Halcyon House by Steven Simpson
By Steven Simpson
A building I enjoy is my home, Halcyon House. Referring to either a kingfisher or a time of happiness or tranquillity, this name expresses both a relationship with nature and the love my family share living in this building. My father, who had no previous experience of architecture or building with logs, has singlehandedly designed, orchestrated and laboured on this amazing project. He is still completing much of the work himself, learning many new skills along the way.
The house is constructed out of Douglas fir trees. Each butt of the hand-peeled logs, which are approximately 350 millimetres in diameter, has been hand crafted and scribed to interlock, forming a shell of huge solidity. Although the logs were grown and pieced together in Geraldine, the plans and designs were entirely my dad’s – he taught himself about log structures from scratch.
The northwest-facing Waikakaho Valley near Blenheim, where the house is built, ends in a striking, 432-metre-high hill. When I sit on our mezzanine, I can look through a large triangular window that has been orientated to centrally capture this view. I feel I’m looking for miles and miles across the landscape. I love the cleverness of the design of our house, because it allows us to have large open rooms to be together in, while also creating quiet corners where we can each hide away. Even when we have guests, the layout means that everyone can still enjoy their own space. This seems to me to be the perfect balance; it suits the day-to-day routines of the household. The design is even more special on the outside. From everywhere I look all of the angles are different and they change when I move, like an optical illusion. Furthermore, in the future the house will have a ‘floating roof’. The gap between the ceiling and the upstairs truss windows will be glazed, creating a floating effect against the false purlins. At night, through these eight-metre-tall windows, you can see not only the constellations but also the planets.
The roof structure is not ordinary. We have constructed it out of a 15-millimetre plywood base, followed by a layer of stronger roofing felt and then asphalt shingles. All combined, this creates a robust roof. Because of its forward-tilting prows and low eaves, the roof seems to be protecting us, providing a sense of enveloping. For all of the internal walls and ceiling, we have used standard four-by-two MSG8 pine with plasterboard. Also in the walls, hidden away, is a steel frame that interlocks the logs, enabling a central room with a tall ceiling.
My dad has been concerned throughout to create maximum insulation, using thick layers of Terra Lana sheep’s wool. We used low-emissivity glazing, and another great feature of my house is that all of the main external doors lead into airlocks – little rooms designed to trap cold air and keep it out. This feature is something that a normal house does not have. Furthermore, because of the way the house is orientated, the northwest side is almost all covered in glass; there’s not a single northwest facing wall without glass. Everywhere I look I can see a new view framed by the bifold windows and doors. When these are opened, the garden seems to be invited in.
In contrast, the south side of the house has no windows that reach ground level. The two wings of the house create a sheltered deck area, so that even when you imagine that it would be impossible to sit outside, you can, because the breezes that would usually be there are not. We can be outside almost all year round.
When we first saw this two-hectare block of land in this beautiful valley, we knew we could do something really special. It was always going to be so much more to us than a house. It would be a place in which we would feel secure and reassured, and where we could put down our foundations as a family, having emigrated from the UK. I thought to myself that one day, when the house is finished, I am going to remind myself of all of the hard work and physical labour that has been put into my family’s home over the years, because it all will have paid off in the end.
Most houses are just buildings, but our home has soul. This is not just because it is so photogenic, or because it looks so comfortable in its setting, but because it has been designed and built with love. In the future, I hope to become an architect myself. My dad has taught me to be bold in my thinking; and that anything is possible with hard work. I have watched our house start as an idea and then turn into a reality for my family to enjoy. I have seen the drawings, the foundations and the organic logs become a place where we can live together in a modern but natural home. I believe that architects can change lives through heir ways of turning designs into buildings that connect to the people who use them. My family feels genuinely bonded with our log home. It has a character completely of its own.
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Steven Simpson was Highly commended in the Secondary School category. Steven is a Year 10 student at Marlborough Boys’ College, Blenheim. He is very interested in architecture, and has been inspired by his father’s construction of the family home in Marlborough.
Read this essay and nine others in 10 Stories: Writing About Architecture / 1 available for $15 + postage in the NZIA shop.