix would bring with it a sense of being home.
Whether they be good or bad, these experiences provide powerful familiarities that often come with a flood of emotion and memory. Therefore, one could say; good architecture, considered architecture, is peripherally attuned to the clear influences that affect its context.
With this in mind, I would strongly agree with Churchill’s statement. From both a positive and negative point of view, what we make allowances for through design, provides the catalyst for our experience of habitation. Sadly, this focused approach seldom happens in architecture and almost never happens in the project home arena.
Donovan Hill’s D-House – New Farm QLD 2001
I remember the very first time I experienced a home that embodied all that is good about edge condition and healthy peripheral effects. The year was 2006, and it was my birthday. My wife Jaki had brought me a seat on a bus to a Dwell Housing tour. With many other design enthusiasts, we travelled to some beautiful, well-known homes in Brisbane. One of these was Donovan Hill’s D-House in New Farm. My experience of this house utterly floored me. I was left feeling totally undone and speechless.
The house’s architect Tim Hill, who was also at the home, stood there talking, giving insight into its creation. However, I didn’t hear him; it was as though time had slowed down. The way this house responded to its context in the broader sense of the word turned my world upside down that day. It seemed to move me in ways no other building had ever done. I found myself transfixed on all it was so effortlessly offering. I had never before experienced architecture that so skilfully pointed to an experience, rather than being concerned with appearance. In that same move, it made the space so beautiful. Donovan Hill’s D House won the Robin Boyd Award back in 2001 which is Australia’s highest honour bestowed within the residential category of awards. I get the impression by reading the jury’s citation that they felt the same way.
Having described to you how this humble abode changed my understanding of residential design, I would like to state that with all its relevance and uniqueness, it slots firmly into the ten percentile category. So, the challenge is laid out. What of the other ninety percent? Are the masses doomed, never to live with examples like D House? Can such design be integrated into low-cost housing that has the complete focus of enhancing the occupant’s quality of daily life?
In 2011, I felt it was time to start thinking about the issue for myself. I began to embark on the process of design from within the heart of ‘project home land’ and try to work my way out. My goal was not to try and eliminate the foundations that had been laid but rather offer an initial alternative that has a different focus – liveability.
A real-estate agent once said to me, ‘If you can capture the buyer’s emotion to the point that they can see themselves as part of the house, you have yourself a sale’.
These words rang in my ears when standing in the D House many years before. I saw myself living in an environment that anticipated future experiences. In fact, it would be one year later to the day that I would read an article by Tim Hill that stated, ‘We produce architecture that anticipates’. What a powerful and deep set of words backed up with a built form that so perfectly reflects them.
In the moment of concept design, I knew I wanted to integrate the following fundamental influences.
1. The house had to respond somehow to something other than itself to get its worth.
2. It had to facilitate the individuality of its owners without embracing decoration alone.
3. It had to be built for between $1000 and $1200 per/m2.
4. It had to be built within a typical volume housing estate.
5. It had to response to the senses producing natural comfort, joy and memory.
The following is what encapsulates….
4. Case Study - Crossroad House
Initial Crossroad Drawing – Bleuscape Crossroad House
When translated into a house plan, the cross-shaped layout allows for the following things to occur:
1. It arranges for the occupants to have a distinctive central zone where there is a coming together from the extremities.
2. It offers two breezeways that, no matter the block orientation, will capture prevailing winds pushing them through the public spaces.
3. It offers variations in perspective, with distant views looking towards North, South, East and West.
4. At the extremities, the cross formation offers functional diversity and choice. It opens the door for exploring variations in social connection, both public and private.
Earlier in this text, I spoke about Donovan Hill’s work in Brisbane. As a firm, they have demonstrated one other imperative gift. It is the reinterpretation of the Queenslander typology, transitioning it from a light weight romanticised form that floats above the landscape, to one that is grounded, hugging the terrain and embracing the whole site as plan.
In the Crossroad design, we have attempted to entertain this same principle by bringing a courtyard space in punctuating the northern point of juncture. There are two main reasons for this:
A. Light levels. Being located below the Tropic of Capricorn, Australia enjoys the benefit of northerly orientation. Therefore, in plan one can respond with relative ease. For example: When summer and winter solstice levels are known, a north facing program can respond providing improved comfort levels as the seasons change. A by-product of having the crossroad formation is that no matter the land direction, the house can be flipped or rotated so that the northern aspect is always maximised.
Northern Courtyard – Bleuscape Crossroad House
B. Landscape as an arbitrator of individuality.
The heart of the problem now is the separation of humanity from the natural world and the sense that the economy is the most important thing in our lives. – David Suzuki
In typical volume housing, the landscaping component of the project is so often an afterthought. This reality results in a clear distinction between outside and in. It leaves no options for the occupant but to interact with their space in a singular fashion separated from vegetation. It relegates the association with the landscape to a distant and superficial communication.
By the very nature of its layout, the Crossroad House intertwines directly with landscaping, treating it with the same level of respect and importance as its own internal circulation. It invites a dialog with the exterior spaces while enjoying the comforts of interior living.
The human eye will always be drawn to nature’s qualities over the static environment of space solely reliant on material aesthetic to achieve its uniqueness.
A wonderful consequence of integrated landscape is the provision for the unexpected to occur. This creates the element of surprise when guests or friends experience the interior space for the first time.
6. Breezeways and open Thorofares
The movement of air via cross-ventilation is the most important attribute one can integrate into a home environment. However, it is rarely considered in the majority of housing stock available to us. Most options, when brought off the plan, have to be heavily sedated with mechanical ventilation to achieve adequate comfort levels inside. The Crossroad form mitigates heat by passively capturing prevailing breezes, no matter the orientation, allowing it to pass through unobstructed thorofare.
Two breeze ways capture wind from any angle – Bleuscape Crossroad House
Schematic Spatial Layout – Bleuscape Crossroad House
Floor Plan – Bleuscape Crossroad House
As it pertains to architecture, refuge begins and ends at the edges. Therefore, how the treatment of structure is addressed at the periphery will determine the levels of interaction and comfort. This can apply at both an environmentally and socially level.
Edge Condition varies at the different Crossroad axis points – Bleuscape Crossroad House
The Crossroad formation in plan addresses refuge through a response to North, south, east and west. Each is treated differently to enhance the desired use.
Northern Courtyard as seen from the living area – Bleuscape Crossroad House
A. Northern Edge: The handling of the northern edge condition is via a double height roof canopy and corresponding Bi-fold door. It provides a large gateway to both landscape and sky.
South Elevation – Bleuscape Crossroad House
East Elevation – Bleuscape Crossroad House
Western Elevation – Bleuscape Crossroad House. Sliding screen detail.
In the southern hemisphere, it is the western perspective that copes the harshest climatic conditions. Therefore, we have integrated a timber sliding screen that provides shelter and privacy. When closed it becomes the most protected zone of all the different cross angled responses. However when open, the screen changes function, transitioning the way the home engages with the public. It subtlety promotes social interaction, inviting a dialog with the passer-by.
This particular social attribute is new in low-cost housing. Too often we build fortified bunkers that shout ‘Go Away!’ To have the versatility of privacy and at the same time allowing for relationship to happen through a simple architectural gesture is special. I love the thought of the Crossroad House contributing to the social well-being of neighbours and friends.
Perspective through the East / West Breezeway – Bleuscape Crossroad House
Their panorama sweeps from the bay area towards the Melbourne CBD. With its linear layout, the house presented an unobstructed view from about 80% of the plan. With floor to ceiling glass and full height mirrors to the rear of each wall, the view was everywhere, one could not escape it.
The initial glimpse was simply jaw-dropping, however over time, I found that my experience of this place slowly become less and less grand the more I viewed it. This is not because the view became any less magnificent, it’s just that one always sees it, it is inescapable. I would like to suggest that over time one becomes desensitised to it.
When presented with such vistas there is always the temptation to offer up the view on a platter so that it can be seen in its entirety, no matter the location. I have come to realise that a controlled perspective evokes a sense of appreciation that builds over time. If left uncontrolled, one becomes saturated by an over exposure to the very thing that makes the site unique. As strange as it may sound, to make one work a little for the view solidifies its importance as a significant feature, allowing it to be enjoyed for the life of the building.
This is what Donovan Hill’s D House does so well. Its walls and fenestrations are always guiding the eye, framing the important aspects that made up its broader contextuality.
This is all good-and-well, I hear you say, but many of the examples that come to mind border environments and perspectives that are simply foreign to the average housing estate. Generally speaking, the average project home looks onto the fence line of their ‘very close’ neighbours.
So, what would be an appropriate response given that we are attempting to build within a typical scenario?
In our design, all roads lead to the Crossroad formation for answers. The fact that we are offering the four cardinal axis points is the first step. At a minimum, this allows for variations in landscaping beyond – both hard and soft. These extremities can be planted out appropriately due to the most fitting response. This is one reason we must treat the site as plan rather than only an internal configuring of space.
Additional to this, our design provides a division where there is a variation in focus. For example: When one observes the landscaped courtyard, they are deliberate opportunities to interact with the immediate, however directly behind the courtyard, and at various locations from within the plan, the ceiling lifts opening up towards the skyline. To view a perspective of sky mean one has to be very deliberate about how the built form is positioned so as to frame it correctly.
Therefore the switch between the micro and macro, as it relates to view, creates an ever-evolving appreciation for the near and far – the experience of place.
Below are a few additional techniques and questions we explored with ‘view’ in mind.
A. Is this an outlook for one, two or more people?
B. What is the function of space and how does the view relate?
C. Is the focus of a perspective to act as a backdrop or do the occupants face it?
D. To offer views that are always diverse from within the house allows for the cultivation of long-term conscious and sub-conscious cognitive transition, for example, The experience of a place from a particular vantage point can evoke memories about a location. This is a very powerful attribute when considered in architecture.
E. Give a glimpse, then take it away, and then give it again to a greater level. This achieves a degree of anticipation for what is to come. It guarantees a process that culminates in the journey, discovery and reward.
9. Social Variation
“A bottle of brandy came out, and friends drifted in. It was about two in the morning. Most of the arrivals were students. Vincenzo was an architecture student living in the Vucciria. He talked eagerly about the work of Glenn Murcutt. He said that he would have given anything to work with Murcutt in Australia. I told him quite gently Murcutt had no assistants, that he always worked alone.”
“Moving inland into the hills of Sicily, where the villas are bigger, more costly and solid, the new houses look more and more like dreadful fortified bunkers. As they are. There is no grimmer or more palpable expression of social ethos in Sicily…[The houses] are the ultimate expression of fear and mistrust of you neighbours. Thinking this now…I saw the amazing appeal the Australian houses of Glenn Murrcutt must have had for the student Vincenzo, sitting so airily and lightly and modestly on the earth, minimal, essential and open to the world around them. From Sicily such houses seem models or dreams of another world, another way of living, and seeing this, I realised as I hadn’t earlier the politics of Vincenzo’s enthusiasm.
- Quotation from Peter Robb, Midnight in Sicily (Duffy & Snellgrove, 1996), pp. 84, 227-8.
There are obvious similarities here in Australia to the Sicilian mansion Peter Robb so eloquently writes about. One could suggest that the project home industry is producing and promoting housing that tries to mimic the old world luxury, but is sub-standard beyond the facade. These types of homes consciously produce societal class differences, through their emphasis on facades and materialism. They adopt ‘style’ as their singular big idea. But style ignores context, it ignores fundamental passive design and sustainability.
There must be another way.
10. Design as a Sensory Experiences
Design can be physically experienced if the architecture allows for it. There is a sense of peace that descends when one comes into contact with integrated solar passive design. It might be the breeze that is captured from the extremities or the guided view that frames the outside. It might be the acute awareness of rustling leaves curiously close, or the filtered flecks of dappled light that reflect into the public sitting spaces. These elements together enhance levels of relaxation, rejuvenating the soul.
At length, the arrangement of its spaces offers occupation as an experience, rather than through a set of predetermined standard solutions.
Habitation is enjoyed under a canopy of spaces that engage with, and respond to, changing weather conditions. Our hope is that over time; the house may well act as an educator for the understanding of site itself; where the breeze comes from, how light tells time and what natural comfort feels like in differing time frames – minute to hour and day to year.
I believe there is a real honesty in how architecture responses to the randomness of nature’s beauty, yet as humans, we find mutual ground in ‘home’ which is inherently fabricated. It is the intersection of these two foundations where we discover a coordinated response to living.
Personal Experience: My ‘Peter Robb’ moment happened to me in the summer of 2004 when I moved to Queensland. Having relocating from Cooranbong, a small semi-rural town 20 minutes south of Newcastle in NSW, experiencing the Gold Coast was quite a shock to the system. Especially when I began work for InterPacific International, a luxury home builder situated at Paradise Point. The houses we worked on were huge, often having build budgets from between 1 and 10 million dollars each. If you are familiar with the location, you will know that the majority of land available in that region was reconstituted swamp turned into canal developments, an entirely man-made environment.
Working on these houses was mind-blowing. I had never seen such huge mansions. Many of them had four to five, sometimes up to 10 car basement garages. They were often three stories in height. Every bedroom had its en-suit. The master bedroom came with sitting lounges and separate parent retreats. The materials were almost always extravagant. There was one thing that always used to confuse me; considering their enormous budgets; many of the homes did the same thing as the project homes I saw in the suburbs. They were bloated, pushing out to their site extremities. They rarely had eaves, and if they did, they were only 400mm to 600mm off the facade line. To keep cool, they had installed commercial powered ducted air conditioning units. Probably the most extraordinary thing of all was that only two or three people ever lived in them.
About one and a half years into my time with InterPacific, a colleague by the name of Brad Kirkness asked me if I would be interested in designing his parent’s home. It would be an owner-build setup, and he would go down and help his parents build it on the weekends. The land they had chosen was on 1 acre near the outer edge of Casino, NSW. They had a build budget of $200 000.00 dollars and were hoping to save money by doing most of the work themselves.
As you can imagine, it was quite a step down in price when compared to the McMansions Brad, and I were working on at Paradise Point. Never-the-less, we began and after many months of weekend work the house was finished. You have to realise, this home was for two wonderful people, both in their 70’s. It was to be their last before moving to retirement living, so it meant a lot.
About a year after starting the project, I remember vividly standing down near the fence line about 50m from the house and just feeling happy. It was the first time I had ever only be answerable to the client, and they loved the outcome. Even getting fridge magnets made up of the house to give to their friends as a keepsake for visiting.
Following that experience, I promptly handed in my resignation with InterPacific and stepped off the cliff. In retrospect, it was way too early to do so as I was in my early 20’s and still learning construction. However, I am so glad I did it as it opened my eyes to the possibility architecture could be more than trying to promote an image.
So why do I tell this little anecdote? Well, it gave me some very powerful lessons.
- Architecture can delight the senses.
- It doesn’t have to be extravagant to be profound.
- Profoundness is not in the form of a building but rather in the way the layout facilitates the experience.
- Simplicity is something to strive for.
- Often the best architecture comes via the reinterpretation of ordinary materials.
Crossroad House does not exist to try and change the world, however if one day I am approached by a family and they say thank you. Thank you for drawing us closer to what matters through the house you designed, it will be more than worth it.
Text by - Anthony Rigg