Modular magic

The architects at Jasmax had a tall order when building Samsung’s Home Smart Home — a house that bends and shapes to its occupants’ needs, reports Claire McCall.


Samsung Home Smart Home. Photo / Supplied.

The design brief to the architectural team at Jasmax came on an A3 piece of paper where equal blocks of colour in red, blue, green and yellow brought instant associations with the Rubik's Cube. Ironically, that frustrating puzzle, a craze in the 70s, was invented by a Hungarian architect.

Professor Rubik may have pondered the algorithms to create the world's best-selling toy, but he probably never thought of it in reference to building. Jerome Buckwell and Stephen Thurman were set that task when they were asked by Samsung to create a house that could be reconfigured to "help make any Kiwi occasion better".

The project was to design and build a temporary house on a site in Auckland's Viaduct. The public would be invited to walk through and several events, from posh dinner parties to movie marathons or a casual barbecue, were planned to showcase the way the home could be repositioned to suit the mood. "They showed us the coloured blocks and we had to think about the ways in which they could potentially interact," says Jerome.

Even on paper this is a mind-bending experiment, but the real-life practicalities were more of a challenge. The architects had a fixed starting point to begin this exploration: six "modules", each measuring 3m by 3m. These modules were made up as two pairs and two singular units. The structural engineer, Holmes Consulting Group, had also already stipulated the steel skeleton. Oh, and one more thing. The house was scheduled to be on site within three months.

From the outset, the brief called for innovation of thought and face-to-face collaboration. "It's the first project I've done where the client, architect, engineer and builders worked together from day one," says Jerome. Stephen agrees: "We didn't follow the traditional linear process. We pooled ideas in order to reach the end goal most efficiently."

When you have modules that pivot and interact to create different floor plans, there's a point where you hit the wall - literally. In a moving feast of architecture, the conundrum is that internal panelled walls may suddenly be facing the elements and so need to be waterproof. Glass walls could end up between rooms rather than leading to the great outdoors. You see the issue.

"We realised that some walls needed to double up as both interior and exterior," explains Stephen, "and we created swinging walls of glass that could sit up safely against a second solid wall. Some turn at only 90 degrees but others can do the full 180 degrees.

Samsung Home Smart House. Photo / Supplied.

While twisting a plastic cube can be achieved with the flick of a wrist, rotating 2-tonne pods is another matter entirely. A two-hour discussion with builders NZ Strong ensued.

Ultimately, a heavy-duty tube-and-pin hinge was the solution. Sounds straightforward but, of course, all contingencies had to be thought through. A simple bump in the ground could put the modules out of plumb and cause the hinge to bind. "The builder came up with an idea for the wheels of the modules to be placed so that they'd follow the arc of the pivot." This meant the hinge was less likely to stick.

As a short-term structure, this building had a limited budget and not much left over for trimmings, so all the nuts and bolts of its design are on show. Though much thought went into resolving its layout, the team did not lose sight of aesthetic. Jerome: "We also wanted something that looked beautiful. Not just, for instance, to design a hinge, but to make that hinge considered and elegant."

The beauty of the project turned out to be that very mix of innovation and design nous, brought into being with a No 8 wire understanding of basic physics.

Six configurations that provide flexibility of purpose were conceived. These are augmented by interchangeable decking platforms, lending more living room to the compact 54sq m space.

The home was prefabricated in a factory then transported on the back of a truck to take up transitory residence and open its doors for action. At its heart is a double module which incorporates the display kitchen, laundry and loo; keeping this part static meant the plumbing and electrical wiring could be incorporated here. Stephen: "This became the core around which other units moved." The island bench, however, had no such ambulatory anchor.

With its stone top and fitted with an induction hob, it can be rolled outside, plugged into a power box and used to cater for al fresco dining.

The architects opted for textural warmth in the materials used elsewhere so that the kitchen - the star of this show - could shine in effortless high-gloss white. In a collision of contrasts, its reflective surfaces are offset by the recessive tones of a pared-back palette. The rectangular apertures in the steel skeleton were plugged with grooved plywood panels for the walls, dark-stained Strandboard flooring and ceilings, and glass.

The Samsung Home Smart Home. Photo / Supplied.

A line-up of pivoting plywood panels on one module is the only decorative element. They are CNC routed in a motif that depicts the geometric forms that the home can assume.

The building will bend and shape as the backdrop to a month-long activity schedule. It will be used by Samsung to showcase new technology in kitchens, laundries and the living room.

For the Jasmax duo, however, there are longer-lasting lessons to take from its imaginative construction. Firstly, there's the angle of prefabrication. As Jerome points out, dwellings made this way can be bespoke; they're not necessarily "mass produced".

Stephen believes there's a sea-change happening in New Zealand where, traditionally, we've snubbed our noses at the concept. He insists that, along with the cost-saving, time-efficient benefits of building under controlled conditions in a factory, there's an architectural upside. "It means your design has to be incredibly resolved because you're providing the information straight up front. You can't pop along to the site and resolve issues as they crop up."

And though changing a home around on a whim for various occasions may prove unworkable, it's a model that could readily be applied to the bach where the sleep-out that is used to accommodate guests, or acts as a TV room for teens, can be sandwiched together with the main home and packaged up like a crate for security once the holiday is over.

In the everyday, creating "flexi" rooms that adapt to the dynamism of family life is a valid idea that deserves its time in the spotlight. It's wrapped up in the notion of future-proof building where houses are planned for multi-generational use.

It means designing a home that can transition gracefully from one thing to another - and it makes good financial sense. A house that can morph with the changing needs of its occupants is, in many ways, a more sustainable way forward.


• The Samsung Home Smart Home was a first-of-a-kind project to showcase innovative and design-led appliances from Samsung which are now available at all quality retailers. For more information visit samsung.com/nz.

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