David Weir – Architect

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Having followed The Apartment house blog by David Weir, I thought I’d ask him what makes a house both fit and work to become a home

I am a fan of homes. Notice I said homes, and not houses, or apartments, or castles. Homes. I love the line from the great Aussie movie The Castle – “A man’s home is his castle” – and ain’t that the truth.

My husband has worked in the building trade for over 10 years, and we often talk about building our dream home; even our kids love looking at floor plans for houses in the magazine and imagining which room would be theirs. I am fascinated with the idea of building a house that is in sync with the environment and the landscape within which it finds itself. For the last few years I have been watching with keen interest a little blog ‘Apartment House’, about a man, his dream and a very small urban block in the back streets of Perth WA.

“This is a blog about a small house. A small house that is going to be built on a small block for (hopefully) a small amount of money. It’s small like an apartment, hence ‘apartment house’. 241sqm, inner suburban Perth, subdivided rear lot (it’s an old backyard), with right-of-way access. It’s on a hill with a nice landscape-ish slope to it, and has some very close, very character-y neighbours. My favourite part is the dinky path down to the letterbox at the front of the old house. It’s a long way to walk to pick up our mail in my y-fronts, but still, it’s cute.

It’s 93 m² ,with roughly 200 m² useable outdoor space, including a huge roof deck (perfect for open-air dinner parties). The north facade is all operable glazing to allow for efficient heating / cooling / lighting, and the rest of the walls are grey cement block. They in turn, match the floor, which is a polished concrete of some sort; the deck, which is also concrete, and the carport, which is concrete council pavers. Concrete is the material of choice this time around … in case you didn’t spot that … in addition to that grey, grey exterior, the house will have some huge ‘green screens’, for privacy, shading and general sexiness. And a lovely green carport … for porting cars, I guess. The roof has access, up an exterior industrial staircase, to water the plants and sunbathe.

The engineer called it ‘cute’. I’m going with ‘compact’ or ‘succinct’. It’s going to be beautiful.” http://aprtmnt.blogspot.com/

Well, the Apartment House is now inhabited. It is a home that both fits and works in its location and harmoniously with the environment. With the size of residential blocks shrinking, I thought I’d ask architect, and proud home-owner of the Apartment House, David Weir about what makes a home fit and work.

‘Fits’ does not equal ‘Works’

In my experience of residential design, both working for designers, builders and architects, and then in my own firm as a registered architect, it’s the number one mistake I see regarding custom-designed homes for a client.

Just because someone can draw a plan that ‘fits’ all the desired components and ‘fits’ into the boundaries of your property, doesn’t mean that the design ‘works’. And as the client, you are investing a lot of time and a lot of money that should be reaping the greatest rewards possible.

There seems to be a great big disconnect between how we make our houses ‘fit’ on a site and what makes a house ‘work’. At some point along the road from log cabin to McMansion, we forgot what we were doing it for.

Good design says that your house isn’t pulling its weight, isn’t ‘working’, until it can cover the 4 design basics:

1. It keeps out the harsh weather elements.

2. It can take advantage of winter sun to heat itself and use shade and breezes in summer to cool itself.
3. It lets light into every room, so you don’t need to burn electricity during the day.
4. Make its occupants feel content and happy.

Home theatres, stainless steel kitchens, feature walls and built-in spas just don’t make the list. You can have them, but unless the first three points are ticked, you’re not gaining the advantages, lifestyle or economic, that a well-designed home can offer.

Those first three points, the fundamentals of housing design, are in most cases barely considered. At best, the design-build industry consider these ‘green’ items as being luxuries which will cost you a bunch more than their pre-prepared one-size-fits-all design, and at worst it doesn’t even offer the client the advice, information or options to allow the client the opportunity to make the house ‘work’.

I often hear the same old tired argument, that getting a house ‘designed’ costs money, and building ‘green’ costs money. Sure, sometimes, but other times, no more than you’re already paying. A good architect or builder will be able to tell you that sometimes being green is purely a matter of being sensible and considerate. Take, for example, a window …

A window has a clever and faceted task in a building – to let in light, to let in views, to let in breezes, to keep the wind and the rain out and to stop the harshest sun from getting inside. Just because somebody drew a window on a plan, doesn’t mean that it’s designed to work.

Some ‘designers’ believe that you add a window to a wall because ‘rooms have windows’, or because the building codes oblige them to do so – they don’t believe it needs to open, because you can have ducted air, and it doesn’t need to avoid the sun, because you can pay for blinds. So it fails in its task.

In the same way drawing a house that fits on the page, on your block, and fits all your possessions doesn’t mean that house is designed to work.

And a house that doesn’t work, that relies on constant air-conditioning, lighting, heating, will cost you more every day and every week and every month than one that pulls its weight. Good house design stems from a bit of thought and consideration at the beginning of the project, and it will pay dividends in the long run.

Good architectural design saves you money and brings additional rewards. Bad design creates great disadvantages on a scale greater than your own home. Labour and materials are wasted every day and invested in houses that just don’t work.

In a time where we are so concerned about our environment and our economy, why is it that we still waste such resources and productivity on a product that relies forever on using up more and more resources? Each faulty house is sucking unnecessary amounts of energy to heat, cool and light them, because the ‘designer’ didn’t bother to consider those first fundamentals of good house design.

My professional advice to you as a prospective client of those who purport themselves to be house designers is this: if they mention granite benchtops before they ask you which way is north, if they ask you about the colour of your bathroom before they know where the summer breezes come from, then chances are they and I work from a different list of priorities, and you may just end up with a house that fits, but probably doesn’t work!

By Amy Heague and David Weir from

David Weir Architects.

www.davidweirarchitects.com

Photos by Matt Biocich.

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