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This project provides an unusual opportunity to design on a site which is exposed to all of the elements and which affords superlative views of the north coast, the sea and the rain forest. It also deals with a number of challenges presented by building on a plateau on the northern range as the intention was minimise site excavation/fill, to collect rainwater for use all year round and to use solar energy to power the equipment in the house. Fortunately vehicular access to the site was already established.

The brief from the Client was to provide weekend accommodation for his family, including four children, and for a substantial studio where he could paint and be close to nature. The site had been previously developed to the extent of creating a plateau, which had stabilized over a number of years. The main body of the house and the studio were located on this existing plateau with a 4 metre deep cantilevered desk on 2 sides. The family wanted the sleeping accommodation to be separate from the main house, for reasons of privacy and so the bedrooms were tucked back up the hill at a slightly higher level. Joining the two area is a covered link, which joins the deck to the main house and is on axis with the main hallway. This also provides a second exterior deck that will be used primarily by the older children.

The entrance to the house is via 4 metre high hardwood doors, which give onto the double height hallway. This is fully glazed overhead with toughened UV-resistant glass. At night the moon illuminates this space, as well as the low-level floor washers set into the flanking concrete walls. On this level is the kitchen/dining area on one side, which opens out onto the deck and on the other side of the hall is the studio, which is anything but domestic in scale.

Large timber sliding doors provide access to these spaces and the studio can be as closed or as open as the Client prefers. Above the kitchen and dining area is the family living room, which is accessed from the hall via a single flight of stairs. This can also double up as accommodation for additional visitors. A bathroom is located under the stairs.

Below the central hall is located the 18,000 gallon underwater cistern. Rainwater is collected from the two main large sloping roofs via gutters and downpipes, which are integral with the in-situ concrete structure. This water is then filtered and treated before being pumped to storage tanks high above the timber dormitory block to supply the sanitary fixtures by gravity feed. The sloping roof at the front is angled at 12 degrees towards the south, to give the optimum position for the photovoltaic cell panels located there. These provide the energy supply for the house. There is no connection to either the electrical or water mains.

In the dormitory building there are 4 identical cabins for the children, with internal sliding doors connecting pairs. The parents bedroom is a double volume at the rear with the sleeping accommodation at the highest level with views over the roof of the other bedrooms. The bathrooms are located between the bedrooms and the access corridor, which also accommodates the wardrobes. The perimeter can be opened via pivoting louvred doors during the day, which are closed at night for security.

All materials/finishes for this project demonstrate their construction method. The main structure comprises in-situ concrete with pine softwood planking forming the internal face of the form work. This is evident on the surface of the concrete. Tie holes are left expressed. Doors and windows are in teak. The boarding of the deck is angelique timber from Guyana. The structure and cladding of the dormitory block is in greenheart. The roofs are all heavy gauge alu-zinc on hardwood shaped purlins. Floor finishes include in situ terrazzo in the main house and purpleheart for the sleeping quarters.

The house has been mostly built by people who live close to the site. As there was no general contractor on the project, it has meant craftsmen developing new relationships and having their say about detailing. Materials are mostly sourced from the region, although where necessary, such as the choice of hardware, this is selected from Switzerland for high durability. The Client has also taken a pivotal role in the building of the house and has engendered a feeling of positive goodwill and openness for all of those involved.

Artist House,

commenced 2006
completed 2008

features: 18,000 gallon underwater cistern, photovoltaic cell panels, built by local craftsmen

Design Team: Jenifer Smith, Celiwe Villiers, Declan Luk Pat

photography by Alex Smailes