Wednesday, December 14, 2011

East coast architecture

I was recently asked to write a small article for an architectural publication on a very modest form of building - a cubby house -  located within a coastal Sydney backyard. The approach described in the use of local materials is equally relevant for the design and construction of kayaks. 

The architecture of holidays.

The much-anticipated summer holidays in our household begin with three sleeping boys being carefully carried into the family car before dawn and then driven along the twisting Pacific Highway to a favourite beach house on the mid-north coast of NSW.
 If we’re fortunate, we’ll get a clear run out of Sydney and be well past the twisted angophoras of the Hawkesbury River before any other limbs are stirring in the back seat.

Before long the Manning River appears and with it tall forests begin to press in on the highway and present us with a landscape that was once commonplace along the mid-north coast of NSW - mature stands of blackbutt, flooded gum, tallow wood and spotted gum towering into optimistic morning skies.

The Northern Rivers drain the eastern flanks of the Great Dividing Range into the Pacific and have, over many hundreds of millennia, formed valleys and steeply inclined habitats into which have evolved some of this continent’s most magnificent trees.

Local places with names such as Cedar Creek, Bloodwood and Millers Road describe the industries that grew up like mistletoe in these east coast forests and hungrily devoured vast areas of their hosts within generations of the timber- cutter’s arrival.

It was into one of the remaining timber mills near Nambucca - with a sustainably harvested queue of mature trees being fed into its terrifying blades - that I coasted at the end of our last summer holiday to purchase half-a-dozen blackbutt 4 by 2s in six metre lengths.

Rough sawn out of their dismembered parent trunk and dripping wet with clear sap these golden yellow beams were fastened onto the car’s roof for the long journey south over the Northern Rivers to Sydney.

Stowed within the rafters of a boatshed by the harbour for 6 hope-filled months the timber steadily reached moisture equilibrium with its new atmosphere.

Originally intended for use in the construction of a veranda the now beautifully seasoned timber was suddenly re-directed by the urgent claims of a six-year old and his two younger co-conspirators for a cubby house in the backyard.

With a simple unscaled sketch to serve as construction documentation the cubby house was built over a couple of enjoyable Sydney winter days.

The drop saw and power drill releasing the bound up aromas of east coast forest with every deep slice and penetration of the wood’s tight grain.

Accompanying this phase of construction was the running thread of commentary from my enthusiastic young clients eager to occupy their special space with its key internal dimensions sized directly from their own bodies.

Mercifully, this project was unencumbered by development applications, value management sessions and building information models.

Arm-lengths of spotted gum sourced from the same region as the blackbutt - and salvaged many years previously as off-cuts from a large-scale project - were arranged into a balustrade of battens. A sheet of marine grade plywood formed cantilevered seating brackets – sized for little legs.

Dowels of Tasmanian oak were driven in as tree-nails to bond beams to posts. Joists recovered from a demolished building nearby were commandeered to form a floor structure. White cedar plywood provided a soffit to one of the roof planes. The roof was sheathed in a combination of clear and opaque profiled sheet to provide shade from the north and reveal views into an adjacent tree canopy to the south.

The completed structure is open to coastal breezes and picks up sunlight in ways that appeal to an architect’s eye.

Materials are more than just screens to environmental conditions and barriers for security.

Naturally sourced materials speak of the environments from which they were once formed – the soil profiles, rainfall and climates of their origin.

Materials are the words through which architecture can be read as a composition in harmony with the story of its landscape.

Now adorned with a collection of items found along the east coast – abalone and oyster shells, crayfish carapaces, native orchids, sea sponges and sections of humpback whale bone – this most modest of buildings is a place of retreat and play for our children and a sentimental recollection of east coast holidays past.