March 1, 2007
From its outer skin to its central rainwater tank, Paul Morgan’s house was designed with the setting in mind.
The ruggedly picturesque coastline of Cape Schanck is located on the tip of Victoria, some 55 miles south of Melbourne. Native birds and possums are abundant, with the occasional passing wallaby. Melbourne-based architect Paul Morgan chose a site near the beach for the “half-time” house that his and his sister’s families share—but it’s not all paradise. Strong erosive winds blow off the ocean, though a slight depression in the plot allows some relief. There is a hollow in the cover of native tea trees, which lean dramatically toward the sun. And the seaside setting not withstanding, freshwater is fairly scarce. Shaped by these natural conditions, Morgan’s wholly original design feels like it has always been there.
Starting with its placement, every architectural gesture of the environmentally sensitive structure was determined by the setting. “What struck me were the remarkable forms of the tea trees, generated through phototropism,” Morgan says. “They formed a natural canopy at the rear of the site, so it was important to position the house so these trees remained.” Morgan then developed the shape of the house by analyzing wind conditions with 3ds Max renderings and cardboard models. As a result, the aerodynamic sleeping wing, clad in Ecoply, protects against harsh winds, while “wind scoops” on the southern facade trap cooling summer breezes. In other places, information from the studies was used poetically. “This modeling was applied with more expressive effect to the performance envelope,” Morgan says. “Where it showed turbulence around the entry, the panels are warped to suggest the idea of wind pressure being forced into a contained space.”
A second skin flows from the eaves, across the ceiling, to the interior walls, gathering bulbously in the heart of the living room as a rainwater-storage tank. “Water-catchment capacities in Victoria have fallen to alarming levels,” Morgan says. “Restrictions have been applied, and much of our state has been burning this past summer. In this context, the water tank is the most significant element of the house, symbolically taking the place of the hearth as centerpiece.” Since the house has no air-conditioning, the steel tank’s main function is to cool the living room passively. It also supplies rainwater for toilets, irrigation, washing wet suits, and occasionally drinking. It’s both a practical and an ambient element of the room: a tap of the knuckles gives a good indication of the water level, while the sound of water dripping into the tank can be heard after a rainfall.
But natural factors weren’t the only influence—members of the community played a role too. Neighbors Drew Head and Sally Prideaux collaborated as builder and landscape architect, respectively. Head, a skilled carpenter, and Morgan would sometimes go snorkeling together—hardly your typical architect-contractor relationship. For the landscaping, Morgan and Prideaux chose native plants that require little water and that were, whenever possible, sourced locally. They also based the terrace and living room’s custom concrete pavers on the pentagonal and hexagonal patterns of a nearby rock platform.
“The house has achieved an important aim: producing ‘pure architecture’ that is also livable,” Morgan says of his residence, which prioritizes structural integrity over such “luxurious extras” as expensive fixtures and finishes. “This sense of livability comes from the visceral qualities of the house—the sound of water falling into the tank, the movement of the wind through the trees—and its closeness to the landscape.”