Rising to the Occasion
Gerard Kitchener is fond of talking about the weather, especially as it pertains to Waratah Bay in southeastern Victoria, Australia. But this isn’t ordinary weather—it boasts the most boisterous elements this rugged coastal region can dish up. Think lashing horizontal rain, frequent bouts of lightning, gale-force winds strong enough to dislocate car doors and blow the dogs over, and hailstones as big as walnuts.
Gerard and his partner Denise spend most weekends on top of an exposed hill in a two-level steel-and-glass tower on stilts, reading newspapers and savoring the fine wines that they’re passionate about. There’s no cowering at ground level for these two. "You would have to be mad to live here," admits Gerard, with a grin.
As far as containers for living in, this one is well prepared to cope with all weather. It’s a triumph, according to Gerard, of design over environment. Something of an inventor, he views Australia’s extreme climate as a hurdle to be overcome—he recently patented a wine-storage system designed especially to battle the tropical humidity and ovenlike heat that Australia can deliver. "This house was a similar exercise. We worked very hard on the design of the wine-storage system—we love our wine so we devised a special condenser to cope with excess humidity. With this house, it was a similar challenge. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves, and how good design can enable you to live well in an extreme climate."
The couple had owned a more conventional holiday shack nearby, but a few years ago they came into enough money to buy some land on the highest point in the neighborhood. Standing on the roof of their car, they imagined the views from their future house—a 360-degree panoramic sweep that would take in the surging ocean on three sides and in the middle, in the distance, a pristine forest.
Serendipity led them to Melbourne architect Daniel Holan, with whom they instantly clicked. "We bought a book on Australian architect Glenn Murcutt for inspiration, and the woman working in the bookshop suggested we contact Daniel if that was the sort of thing we were looking for. It turns out she was an old friend of his," recalls Gerard.
During initial meetings and site visits, Holan sketched a design that featured a sleeping pavilion connected via a spiral staircase to a living and kitchen level. To take in those greatly anticipated views, the house was to be perched on steel legs, above water tanks, a carport, and a laundry. "We told Daniel we wanted a view from every corner of the house, including the bathroom and even the shower," says Denise.
Those views are immediately evident in the light-flooded living area while in the bedrooms, which are enclosed by walls clad externally in corrugated steel, they are merely glimpsed through narrow vertical windows. Solid blinds ensure a good night’s sleep.
Overall, Holan specified cost-effective materials like steel beams and corrugated steel panels that could be prefabricated offsite, trucked to this remote location, and erected quickly using a crane. "The steel members were precision cut offsite, and a preliminary assembly was checked in the factory," he explains. "The entire structure was then constructed and bolted together onsite like a giant Meccano set in one and a half days."
Four double I-beams make up the building’s refined outer skeleton. The I-beams are placed centrally on all four sides of the house, leaving the corners free of structural elements. Holan dissolved the corners further still by introducing butt-jointed glazing to the living space and bedrooms. As a foil to all this steel and glass, translucent white thermoplastic cladding lends a 21st-century flavor to the entry stair walls and water tanks.
Generous glazing on the upper level affords the house its lookout-tower character. Holan sourced a special window system from Germany in order to hermetically seal the house against heat loss and howling winds. "It can be blowing a gale outside and be quiet and warm in here," says Gerard. "These double-glazed windows were designed to withstand severe European winters, and they work well here, too."
Atop the house, a pair of skillion roofs is arranged in counterpoint—one raking up to take in views of nearby Wilsons Promontory National Park, the other capturing the rolling pastures of the hinterland. Rain is collected by these two roofs, running into a gutter in the center and down pipes to the tanks below. The garden is maintained using water from a dam on the property. Household waste is treated in an onsite septic unit.
The house is connected to a limited local power supply, so energy-sapping appliances have been kept to a minimum. There’s no plug-in climate control—the well-sealed windows and pull-down blinds control solar gain and loss, while glass louvers and ceiling fans aid air circulation during the summer. It could be a chilly 45 degrees outside yet a balmy 74 inside.
The clients are thrilled with their unusual residence—now a national identity thanks to its starring role in a television commercial—but what have the locals made of it? "The local newspaper called us a blight on the landscape," says Gerard, with more than a hint of satisfaction.