Prepare Thy Thighs!

It’s not unexpected that there are as many stairs as there will be stares with this house. I’ve looked long and hard at the latest 3-D visuals of my Minimalist Monument to Moi that Yo Shimada delivered to us via Skype at our last meeting, and by my estimating there are 60 stairs in the design from the garage at lower street level to the living space at the top.

60 stairs from street to kitchen sink

60 stairs from street to kitchen sink

These include the 14 internal steps from the main bedroom to the kitchen that I’ll be climbing whenever I need a glass of chilled water in the night. It’s quite a journey. Quite a workout. I’ll also be doing this epic 60 stair workout whenever I bring home groceries. I’ll be doing it again on the way down again with the garbage bags. Guests who stay will be dragging their luggage up 60 stairs and down 60 stairs again when they are racing down for their taxi to the airport (the guest quarters are on the top floor). After every trip to gym I’ll need to leave something in the tank to do an additional 60 stairs. A kind of post-workout workout.

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A built-in stair master.

It has to be said that I’m up for all of this. I must have been up for it to have even contemplated this block. It wasn’t the sort of block that promised easy access even from the ad I viewed online. No, it practically took a grappling hook and a sherpa to get myself and the property agent up onto it for my first site inspection. The property agent was a mature lady. She needed a steady hand to help her up but she still managed to save enough breath to bang on about the potential of the block and I bought everything she said because, well, I’m not afraid of stairs.

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I’m not afraid of stares or stairs.

At the time of my purchase, I rationalised my decision by thinking of how much exercise I would get for free just walking around my house. I’m a runner. I’m one of those mad people that doesn’t feel right in the head unless I’ve got a few k’s on the clock before breakfast. My friends of course think I’m a bit wrong in the head and most of them are allergic to sweat, but they love a drink and I know how appreciative they’ll be of that first champagne that I offer them on arrival. I could practically serve them domestic and they’d be grateful, almost. And how much fun will it be to watch them rolling back down the hill drunk?

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Almost there.

I’m not in the least bit stair-phobic but this is a quality that my architects tell me is quite rare in a client. Nobody it seems likes stairs in houses, at least not too many stairs. In circumstances like mine, on a steep block, people in suburbs like Hamilton usually do one of two things with their build. They either go to the over-engineered expense of installing a lift or they design the house so it steps down the contours of the block all the way to the street, so they can enter the house from their garage without ever being exposed to the elements.

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One level to go, then champagne.

I can see the benefit of these solutions, especially on a good hair day when the last thing you need is a rainstorm to mess with your do on the way to the car, but the design compromises made to achieve this outcome are far too great for me. Think of it, a tiered house that is designed to step down the hill to the street would need to be huge to cover that distance and would fill the entire block with no set-backs. Now that just wouldn’t cater to my minimalist aesthetic, would it? And a lift is essentially a tower containing complicated machinery, gears, chains and links. Lift towers take up precious space. Too much space. And when you’re inside them, they feel claustrophobic. There’s nothing elegant or airy about a lift.

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Stairs that rise, cobra-like through the floor of the deck.

Yo Shimada’s stairs as revealed in his latest set of 3-D renders are indeed very elegant and very airy. They sweep up the incline, skirt along the contour of the hill and then float cobra-like, a pillar-less magic act through the floor of the bottom deck. They seem to have been designed as much a part of the flow of the X-House as they are a function of life there. The genious of the stair design however is brought to completion with the internal stairwell. This could have so easily followed the angle of the lower volumes, but instead Yo Shimada has skewed the stairs to follow the centre axis of the building. So they emerge from underneath the kitchen bench on an angle, to arrive on the top level like a second magic act. Ta da! I’m here! Now, where’s the drinks fridge?

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But wait. At the most recent meeting with Yo Shimada there was one more magic act that I didn’t see coming: in the ceiling detail. I’ve spent most of my time staring at the exterior silhouette of the X-House, excited by how different it looked and how iconic, which is something I wanted. And the rest of my time I’ve spent poring over the plan, marvelling at how efficiently the internal living spaces seemed to function in true space-saving Japanese style.

I never considered there would be yet another design moment to come, one that would surprise me and totally subvert the image I had built of the house in my mind. But here it was, my first glimpse in 3-D of how the ceiling of the house would play an unexpected starring role.

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The multiple gables featured in the x-shaped roofline have created inside the building, gorgeous faceted corners that draw the eye above spaces like the internal stairwell, giving them an air of excitement and variations of surface light. Meanwhile, the glass doors to the multiple decks, when delivered in such space saving proximity to the centre axis of the house, manage somehow to make the living space float in the outdoor space, hovering over the site, on this hill in Hamilton.

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I never imagined my little house would have so many dynamics at play, so much movement compressed in the efficiently simple lines of its 110 sqm structure but it does. This little house is surprising and with every stage of Yo Shimada, Chie Konno and Phorm’s design collaboration comes another elaboration of what is beginning to be an amazing architectural vision, and one that I’ve found difficult to predict.

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I wonder how much of this process is thought of in the initial concept drawings and how much is discovered as the design features of the house are realised during the drafting stage? I wonder how many of these ideas begin as happy accidents to be brought out and highlighted by further refinement of the design? It’s a fascinating process, that a layman like me can only really appreciate, by taking the journey stage by stage.

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Perhaps, as the stairs in this house suggest, there’s always another level to an amazing house. You just have to be prepared to do the legwork to find it.