Making Waves: Beachfront Homes
Getting your beach or coastal getaway home right involves more than just adding a deck terrace. Architects are combining design with the wind and natural environment to create an immersive experience.
When architect Tom Kundig first approached the wind-blown bluff on Maui’s west coast where his client wanted to build a beach house, the rugged natural beauty overwhelmed him. “I don’t think that I could ever design something as beautiful as what is already out there on the oceanfront,” he says. And so he did what his Seattle-based studio Olson Kundig has become known for: he designed a home that gives primacy to the natural landscape and settles unobtrusively into its surroundings.
Kundig’s client purchased the land overlooking Slaughterhouse Beach, on the western shore of Hawaii’s second-largest island, as a holiday retreat and wanted a simple box; something that felt like a surf house. They also wanted up-to-date, sustainable technology in a house that would take advantage of the cooling trade winds, Kundig recalls. This presented a challenge. The home needed to be sturdy enough to weather strong storms on its waterfront site, but it also needed to be porous, in order to open to the outdoors in what is most often a mild climate.
The architect's solution was to place strategic openings in the home’s corrugated metal roof. The technique, inspired by traditional Hawaiian roof designs, effectively harnesses the ocean breezes.
Rather than blowing into the house, the winds move over the roof and create a cooling vacuum that pulls air through the interiors. The home Kundig designed is composed of three individual buildings connected by covered corridors. Each hut is positioned to frame ocean views and the central gathering hut, which has an open-plan kitchen and dining area, also features hydraulic window walls that open completely to the outdoors. With the window walls removed, the hut transforms into an open-air pavilion fully exposed to the landscaped hillside, to the swimming pool and the ocean beyond.
“The goal for architecture is to help reveal and unfold the site,” Kundig says. “We’re here to frame the landscape, to create an experience of that place and perhaps to bring some of that experience – the intimacy, the vulnerability – inside the house.”
Allowing the landscape to impose on the interiors was vital, but the structure also needed to sustain the site’s relentless high winds and corrosive salt air. For this Kundig used 18-inch thick walls made of rammed earth. The material, which is created by packing various local earth-based mixtures together, is sustainable, virtually fire proof and a strong barrier to sound. And the resulting striated layers, visible both inside and outside the building, easily blend in with the surroundings.
Olson Kundig Architects was founded in 1968 and is led by owners Tom Kundig, Jim Olson, Kirsten Murray, Alan Maskin and Kevin Kudo-King. The firm’s central guiding principle – that buildings can serve as a bridge between nature, culture and people – is a notion that guides their work in residential, hospitality and civic and commercial projects. The firm has become known for creating structures that appear like natural extensions of the site, for blurring the boundaries between indoors and out and for a rustic yet refined aesthetic that favors milled steel, unpainted wood, concrete and large glass panels. They have also designed private villas across the United States, in Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Australia and in Hong Kong, where their villa in Shek O, though barely visible from the road, features voluminous interiors that frame tall views of the South China Sea.
When it comes to oceanfront residences, however, Olson Kundig’s aesthetic approach is also guided by pragmatism. “Many of our beach residence homes are vacation homes and therefore need to be low maintenance as they may not be resided in for several months at a time,” says Kundig.
At a project known as the Pole Pass Retreat, located in Washington State’s San Juan Islands archipelago, a client specified they wanted a small family retreat that would be easily maintained. The architects at Olson Kundig designed a modest two-story structure with wide glass walls, which, in characteristic style, is hard to spot from the water – the home’s muted colours and horizontal lines largely match those of the shoreline. But the subdued tones also serve a practical function. Olson Kundig treated the exterior using shou sugi ban, a traditional Japanese method of charring wood that leaves it a dark, rich color with hints of metallic shine and also naturally preserves and protects it from insects, rot and wear over time.
Though it’s located significantly further north, the Pole Pass Retreat also features retractable walls so residents can take advantage of the area’s temperate summers and enjoy wide water views throughout the year. For Olson Kundig, climate is no barrier for enjoying the outdoors.
At a recent project in British Columbia, Canada, the firm custom designed a horizontal shutter system to create privacy and to protect upholstery and art from harsh snow glare in the winter. But even here the shutters are designed to open. “With simple crank and switch controls the façade can transform from glass clad to semiexposed with raw-edged Douglas fir louvers” Kundig says.
Of course, Olson Kundig is not the only architectural firm designing waterfront homes that open to the elements. From Palm Springs to Porto Vallarta, from Ibiza to Bali, design firms have in recent years embraced a building model in which living areas move seamlessly from inside to out.
Another firm that has become renowned internationally for their carefully considered ocean villas is SAOTA , the Cape Townbased studio of Stefan Antoni Olmesdahl Truen Architects. Many of the firm’s private homes hug the coastline in affluent South African suburbs and offer dramatic mountain and ocean views. But building in more developed locations means the architects have to find solutions for another central design challenge: privacy.
Everyone wants sea views, but not if those wide views in turn end up infringing on the property’s privacy. At Beachyhead, a villa located on a sloping site in South Africa’s Plettenberg Bay, SAOTA was tasked with creating a family holiday home that would be comfortable for entertaining guests but also provide a cosy sense of privacy when there were only one or two residents in the house. As a solution, the studio placed the bedrooms on the upper floors, concealed behind large timber sliding shutters that provide privacy and protect the building façade from the afternoon sun.
When approached from the road, the scale of the house appears modest, with the living spaces concealed on a lower level. Similarly, at OVD 919, another cliffside site in Bantry Bay, outside of Cape Town, SAOTA imbedded a multistory dwelling into the coastline, ensuring panoramic views from every floor, while at the same time ensuring privacy from within.
Working with a relatively steep site below Lion’s Head Mountain that borders a national park, the designers took a sensitive approach, positioning secondary spaces at the lower levels to limit excavation and concealing them from the road via a landscaped wall. The main living areas, pool terrace and garden are positioned below, with the family bedrooms strategically located at the uppermost level for privacy. The master bedroom is set back from the boundary line to increase privacy from the nearby mountain paths.
The ‘layering’ of the house also allows for different experiences. The main stairs leads into the kitchen, which in turn spills into the dining room and then into the summer lounge, designed with a high ceiling of ribbed concrete overlooking the sea. Glazed partitions can be fully retracted providing seamless flow from inside to out. The winter lounge is also adjacent to the kitchen but with a lower ceiling that frames the view. Together with the fireplace it becomes an intimate space for informal gatherings.
“Throughout this level boundaries are blurred and there’s a wonderful continuity between internal and external living – it’s a house for all seasons and plays off the mood of the climate and surrounding landscape,” says Tamaryn Fourie, senior associate at SAOTA . The architectural approach of the project was focused on creating “a contemporary, uncluttered and sculptural building.”
This idea of ‘uncluttered’ architecture may be the key to creating oceanfront properties, as a way of leaving space for the surrounding landscapes, and also for the character of future inhabitants. “The building is never finished,” Kundig says. “The materials continue to change, the clients move windows and walls and shutters… For me, the most interesting part is when we step back and the client moves in and takes over, and lets their personality emerge.”
This story appeared in the June issue of The Peak Hong Kong