Making the dream home real

Every client has their dream. But as many of us discover when building a home, dreams often don’t align perfectly with what is realistically affordable. That doesn’t have to be the end of the dream. David Ponting (Ponting Fitzgerald) discusses a journey he recently took, in which he navigated a pathway through limitations to arrive at a final design even better than the original.

What were the PRIMARY requirements of the brief for the Orakei home? 

1. Clean modern contemporary aesthetic

2. Functional Planning for a 3 bedroom home with double garaging

3. Character and Personality

4. Privacy

5. Maximise available sunshine

6. Connection to the garden

7. Discreet garaging and an abundance of storage

8. A pool for grandchildren and aesthetic value 

Not in itself a radical brief. But there was a rigorous expectation to meet these elements. Our clients are passionate about design, art and architecture while being extremely pragmatic. Often these qualities can conflict when looking to achieve contemporary drama, character and personality. Along with these typical issues we are working with a fixed budget that needs to stretch a long way. 

The site – why was it challenging? 

The net site area is only 386 sq/m with site covenant restrictions further limiting its usable length to 19.5m and width to 12.5m. The site falls away from the south-west facing road boundary towards an unfortunately tall and unsympathetic gabled townhouse to the Northeast. Driveways follow down both side boundaries minimising privacy to the east, north and west of the property 

Other challenges which framed the design concept? 

The desire to create a home that was elegant and expressive with minimal room in the budget to develop ‘formal sculptural drama’. There was also difficulty in creating maximum open space and an outlook on a tight site while ensuring privacy was not sacrificed. 

Describe your original concept 

After a great deal of discussion we settled on creating a ‘Secret Garden’ on an elevated site platform. This was achieved by ‘discreetly’ hiding the garage under the house along with storage space. This effectively raised the level of the mid-floor living area and also the 3rd floor bedroom box. 

The second critical element was surrounding the entire property with a blockwork wall that rose 2.2m above the living floor level. We proposed the wall would form the eastern edge of the living space and the remaining perimeter would be covered in a light ficus creeper forming a full internal courtyard garden to all boundaries. 

Essentially this resulted in a 3 storey building walled in on all sides comprising a White Box floating over a glazed living pavilion mounted on a raised garden plinth disguising the garage space.

Why did it have to change? 

Requirements of the brief were carefully ticked off, especially to functional and aesthetic expectations, but it still needed to go through an independent cost estimation which we do on all projects. We won’t take on a project without the client specifically agreeing to the inclusion of this Quantity Surveying process. The process of meeting the expectations of the brief can lead to exceeding the given budget and in this case by almost 40%. Not a good situation but most clients want more than they can afford and most designers want to live up to that dream. 

We often find that until the client has seen the best case design scenario, they won’t settle into a concept approval mindset. When the financial priority kicks in the decisions start flowing due to the pragmatic recognition that something has to give. I liken this to the process of reaching ‘state limit’ ie, finding the point where something breaks and start working back from there. 

The initial concept cannot be seen as a definitive proposal until the costing process has occurred and if the results mean we need to re-evaluate the design then this requirement falls back in our court and at no further cost to the client. 

What makes this manageable is our intimate knowledge of the project. We can readily see how and where to compromise the initial proposal and discuss the need for this with the client. At this point they have been armed with the facts and recognise they have to accept the limits. 

How did you navigate your way to the second design – what changes were made? 

Firstly we evaluated the big ticket costs with the clients and reviewed the priority of these, notably the expansive subfloor storage zone, the pool, and the exterior courtyard wall. We also reviewed the size of all rooms in the house and trimmed back those that had suffered from the inevitable ‘project creep’. This brought the total size of the house right back to that of our preliminary plan drawings which over a number of modification requests had inflated beyond the point of affordability. 

Forty-eight hours later we had completely redesigned the concept recognising that to meet the budget we had to make a considerable number of changes to claw back the building costs while prioritising the primary elements of the brief. 

These lead us to; 

1. Reduce the total floor area back to that specified during our initial feasibility study

2. Minimise the amount of basement retaining by moving the garage from under the house to the street front boundary

3. Remove the lap back pool altogether but added a reflecting pool for the drama of the garden aesthetic

4. Added structural walls and reduced the cantilevers to minimise the need/cost of excessive structural steel.

5. Replaced the exterior courtyard wall with screen planting to the boundary

6. Refined the exterior window joinery to allow for more cost effective glazing

7. Amend the upper floor cladding to a less sculptural option while still maintaining the drama of the cantilevered form. 

Overall this simplification process resulted in 2 storey home. The upper level White Box (floating over a living space) connects into a mid-level Black Box, the living/garden now being at ground level. 

Why was the final design better as a result of these restrictions? 

Obviously the fact that the design was affordable and still met the key requirements of the brief. Notably, the connection to the garden was more authentic and the simplicity of the twin boxes carries a relaxed formal drama that shows no sign of trying too hard. 

And what was the client’s response? 

In meeting the challenges of this project I am pleased to say we have extremely happy clients who respect the outcome as the most they were ever able to achieve. 

The two level building reflects the simplicity of a modern contemporary aesthetic and pragmatic functional planning, the essence of the brief. The desired drama is a result of this simplicity as opposed to an overt effort to design it in and the clients recognise they have attained the optimum balance of need through a minimum of complexity and cost.  

What stage is the design at now? 

The house is framed up and the roof is about to go on. 

How do you feel about it? 

This has been one of the most enjoyable projects I have worked on. As always, we learn through our experience and I can take heart in seeing our process achieve the balance of need against cost. 

As for the home itself I am delighted with the dynamic that has developed between the two main forms, they express a clarity of purpose and seen in unison are strong and expressive. The planning feels like a natural evolution of the form and the living space already seems at one with the garden. 

In the sage words of Mies van der Rohe, ‘less is more’.

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