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Design Review: Volume 1, Issue 6 (April-May, 1949)

Thoughts on Swinging Cats in Recent Houses—On Pigs in the Parlour—On Outdoor Living Areas—and particularly on the Demonstration House

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Thoughts on Swinging Cats in Recent Houses—On Pigs in the Parlour—On Outdoor Living Areas—and particularly on the Demonstration House

This first article on the problems of the Demonstration House will, no doubt, lead to further discussion which the Editors will welcome.

Let us strike a serious note at the outset. It seems that over recent years the high cost of building and shortage of materials have imposed a drastic limitation on the floor area of our contemporary New Zealand house. The process of reduction in over-all size has been a gradual one, but with family accommodation requirements remaining fairly constant the result has been smaller and meaner rooms, until today the proverbial cat can rarely be swung with impunity.

The problem then for the designer is clearly one of making the best use of the area avialable, and of exercising all his skill in trying to avoid the feeling of being “cooped-up,” and to obtain a sense of spaciousness. For this reason the architect of today endeavours to reduce areas of passage, to build in furniture, and to keep the plan “open.” He contrives to arrange as many family activities as possible to take place in one large area, and throws together small special-purpose cells such as parlour, dining room, study, nursery, living room, kitchen, and even bedrooms into one space loosely divided by furniture, low fixtures and curtains. The spacial effects obtained by this “open” internal planning are generous, but unfortunately there appear to be limits to which it can be carried. These limits may be fairly flexible depending on the varying inclinations and habits of the occupants, but taken to an extreme it is a sad but obvious fact that “open” planning must react on the privacy of the individual. In practice it is this real or imagined threat to privacy which will allow it to be taken only as far as the occupants feel that necessity compels them to accept it.

As an illustration let us take an extreme case from the past. The Irish peasant was obliged to arrange the limited floor area of his cottage so that all the family activity took place in the one room. The best use was made of the space available, and it was even shared by the fowls and the pig at certain times of the year. No doubt the sociological effect on the pig was tremendous, but it is questionable whether the peasant and his family really enjoyed this invasion of their privacy on the long winter evenings. He was invited to share the cottage because no alternative shelter from the severe weather was available, and without protection he would surely have perished.

Does this give us a clue to our present problem? It seems essential that we open our internal planning to the fullest degree, and exercise all our ingenuity in making it acceptable and liveable, but it is clear that the limit is now set some fair distance short of the pig. In this country our climate is not so severe that we have to bring the wretched animal indoors, and indeed it is so mild that for a large part of the year we humans can comfortably spend much of our time outdoors. Have we fully explored the possibilities of extending our cramped living space to include outdoor living areas?

The verandah of our earlier houses was an attempt to do this, and frequently was a pleasant addition to the living area. Too often, however, it was too exposed to the winds to he used, and served only to darken the rooms behind it. It is only occasionally incorporated in our present day plans. In these wind-swept isles protection from the wind is of prime importance in creating any open air living spaces.

Given this protection the possibilities are exciting. In Wellington, for instance, our average air temperatures are considerably higher, and our sunshine figures almost double those of London. But because of our tearing winds and lack of shelter, we can spend only a fraction of the time comfortably outdoors that the Londoner is able to do. Even in grey England the value of the open air is appreciated, as anyone will testify, who has experienced the joy of carrying outside his pot of ale from a pokey bar to a table in the orchard. This is no romantic notion unworthy of serious consideration. Where rigid restrictions are imposed on floor areas the extending of living space outdoors is a practical requirement.

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However, the winds in Wellington are gusty and seem to blow from all directions at once. Where there is no natural wind break, strong measures must be taken to provide shelter in the form of walls (as in a monastery garden), or where there is a view to be preserved, glazed screens. But to be really liveable the area must be sealed off from practically all directions.

The designers of the Demonstration House at Karori were keen to exploit the possibilities of using an outdoor living area, to compensate for limitations on floor space. The site was one of peculiar difficulty. On this piece of steeply-sloping land in the windiest suburb of our windiest city, there was one small flat area. The ground sloped away from the sun, but the views of three sides from the flat portion were excellent. All in all the requirements for the design were formidable:

A maximum amount of the precious flat area must be preserved for living space;

The wind must be excluded from this area, and the arrangement of rooms such that the full benefit of solar heating obtained;

The views on three sides should be preserved;

The floor area should not exceed 1150 sq. ft.;

“Open” internal planning should be carried as far as possible, but could only be taken to a degree which would be generally acceptable.

Obviously to be usable, the flat area available had to he sealed off from the wind. To seal the flat ground off from the wind effectively a wall at least eight feet in height was called for, and this would require glazing of some sort to allow for the view. If such an expensive wall had to be provided to create comfortable living conditions on the site in any case, the logical step seemed to lie in using it as one wall of the dwelling. This led to a U-shaped plan, the fourth side being formed by the natural rock wall of the hill. With the arms of the “U” only one room in depth a considerable portion of the flat area was preserved as a sheltered internal court facing into the sun. Advantage was taken of the view outwards from the rooms, and on the court side large uninterrupted windows and French doors were provided. In this way the court on all but the storimest days will act, not only as additional living space, but also will provide direct and easy access between the various parts of the house. Thereby the advantages of “open” planning should be obtained without sacrifice of privacy.

The house is nearing completion. The real test will
the solution offered

the solution offered

obviously come with its occupation, but already by observation on the site it is possible to estimate the chances of success. The prospects seem promising in the extreme, and those persons interested, and in the position to do so may take a 5d. tram ride to the Karori Terminus to see something of this experiment at first hand.