Home for Harin and Mihiri Gabriel, at Pelawatte By Dr. Narein Perera
“Solis Ortus” – a Latin phrase, meaning “my rising of the sun” - was one that was articulated by the homeowners, in their approach to defining the quality of living spaces they envisioned in building their home. The phrase taken literally as well as metaphorically established the stimulus for the Architect’s approach to place creation. “A place that would not age, with no roots to a particular architectural style. Rather, to have them draw upon the natural rhythms of the day - like the sunrise – which at each occurrence, brings new hopes, new beginnings. Spaces that are connected to nature, the sun, the sky, the wind, the rain - always changing, never the same at the next dawn. Yet, spaces that are secure and consistent in their function as the first light of the day that breaks through the darkness”. The overwhelming questions that confront the architect are – How can we connect to the outside in sites deeply embedded in the urbanised and rapidly urbanising “grid” of Colombo and its suburbs? Can we integrate daylight without the heat and the glare? Can we ventilate without the dust and vehicle emissions? Can we create vistas and access to the outdoors without compromising safety and privacy? These questions are at the core of building sustainably in Tropical Asian cities, questions that need attention, lest we make our cities worse, adopt approaches that will otherwise give birth to an “Air conditioning Armageddon” (Emmanuel, 2015) in our future cities. The conceptual approach to the creation of spaces that can overcome the negativities of building in the urbanised tropics was one of “Layers”. Layers that look to distance and isolate. Layers that filter and insulate. Layers that protect and create freedom. Ultimately – layers that welcome “the rising of the sun”. The layered approach emanates from the zoning of site and spaces, right down to the minute detail, thus, each level of intervention is deemed essential to the whole.
Layers that Distance and Isolate
Living happens in spaces that are zoned between two or more of the large, open to sky spaces of the house. The open spaces – gardens and courtyards – ensure and enhance the possibilities for natural light and ventilation. They also distance these spaces from the external edges of the site. This allows for the experience of the world beyond the confines of the site, albeit without direct interaction, rather, only through these open spaces. Although, at first glance the planning of the house seems introverted, at deeper analysis shows otherwise, with its connections to the sky, the trees, the roofscape of the city beyond, all crucial to the act of place making. Essentially creating places that transcend their physical boundaries.
Layers that filter and insulate
The gardens and courtyards also serve to filter and insulate the living spaces from the negative effects of the outside. Extensive planting serves as the primary means of filtering, generating a layer that traps, insulates and conditions the heat and air passing through them, forming possibilities for evaporative cooling. The planting is intensified and the edges that separate the inside from the outside. Tendrils of climbing plants allowed to cascade down creating green veils or the dense canopies that shade the walls, roofs and windows, redefined the shape of spaces established by the built structure. They produce a natural envelope that touches all senses, yet it is never static, thus, imbued with the ability to amaze and delight. On a more detailed level the approach to the building envelope is cognizant of its immediate function of sheltering the internal spaces, as well as their impact on future usage patterns. Cavity walls that ease the heat gain - left bare, freed of the need to paint over reducing life-cycle cost, inviting to the touch, changing colours and how it is perceived with the rhythm of the sun - insulated roofs, with a layer of photovoltaic panels that render the naturally lit, naturally ventilated house a net-zero energy entity.
Layers that protect and create freedom
Protective layers, in particular the aircrete block screen wall on the street edge and bamboo tat screened steel grilles create a further envelope at the edges of the open spaces, allowing almost all of the living, eating and sleeping spaces to be almost devoid of formal doors and windows. The space flows unimpeded both horizontally and vertically, again expanding the physical space to encompass experiential combinations that the home owner has the liberty control by the act simply opening or closing a tat screen. These layers also shield the gardens, courtyards and therefore the interior spaces, both physically and visually, granting the young children the ability to explore their surroundings in freedom and safety.
Primarily the spatial connections made are envisioned as those that link architecture to natural phenomena and therefore to essentially place making, a discussion at the heart of architectural thought. Places that create the atmosphere of home. This was the homeowners’ prerogative - to “gift” their children the “rising of the sun”.