“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.” – Seneca
The philosopher was right. In my career, there have been many building sites that cost me blood, sweat and tears, but none that gave rise to regrets. In fact, some of the most challenging projects that I’ve undertaken turned out to be the most satisfying in retrospect.
What makes a site a challenge? Let’s start with topography. I’ve been faced with steep lots, sheer cliffs and rocky outcrops, limited road access, often with large trees that had to be preserved. Sometimes there wasn’t enough level land for both a house and a driveway. In many cases, getting the necessary services in – septic, power and water – also wasn’t going to be easy. These are the lots that conventional developers tend to avoid, but architects love! Their intense character and unique qualities create the potential for real design magic – think of ‘Fallingwater’ – to happen.
A creative stretch was needed to meet each of these challenges. On one particularly steep lot, the driveway and parking requirements dictated how the lot could be developed, meaning the house had to occupy the steepest part of the land. I opted to go wide and shallow in my design, spreading the structure lengthwise to hug the rocky curves in the slope. By reducing the depth of the house, we managed to avoid the need for massive retaining walls. On another steep and rocky hillside, there was a natural ledge that was large enough to accommodate only part of the home’s footprint; the rest of the house cantilevered out or floated on columns above the bare rock.
Generally, the problem of services can be dealt with by technology. On one project, the septic field had to go in directly above the house. Fortunately, tertiary treatment systems exist that can purify effluent to the point that it’s safe even to grow vegetables with, and that is what was used. At another memorable site, in Whistler, there was no soil at all. There, the elaborate septic system carried a price tag of $60,000 – but this was considered not unreasonable for a million-dollar home. Ingenuity and creativity can solve a lot of problems; for the rest, a large contingency fund is always handy.
I’ve never met a site whose topography was so ill-favoured that I couldn’t find a way to gracefully put a house on it. It has also helped to have clients with courage, vision and persistence. My hat’s off to them!