‘Oh gosh! No way this is going to work.’

Living room staircase detail on the 1:100 model.

 

I was staring down at the photos of some quasi-modern-looking-ugly-as-hell houses, that my prospect clients showed me as an example of the type of the house they have had envisioned their house should look like. Beside those, there were some sketches of their floor plan ideas they have drawn. Zillion spaces – with gazillion corners – connected with impossibly illogical corridors, trying in vain to save unsolved floor plan problems, with numerous parts of the rooms that would prove to be a complete waste of space and utterly useless.

My mind was running in high gear. How could I tell them all that and avoid hammering them down and / or insult them at the same time. On the other hand, there was no way I could or would do a house like this. And sooner they know this, the better.

I respected them to much to be able to give them the comfort of lie. They invited me – senior architect with little practice but enthusiastic about architecture and fresh from GMMC (Glenn Murcutt Masterclass) – to meet and discuss what could easily be the project of their life. And I wanted to be honest with them.

‘Nope… I have no chance with those two.’

They were a young couple.
Very, very young – form my perspective at least.
And I liked them very much.

He – an entrepreneur. Strong willed. Consciously taking the burden of decisions on his shoulders. Feeling responsible for his young family.
She was a bit more quiet. Soft on words and actions but ultra supportive. Not so inclined to express her opinion. One would easily think that she has none… and one couldn’t have been more wrong.
They were expecting their first baby at the time – few more months to go.

 

Some of the first conceptual sketches. Very early in the process it has become clear to me that I’ want to have a road side (north) facade in human scale in order to establish a pleasant street profile and that instead of superimposing the volume on the terrain, I’d prefer to align it with its gentle slope.

 

They have acquired a nice plot of land a few kilometers / miles outside of the local capital town Slovenj Gradec in the beautiful Carinthia region in the north of Slovenia. A gentle, grassy slope, oriented to the south – or maybe a bit more to the south-west, overlooking the river in the distance and being protected with medium high hills at the back and mighty trees on the front. Modern two-units houses formed a line at the lower, south border. On the north, above the road, numerous oversized single family houses of standard post war shapes. Superimposed on the relief, they were clearly communicating, that they had been built by a routine, some recycled standardized blueprints and without much consideration of what kind of architecture should suit the place and their inhabitants best. Nevertheless, due to human scale, beautiful landscape and lots of green, the place looked nice and promised that, with some effort, it could be turned into the nice, pleasant, protective and intimate family oasis of piece and joy…

‘… under the condition, that we find a common vision of what should have been built there…’ – I looked again at the photos and sketches in front of me –
‘… which, at that moment, looks like an unreachable goal.’

On my better judgment, I have decided to keep my mouth shut… at least for a moment. I took the sketches and photos given to me and promised, that I will think it over. Before I left, I gave them the usual homework to have them describe their lifestyle to me and after a bit more of a chit-chat, we called it a day and parted.

 

Two of the early concept models which were quickly trashed during the early stages of the process.

 

Thinking back, it was a good and fair move and I am glad, that I have been able to overcome my hasty nature.

For a week, I have been battling with a dilemma should I prolong my agony, or call, informing them, that I am not able to take the job since I feel we are incompatible and that it probably would not work out well.

‘Would that be truthful? 
Or arrogant? 
Have I the right to turn them down so quickly or would that be betraying their trust they had put in me?
Should I adopt their ideas and proposals and design something based on their dictate or should I ignore it completely?’

 

One of the first sketches of the H House that latter evolved into the final floor plan design.

 

Finally, I have decided on a mid-way. From their “solutions” I have derived the problems they were trying to solve. Based on that problems list, on their desired lifestyle description they sent me and on the place specifics, I would design a house that would harmoniously fit into the place while answering all those as some other questions as well. If that goes well, we would continue. If not, then I’d know that there is no way I could do that while staying honest to my beliefs.

Working on it, I had come to the conclusion, that there are two mayor ways to properly address the problem. Based on that, I prepared two draft versions of the conceptual floor plan with some sub-options. I also made the wood models of both versions in order to show how the volumes of the house would work on sloped site, how the house would blend into the environment, how the indoor would be connected to the outdoor and how one would feel inside some environments.

Prepared with all that, I went back to present it to the couple.

When I finished explaining, there was a silence. Obviously the solutions I showed were not something they would have expected. In fact it was quite opposite.

‘This is it. I am done here.’

At one moment I was quite sure of that and I guessed that they, just like me the other day, are just polite enough to search for proper words to get rid of a mad architect for good.

And their first words confirmed that the models they were in front of them are not something they would have expected.
They didn’t hesitate long to say it loud and clear. But then, to my surprise, they said they kind of like it anyway. And in no time we were discussing the versions, the floor plan, the details, the lifestyle implications, etc.

 

Foam made concept model of the version that latter on prevailed and was developed into the final solution. A bit larger portion of the terrain was used in order to test the implications of the house volume on the relief.

 

Through out the next few hours, that passed like minutes, I have learned that those two have a gift, so rare amongst the people. While being strong and having an opinion, they were willing to listen to the argument and change their position if they felt it would be appropriate. They were even willing to trust me when some dilemmas and design issues arose that are almost impossible to be solved with hard proven facts or arguments. They were still inclined to offer their solutions on some unresolved issues. But when the problems were extracted and alternative solution presented to them, they were not stubborn and persistent to have it their way. They constantly either accepted the new version or we would discuss it a bit longer… until we have come up with even better one, that suited both parties.

 

Although still far from finished, on the model (up) some of the most significant H House attributes are already recognisable.

 

Sill in 1:200 scale, but a bit more detailed – final shape iz clearly recognizable here and a garden shed is moved from side and placed at the souther end of the plot in order to form a closed intimate courtyard with a house.

 

The process went on and on for almost half a year…

… and time consuming persuasions of the authorities were not helping to keep the project on the schedule, either. Throughout the in-depth design process, we have come to some a bit unusual concepts, which manifested on the house “non-standard” shape design which attracted undesired attentions from the authorities. Although the design was clearly aligned with the local regulations, the unique shape of the H House created some opposition within the local authorities circles. But being sure that we have done our homework right and thorough, I have been decisive to hold the firm ground and insisted on doing things the way we thought was appropriate. Clients’ uncompromising support helped a lot to stay on that path in some hard moments.

 

Some of the last hand made sketches before the scale drawing of the blueprints started. Garden shed is still on the side on this version but otherwise the floor plan, with the exception of sauna & utility area, stayed almost the same till the end.

 

Some of the quick interior sketches that were made in order to present look&feel of the space. Two floors high entrance (top) and living room – view from the dinning (bottom).

 

Windows are (almost) always the troublemakers since they need to be aligned with rooms’ walls in the inside as well as with a facade pattern. At the end, I had counted some 20+ versions.

 

Explosion sketch of the main construction elements.

 

It took us quite some time before we managed to overcome all the barriers and get our message through. But at last, our efforts finally bear fruit. It has been officially admitted by the authorities, that, for that particular area, our solution is better suited, than the one, which could easily pass the regulations. They even went farther and commenced the process of changing the local building typology regulations, in order for the future houses in the area would be better tuned to the local natural and urban specifics. I feel complimented that through this, House H is serving as a role model.

 

1:50 model with the interior is a great tool for clients to gain a better idea of how their house would function, how big are the rooms, how they are connected, etc. Based on that, quite some last minute changes were made.

 

On the other hand, with the clients, we had been discussing the project, over and over again. Simplifying. Solving details. Modifying inadequate parts. Changing some concepts. Envisioning the lifestyle on the premises.

 

Glass entrance sketch. Unfortunately, the glass roof had to be abandoned due to the exceeding cost. But high glass walls, almost 5m (16ft) high, still provides enough light for the entrance hall one level below the road.

 

Needless to say that at the end, nothing was left from my first proposals. At some point very early, it was clear to me that the changes we have come to, were of such magnitude, that I have to work on the new version from the scratch. But every variation I made, every model I have assembled, was not in vein. It has, step by step, brought us closer to the solution we were striving for.

 

Ground level floor plan, the section…

 

And the clients, I had almost declined to work for at the start of the process, proved to be pure joy to work with.

 

… and the rendering of the final version, before the construction started.

Matej Gašperič

Architect