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The Kingston House is deceptive. From the street only the property’s raised garage can be seen, tucked away amid neighboring Truman Show lawns—force fields surrounding identikit brick-veneer suburbia. The house itself is over the rise, on a hilly incline. Visible from the house’s sundeck is Kingston Beach to the east, and expanding northwards from there is the Derwent River. To the west there’s a small verdant valley. And somewhere past that are the shops and business district of Kingston, an outer suburb of Hobart, the capital of Tasmania—Australia’s only island state. To the north is Mount Wellington, the4,170-foot-high peak that owns Hobart’s skyline.
Looking back from down the hill, near the valley, it’s hard to pick out the house. The dark shell blends in with the earthy hillside and weather-beaten trees, while the large front windows reflect and absorb the sky. "We didn’t want it to be this big element stuck out on the hill, mansion-style," says Aaron Roberts, from the Hobart-based architecture firm room11, and co-designer of the house with Thomas Bailey.
At close range, the building is a monolith, its plywood facade treated and stained with dark Madison oil and sharply delineated by the lightness of the decking, which is constructed from local celery-top pine. Towards the entrance, the monolith is sliced open by a long void between house and deck, filled with ornamental pear trees. As the trees change hue and texture throughout the seasons, they enhance "the qualities of the living space, emotionally and experientially," according to Aaron—something akin to a "seasonal body clock." The cutaway also serves to reveal Mount Wellington, double-framed from inside by the windows on the near and far sides. As Aaron says, regarding the textured, rough-hewn rock shelf to the right of the building, "We used to come and sit on the rock shelf and think about how the house might be planned. We always seemed to gravitate to that spot, looking back at the mountains and down at the water, and we wanted the house to retain that perspective."
The project originated just after Aaron had finished university—his clients were his parents, Diane and Hayden Roberts, who run a newsagency in Kingston. According to Hayden, "we basically said we wanted three bedrooms, and that was the brief really." The design went through seven stages over a period of ten years, beginning with a typical graduate conceit. "Back then," Aaron says, laughing, "the design was like a curved wave! Like the wing of a plane." He wasn’t thinking of emotional effects until later, when he began to make connections between the stressful nature of his parents running their own business and the tension of managing his own practice. As a result, he says, "I really wanted to make a calming place, with luxury in the form of space and volume rather than, say, gold-plated taps." That calmness is apparent in the upstairs living area, which smells like clean living, especially when the windows are open. Furnishings are sparse and elegant—understatement is understandable given the view, engorged with Mount Wellington’s natural theatrics and a sensual lull of sloping hills and inclines. As Diane enthuses, "I just feel so relaxed here, like I’m on holiday all the time. I never want to leave."
Aaron says he and Bailey conceived "the whole building as one solid, large object that has had elements pulled out of it or cut away, as opposed to a multiplicity of elements that come together." This thesis is clearly on display in the home’s second void: a square enclosure featuring a Japanese maple, with glass walls connecting it to the master bedroom and bathroom, unifying, in Aaron’s words, this "very intimate zone." Chocolate-colored, leaf-themed tiles enhance the mood of the bathing space—"it’s more patterned, more personal down at this end of the house," he notes—and the surrounding walls are lofty enough to deter peeping toms. Both private and expansive, this space is a big hit with Diane and Hayden, although, as Aaron points out, his mother was initially resistant to his ideas.
Diane does admit to worrying about what her family would think—and her father, especially, as a member of a conservative older generation for whom the thought of designer architecture doesn’t sit well with traditional concerns of practicality and comfort. (But even he was impressed with the smaller void. "Now, that’s a bathroom!" he apparently exclaimed on his first visit to the house.) Added to that, after vacationing in Queensland and seeing "big white rendered houses with big white pillars and lovely plants out the front," Diane says she envisaged something similar, and was thrown by Aaron’s decision to use sparse vegetation rather than lush evergreens. "But as the seasons change," she says, "they come out in multitudes of blossoms. And I remember ringing Aaron and saying, ‘I’m so glad you did this because I know I was a pain!’"
For Diane, the way the living space and kitchen area merge with no classical sense of division also took some getting used to. For Aaron, though, the concept made sense. "We design houses by looking at the architecture as a vessel, almost like a tent as such. It just stops the wind and the cold but at the same time you are able to inhabit that landscape, that place."
Elaborating on their design philosophy, Aaron says room11 is investigating ways "to make denser spaces in the city, researching how people might live in smaller spaces. Everyone wants the great Australian dream, the backyard and all that, but the reality is the environment can’t handle it." So the firm is developing an innovative system of modular housing, "pre-engineered planning for a series of buildings where people could add to the building and take away as needed—an affordable green alternative to standard brick-veneer boxes. It becomes sustainable through the smallness of the building: less to heat, less to light, less services." In recognition of its efforts, room11 has been invited to exhibit at the 2008 Royal Australian Institute of Architects national conference. The conference explores the impact of globalization on "meaningful architectural practice," and room11’s brief is to map out how Sydney might deal with various environmental challenges in the year 2025. These challenges will, of course, include drought, which already affects—even shapes—life Down Under.
Though the Kingston House may not exactly be small, it does embody the room11 attitude, made apparent by the cozy temperature of the living space and by one of its most striking features, the uncarpeted concrete floor. Aaron explains that after Diane and Hayden returned from Queensland raving about the hot weather there, they decided to employ the concrete slab "as a big thermal bank so that heat stays in the building until late." If it does get too warm, he says, "you can open up the windows and the sea air will suck that hot air through." Hayden reckons they’ve not had to turn on the heating for months—remarkable for Tasmania, which does get cold—while Diane owns up to more skepticism: "I’m a farm girl originally. I always thought concrete floors belonged in barns."
In light of all this, it’s not too far-fetched to see the organic modernism of the Kingston House as a working model of an eminently possible future. Intimately integrated, its low-impact footprint enables the outdoors to permeate the house but also allows the landscape to breathe and grow.
As the RAIA conference will doubtlessly reinforce, the house—and room11—is meaningful architectural practice in action. But, of course, Diane and Hayden need no further testimony.