Someone sage once told me that the hardest thing about house building is getting out of the ground. This I agree with. Making a start is surely difficult. The design and approval developments come slowly, in small increments with long wait times in between. Being a client is an exercise in pacing yourself. There’s nothing you can do to speed things up, except whinge and moan from the sidelines.
I imagine it’s a bit like Winter hibernation if you’re a bear. There’s no speeding up the arrival of Spring, your only choice is to accept the wait, slow the rhythm of your own pace, crawl into a dark and comfortable place and hope to lose track of the time as it passes.
Then how do you wake up when the steel guy arrives on site at 7am with 11 tonnes of structural steel, ready to be assembled? How do you shake off the inertia of 2 years of waiting?
I need to know because all of a sudden it’s go, go, go on the site of my Minimalist Monument to Moi. After months of anal analysis of plans and after many delays caused by weather and site conditions, we’re now building. And these guys are moving fast.
It seems that the careful management of the steel drawings, all that checking and rechecking has paid off. Whole sections of the frame are being stood up, using a crane from the road below and they’re slotting into place just so.
It looks easier than Ikea. From a distance anyway. Looking at them work, I figure the guys doing it have a fair amount of experience between them. They’re not young guys, but they’re sprightly and I suspect using techniques that they’ve learned on commercial building projects. Who knows what these guys may have built in their time, but they move with easy confidence.
I asked them what they thought of the project? One of the hardest housing jobs they’ve put together, apparently, because of the amount of steel. Still, the frame went up in two days. It’s a shame to cover it up, they say. I agree.
It’s a shiny sculpture as it stands, but I want a house to live in so I’m chuffed to see the scaffolding arrive next on site. They’re putting this up around the frame to allow them to work on the suspended, formed slab and to clad the building and put the roof on.
Meanwhile, the landscaper has arrived to shore up the slope, to install a heap of erosion control and to prepare the ground levels for the construction of the concrete stairs. It looks like it’s been snowing on site now with that white erosion blanket in place. It also looks like a body being prepped for keyhole surgery.
Surgical precision is definitely required to insert the final most dramatic piece of big steel into place: the steel staircase. This epic stair from the garage to the first deck has been worried over for months, built off-site and now here it is being carefully craned through the skeletal scaffolding to be bolted into place, suspended from the cantilevered frame of the first deck. It had to be done now, while there’s still room to manoeuvre it from above.
Let me talk about this stair for a moment. Since the project’s beginnings the stairs have been a dominant element of the design. They had to be. There were so many. People have seen these stairs as an issue. A negative. A problem. Sometimes though, when presented with a problem, it’s best to make a virtue of it. You can’t hide the fact that this is a house with no easy access from the street. There’s a commitment required to get inside this house. To Shimada san though, these stairs have became an architectural opportunity.
As the true horror of the site conditions revealed itself, and the distance between the altered slope and the ground floor of the house became even more dramatic, Shimada san and his team turned these stairs into a whole new storyline for the building’s narrative. They became an entry statement, disappearing as they do through a trapdoor in the underside of the dominant, cantilevered first deck.
We talked a lot during the design of these stairs about how they would function. How it would feel to walk up them, in stormy weather, with arms full of groceries. There was an argument for dumbing them down to make them feel safe. That argument didn’t last long. This is not a house that takes the safe road. This is a house that is taking risks. It’s a house design that begins where it hopes to end: asking for a certain amount of commitment from its occupants to buy in to the design as much as live in it.
That philosophy of calculated risk guided the design of the treads on the stair. They’re made of steel plate, cross-hatched for grip. It’s a heavy, industrial material, galvanised for protection from the elements. Yet the way they’re designed, they feel as if they’re floating, mainly due to the omission of the typical turn down that would exist at the front of the tread. Without this turndown, they read to the eye as an impossibly thin tread, like a blade.
A more conservative design would have opted for a thick turn down to make the tread appear more obvious as you walked up, so that you didn’t feel like you were falling or that you could cut yourself into neat slivers if you tripped. A more careful stair would have looked less like something that floated, more like something solid. But that would have looked clunky and this is a stair that will take you up to a house that also looks to float. It’s an inherent part of the design, it’s not just a means of getting inside it.
I may one day rue the day I approved these stairs, but sometimes we make our lives too careful. Too comfortable. We lose confidence in our ability to survive. To be aware of dangers and to develop our ability to carry on regardless. Our world can become too bubble-wrapped, too padded and rounded, so safe you can navigate it asleep. But who wants to sleep walk through life? That won’t be happening in the Minimalist Monument to Moi.
This is a house that will wake you up and stimulate your senses. If you come to visit, you’ll need your wits about you. You can sleep when you’re dead, and in the case of these stairs, if you are sleepy, you could invariably be dead, so wake up. Keep your eyes open. There’s going to be plenty to see.