Hillside houses

The challenges and opportunities of building rooms with a view 
Views, prospect and refuge –
By Jasper van der Lingen | Emerging from the land, photo by Jason Mann.

To build a house on a hillside poses many challenges, but also often presents great opportunities.

Hillside properties are often unique and stimulating places, especially if the urge to flatten the site with retaining walls is resisted.

A house of multiple levels should be exciting, offering many different experiences and views. And it is views that is one of the primary benefits of living on a hill.

To get above the fences and roofs that dominate a typical suburban outlook and have an expansive vision to the horizon beyond can lift the soul. A grand design should of course be aware of this and make the most of it.

The question is often though, ‘Do you provide floor to ceiling glazing offering a wide panoramic sweep, or do you frame particular views through carefully placed windows and openings’?

A way of thinking about how human beings deeply relate to an environment is the concept of ‘Prospect and Refuge’, a term coined and popularised by the writer Jay Appleton in 1975. This states that we innately prefer to be able to see outwards into the distance (prospect) from a safe enclosed place (refuge).

We like to sense we are protected and secure, which is fundamentally what a home should be, while we also want to be aware of what is happening beyond.

We enjoy looking out at distant vistas but are not that comfortable if it is from a precarious spot.

Although being in a precarious position can give a thrill and excitement, as if on a diving board or cliff edge, it is not a place to relax.

Houses can provide these places of drama and vulnerability, but they are not places we generally linger in long term – they are tasters of a bit of danger and stimulation but not a place to live in as a comfortable home.

It is a feeling of inward nurture and enclosure, balanced by the outward thrust of curiosity and exploration, which makes a good house on a hill one that feels fundamentally right and appropriate.

A house with large, glazed walls drinking in the view, although dramatic, one could argue swings the balance too far toward ‘prospect’, whereas a house dug back into the hillside with small windows is perhaps too far towards ‘refuge’.

A balance that suits a particular site and the predilection of the owner(s) should be the ideal. A place that offers serenity and excitement.

A hillside house designed by Sheppard & Rout Architects overlooking Lyttleton Harbour explores these ideas.

Partly dug back and anchored into the land the roof also extends outwards with large, generous eaves. It appears to peer out at the dramatic view from under this roof as if it is shielding its eyes from the sun above.

The design was based on many factors and influences such as height restrictions, access issues, direction of sun, view and winds; and the desires of the owners to have a semi-enclosed outdoor room loggia which looks out over the harbour.

All of these had an impact on the design, but the underlying driver was to have a house that felt secure and sheltered to view the world from.

It is a viewing platform reminiscent of the old WW2 bunkers still existing around the harbour edge that similarly can survey the scene from a protected enclave.

The house is a crystal-clear expression of the ideas of ‘Prospect and Refuge’, demonstrating how a house on the hill can be designed to suit a specific site and owners, while also expressing universal human values.

Sheppard & Rout Architects
104 Salisbury Street
(03) 366 1562 (Christchurch)
(03) 901 0101 (Queenstown)

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