Setting the Scene – understanding site context
The success of any home building project hinges on making the right decisions early on. The first crucial thing, in our experience, is to fully understand all of the characteristics of your site and to allow those insights to drive the design of your home. Even the most beautifully finished house will still fall short if it does not adequately address its context, maximize views, shield itself against noise and wind, and orient itself towards the shifting sun. Whether you’re building a home in the deep countryside, the middle of the city, or in the leafy suburbs, recognizing the ways in which you can optimize the positive features of your site, and mitigate the less desirable ones, is key to creating a home that is more than the sum of its parts. So, where do you start?
Indisputably, the path of the sun is the biggest influencer of great design. Not only does the sun provide energy in terms of heat and light that we can manipulate and harness through a deep understanding of our local climate, but it is also an incredible natural force that makes our homes come to life. As the great architect Louis Kahn said, ‘We are born of light. The seasons are felt through light. We only know the world as it is evoked by light.’ From the sharp sun that breaks through our curtains in the morning, to the warm glow of evening light that bathes our living space as we relax after a long day, the shifting nature of the sun can add immeasurably to our experience of our homes. It’s vital to contemplate your relationship to the sun and imagine the times of day that you might typically spend in various parts of your home. How sad would it be if you and the sun were to move through your home and keep missing each other!
Just like the sun, it would be terribly disappointing to turn your back on the views from your site. Even if you are on a constrained site, you might find that watching the sun rise over chimney pots is something that would add to your day. Spend some time on your site and be mindful of views, both expansive and close. You might be lucky enough to have a view of a lake or mountains, or you might optimize a view into your garden, or even towards a beautiful old stone wall. And if you don’t have any view you think worthy of making a feature of, you can create one. By following the clues given to you by the sun, you can plant a beautiful tree, or give lots of thought to how you might landscape a small courtyard. Views are all about strengthening our connection to the land in which we live, grounding us, just as our ancestors did, right across the world.
Wind and driving rain hitting our homes where they are most exposed can not only damage the fabric of your building, but can jeopardize our feelings of security and coziness within our homes. This is also true of exposure to excessive noise and pollution that might come from a large busy road, factory, or even nightclub. Ultimately, shelter is a basic human need, and just as we might pull up our collar on a windy day, it’s essential to our well-being to feel protected against the elements. On your site, take note of where prevailing winds or sources of excessive noise might be coming from – only then can you be sure that your home design will be a refuge from such disturbances.
Depending on where your home is located, you may find that you want to shield or turn your back on specific areas that feel too exposed in terms of privacy or security. While many homes are extroverted, and draw in expansive landscapes, for others it might be much more appropriate to turn inward, thereby creating a sense of security and safety. This may be simply a method of creating a desired high level of privacy, or against precarious cultural issues that are prevalent in some neighbourhoods. Our need for privacy and security can sometimes trump our desire to maximize light and views, and though there are always clever design tricks to allow you to have both, it’s important to know what feels right for you.
Working with site contours – slopes, dips, hills, peaks, and valleys – is fundamental to creating a home design that fits snugly in your site. The side of a hill or a grove of trees might be exploited create shelter, while a low area might be the perfect place for a protected garden or courtyard. A sharp fall across your site might inspire a split-level design, allowing your home to be aligned and deeply integrated into the natural lines of the landscape. Bring awareness to the peaks and falls and natural features of your site, and how these might be used to protect against the elements or optimize a view.
Brenda and Jonathan, a couple in their early 30s, decided to spend a lot of time on their site before they started building their first home. The site was part of a large field given to them by Brenda’s father as a wedding gift, and while Brenda had grown up on the bordering farmland, it was a whole new world for Jonathan, a self-proclaimed city-boy. They spent many hours walking the fields, wrapped in rain gear and donning rubber boots in winter, and sitting on a blanket on the hill behind their site, sharing a bottle of wine and watching the summer sun set. They found that they were constantly drawn to sit in a particular part of the site, and over time developed an emotional connection to it, with the protection of the hill behind and an expansive view across to a forest in the west. It was clear to them that their main living space should be located in this area.