Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Shaping the hill

August 2007. There's a hill with trees and cows. It's a paddock. But in my head it's not. In my head it's a place for a house...

The great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright called his iconic Wisconsin house (houses, for those of you who know the story) Taliesin, which is Welsh for "radiant brow". Wright placed his home not on the peak of the hill, but on the brow so that Taliesin would appear to be part landscape. As Wright said, "not on the land, but of the land".

I didn't know any of this when I chose the site for my house, but when I read T.C.Boyle's The Women I identified strongly with Wright's design and desire. I wanted my house to be part of the hill, to sit in it, not on it. I wanted it to face north, settled into a cutting that would bring the weather from the south west over the apex of the hill and the roof of the house in one smooth movement. I wanted the hill itself to provide shelter and privacy, to cradle the house.

I was also conscious that the act of building a house on previously productive land has an inherent cost: it locks up that land for decades, possibly forever. I wanted to keep my impact on the hill to a minimum, to somehow view the hill itself as a living entity with which I was making a pact: allow me the opportunity to shape you, to create a space to build a house and I will repay you as the years pass... Makes me sound like a hippy, I know, but it's true. I didn't want to take anything for granted. I was about to carve a chunk out of a piece of land that had been here in this shape since time immemorial.

It was astounding how quickly the hill was transformed. I can only imagine how much work it would've been to move this volume of earth without machinery - I guess it'd simply make living on a hillside such as this impossible. Either that or it'd necessitate building on stumps to create a level building site... Thankfully, with an excavator, a grader and a bobcat it only took a couple of days to create the house site, the driveway and to prepare the site for the water tank.

The topsoil was stockpiled behind the house site while the clay and and bedrock were used to build up the eastern end of the block where the hill dropped away dramatically. By the time Andy had finished he'd created enough space for the house but also provided enough level ground for a future yard, garden and vehicle access.

It was also important to consider that over the next few months there'd be all manner of heavy vehicles coming to and fro the house site. As with just about every step along the way I trusted the professionals I was employing to know more than I did about what I'd need. Andy did a wonderful job...

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