My Side of the Mountain – Kawakawa House by Herbst Architects
Piha, New Zealand
Resting at the base of a steep mountain slope that rises sharply above the beach in Piha, west of Auckland, Herbst Architects’ Kawakawa House is a place from which to experience life amongst the trees and contemplate the changing ocean below.
The modernist timber and glass structure cantilevers from atop a masonry base, creating a raised platform that houses the living area and bedrooms. As a result, these primary spaces are blessed with views of the water and a unique sense of being suspended within the mature Pohutukawa trees.
This elevated program is a response to the challenging site, which is accessed via a right of way sitting to the rear of a neighbouring house that blocks all view of the sea from ground level. Furthermore, thick vegetation and a position beneath mountain peaks to the east which curve around to the north affect access to sunlight, and the site is also subject to regular onshore winds in the summer months.
Raising the home above the site is a simple solution to the house in front that blocks the view, yet the decision to rest the living and bedroom spaces over a concrete plinth means the effect is not heavy or overpowering. Rather, the overhang allows for space beneath the majority of the structure, allowing it to ‘breathe’ and establish lines of sight from each side of the building through to the surrounding bushland.
This sense of lightness, a visual effect that could almost be described as hovering, is strengthened by the continuous clerestory window that tracks the entire perimeter of the upper volume. As a result, the ceiling plane appears to hang above the building, rather than exist as part of the structure. Internally, the clerestory maximises precious natural light and also provides a 360-degree perspective of the tree canopies. Each room thus captures its own view of the natural environment and is bathed in dappled light that changes throughout the day.
The main living space is conceived of as a covered deck, which speaks to a sense that the project is not so much a traditional house, grounded in the earth and protected on all sides by four walls and a roof, but rather a living platform that facilitates a life amongst the branches. An internal courtyard, a space protected from the winds that blow from the west, further breaks down the distinction between indoors and out. With glazed walls, glimpses of the sky are seen as one looks across the courtyard and through to the rest of the home on the other side.
Glimpses of sky are visible as one looks through glazed walls, across the courtyard, to the building beyond.
Meanwhile, timber flooring mirrors the timber decking, and in the main living space, timber cross-beams situated below the clerestory evoke the aesthetic of a pergola. The sliding glass south-west facade faces the ocean view and is able to be completely opened up, with a steel balustrade further emphasising the idea that the living space is more a deck than a room as it is generally understood.
With simplicity and efficiency, in only a few design moves Herbst Architects creates an elegant response that makes the most of a challenging yet remarkable site.