Ch1a~Rural Housing Book – The Section…

Probably of equal importance to the plan is the section as it’s the section that initiates a response to the site conditions and transforms the two dimensionality of the plan into three dimensions. Many believe (of which Glenn Murcutt is an example) that the section dictates precisely the end form of the building:

“Hence a single plan and section suffice to describe the enclosure and roof covering of such houses; freedom in plan and usage, functionalism in the building envelope.”

The breakthrough that needs to be made in Irish rural architecture is the idea that a house design is qualified by a single section; this incongruity probably occurs in the design and planning process that is prevalent in Ireland. The design process of the ubiquitous McMansion would follow a standard pattern; a large block on the ground floor would contain the main living accommodation and the largest number of bedrooms upstairs would be accordingly to fill up a similar area. With the house at a full two storeys; little thought is required for the section (and as the planning application only requires a minimum single section); once the builder starts, he requires little further input in order to finish. Even with a two storey house of this type; difficulties can arise where the section changes for example – one recent instance is where a vaulted ceiling was required over the hall and because there was no section drawn at this point the builder continued on his merry way and the ceiling was identical to the rest of the house.

I will even go as far to say that it is in the sections that a house is defined architecturally and again there is no better master of this than Glenn Murcutt.

Take for example the Fletcher Page House again (section below):

Sketch Section ~ Fletcher Page

Sketch Section ~ Fletcher Page House - Glenn Murcutt

The above image is only me quickly sketching the concept behind one section of Glenn Murcutt’s Fletcher Page House in Kangaroo Valley, New South Wales. Murcutt draws copious sections that details every vertical aspect of his designs and each is abundantly annotated with specifications, installation instructions, items for the builders to note; in fact all of the information that is traditionaly separated into a detailed specification is shown on these plans, sections and elevations.

As well as multiple sections being critical for communication with your builder; the section forces the architect to understand the building and encourages him/her to add a richness and depth to the design that would otherwise be missing when only a single section is displayed. It is in each of these sections that the opportunity is offered to change a material, add additional glazing, change ceiling height…in fact every element of architectural detail is decided when the sections are contemplated.

Let’s take a diversion slightly and discuss what the purpose is of the section and to give an architectural students beginner course on the ‘Section drawing principles’:

Obviously with today’s rapid growth of BIM (Building Information Modelling – CLICK HERE FOR WIKEPEDIA ENTRY ON BIM) based computer aided design; the principle is that all the two dimensional drawings (plans, elevations, sections etc…) are effectively ‘cut’ from the three dimensional model. Whether this makes for better design is conjecture but it cannot be argued that drawing a section on this basis is undoubtedly fast. Personally, I separate the two stages, my planning drawings do come from a three dimensional model and they do form the starting point for the construction drawings. But generally (due to the amount of detail required in terms of construction, detailing and thermal performance), I tend to be drawing more in two dimensions than in three; but still using the BIM based 3D model and sections as a starting point.

So what should the section contain ? If you think of the plans as showing effectively the detail and dimensions from above then the sections show similar information at specific ‘cuts’ through the building. Therefore, where there’s a change in height of any assembly or component (a different sized window for example), the section needs to clearly show these differing dimensions and details. The problem occurs that if the architect is on the lazy side and doesn’t show this sectional change, the contractor will either continue the same detail or make up his own detail as described above. I commonly see elevational drawings littered with dimensions; the general rule (that I follow anyway!) is that any vertical dimension should ideally be shown in a section and that any dimensions shown on elevations are when it is impossible, difficult or confusing to show them on a section; as you can surmise these occasions are somewhat infrequent.

In a later chapter we will be looking at materials and detail which obviously have intrinsic connection with the section and as we can see from the section below of our own house (Below):

Section - our house

Section - our house

…the detailing required to successfully design and build an intensive grass roof are critical. You will also see in this section a number of other chapters that come into play ; the site topography had a huge influence upon this section as the building was to effectively be buried under the ground and ‘What’s the big idea’ chapter where the concept of the house is to all intents and purposes resolved by this section and it’s fusion with a completely different section at first floor level (which incidentally is also at ground level!). Both of these ideas will be explained in later chapters.

Therefore, the union of the plan with the section results in the mass and form of the building. One of the key recommendations in both the Cork and Mayo Rural House design guides is that a larger mass should be broken down into smaller elements. This is the complete antithesis of the Celtic Tiger McMansion where the house form is a single, monumental block. Why is this massing ‘slim-down’ so important? Traditional forms in the Irish countryside would have had much simpler forms due to the materials and money that was available. Walls would have been made from the stones tilled from the land, roof rafters may have come from salvaged, boat parts shipwrecked on the shore and windows would have been small and proportioned because of the window tax at the time. The easiest response therefore is simply to copy these narrower, section forms in order to replicate the past; but that’s not the purpose of this book – as well as exploring these more traditional forms I hope to propose other axioms that give aid in designing contemporary buildings for the 21st century that are also relevant to a rural location.

If we return to the section on the Plot 4.1 of the Scottish Highland Housing Fair (Plot 4.1 Section (pdf 169kb)) we see the narrow depth of plan in action and although the first floor has two bedrooms within the depth (orientated along the length of the plan to minimise the width but still maximising their size); the living area is effectively still a single room deep which would have been common in Scottish (and in fact also Irish) traditional cottages. We also see in this section the excellent scale and proportion of the gaps between windows and eaves for example which we are going to discuss in a later chapter).

If we we also look at the Tokavaig section (below):

House at Tokavaig - Section

House at Tokavaig - Section

…again we see the familiar narrow plan, with effectively the living accommodation (and even the bedroom at first floor level) only a single room deep to encourage cross ventilation, maximise sun light penetration and to minimise the mass of the building. We will be looking in detail at the innovative construction techniques and thermal performance on both of these houses in a later chapter.

What we are seeing here in these examples is a great deal of similarity between the Scottish and Irish rural models and can also learn from how Australia copes with the design and construction of a house in a rural environment.

The next chapter sees up move from the plan and section onto proportion and scale – something seen very little in contemporary, rural Ireland !


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