Grand Designs NZ: Ambitious concrete house brings unseen challenges
What could possibly go wrong? That's the question asked by homeowner-builder Ross Bannan as he sets out on an ambitious Grand Designs NZ project for his own family.
It is such a leading question in light of what follows, we could be forgiven for wondering if that clip was taped after the event. Hmmm, Mediaworks?
But it's fair to say that right from the outset this was a project on a very grand scale – a huge three-storey house built from concrete poured entirely in situ.
"Concrete is one of our more revolutionary building materials," says GD host, architect Chris Moller. "We've gone mad for building our houses with it."
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Bannan, who runs his own construction company, is a self-titled "concretologist". He is out to make his own family home a showcase for his business, and it's just as well he has a budget of $1 million. Working with architect David Ponting of Ponting Fitzgerald, he has planned a huge house that maximises a spectacular cliff-top site above the beach in Pt Chevalier, Auckland.
Ponting actually shows us how it will work by digging a sandcastle version on the beach below. And this is a poignant moment as the architect gets a little emotional – clearly a great project and a great client will do that to you. "It's the only building that's made me cry," he says. Bless.
But you have to hand it to this family. Ross, Maxine and their three children, Jasmine, Troy and Blake have been living in the "east wing" for a few years, which is actually the garage of the new house. And now they are building the rest of the house in the west wing.
The architecture provides plenty of visual drama – Moller refers to it, appropriately, as a "macro sculpture". There's a sharp apex beside the entry, while six three-story concrete fin walls march down one side of the house, opening up the interior to the views and showing off the form of the building. "As the sun moves around it, these walls play with light, on a very large scale," says Ponting.
We can see "a bit of a sail theme", says Bannan, which is appropriate for a family that loves yachting and other watersports.
This is a family that all chip in to help – the boys are roped into directing concrete trucks, controlling the vibrating machinery and designing rooms. Dad meanwhile, is busy mixing up special concrete brews that improve the "flowability" of the concrete and the structural rigidity of the house, but they set hard within 30 minutes.
AND THEN THIS HAPPENS
This is all very well, till the last pour of the entire project. A hose pumping concrete explodes and Ross Bannan takes the full force in the face. Temporarily blinded, he is rushed to hospital and the prognosis for his sight is not great, with 100 per cent damage to the cornea of the left eye and 50 per cent to the right.
"It was a real reality check of how things can change in an instant," Bannan says. "It was a full-on life-changing experience."
Meant to rest, he continues to direct traffic from hospital – the children help by enlarging the text on his phone.
A gradual return to work follows, and one day, ten years from the very start, the house is finally finished.
The enormous concrete walls, which retain all the grainy texture of the timber formwork, are complemented on the interior by sleek, dark-stained cedar that wraps around the staircase – a little more than Moller envisaged. "Could it be that Ross's long-term relationship with concrete is on the rocks?" he says.
Maxine's eye for design ensures the furnishings help to soften the hard, raw look of the exposed concrete.
There's also plenty of natural light, which pours down into the living area from an enormous skylight. And there are places where the ceiling compresses, then soars to draw the eye upward. This is a house on a very grand scale, which was just what Bannan envisaged.
"It was pointless building something normal in my own place," he says. "I've learned a lot of things over the years from building for some great clients and I wanted to bring all the ideas together and build something special."
And he did.