Ahead of the curve: an eco dome by the sea – The Guardian

Ahead of the curve: an eco dome by the sea

An architect’s striking home in a dome on the New Zealand coast is as visually interesting as it is groundbreaking

Rounding up: the all-white plant-filled interior is centred on the swimming pool.




Rounding up: the all-white, plant-filled interior is centred on the swimming pool.
Photograph: Rachael Smith/The Observer

There is an unusual sight to be found in the small hamlet of Peka Peka, on the windswept west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. At first, it looks like a series of modest hillocks, but on closer inspection some of them have windows and small white towers rise above the landscape like periscopes.

Friedrich (“Fritz”) and Helen Eisenhofer’s idiosyncratic dwelling lies beneath the grass of these knolls; it is a prototype domestic biodome for what Fritz, a modernist architect who was trained at the Kunstakademie in Vienna, has called the Eco Home. Fritz travelled from Austria to the Pacific in 1953 to begin a career there that now spans more than half a century.

The couple’s work on their shared home began in the late 1980s. While they chose the site for its proximity to the sea, another major factor was that, being among the sand dunes, the terrain lent itself to their dream of creating an earth-sheltered, low-cost, energy-efficient house.

Coastal views: Helen Eisenhofer reads on the dome’s bespoke leather bench seating


Coastal views: Helen Eisenhofer reads on the dome’s bespoke leather bench seating. Photograph: Rachael Smith/The Observer

The building is a series of sun-facing, faceted domes designed to store heat and conserve energy. Each was constructed with a thin shell of robust ferro-cement that contains the iron foundation that forms the skeleton of the structure.

The main dome, which covers the living area and – more unusually – an indoor swimming pool, is half submerged in the earth to a depth of 4m.

A closer look reveals two large glass panels, one facing north towards the southern hemisphere’s midday sun, and another facing west to trap the sunlight’s passive heat.

“Over the years, I’ve studied energy conservation and underground development around the world,” says Fritz. “It’s a unique way of building and has very low material costs.”

Energy-efficient techniques of generating solar gain are common to many passive or sustainably designed buildings, and they have always been a key feature of Fritz’s architectural exploration.

Ground control: the dome is buried at a depth of up to 4m and river rocks are used to help with heat insulation.


Ground control: the dome is buried at a depth of up to 4m and river rocks are used to help with heat insulation. Photograph: Rachael Smith/The Observer

However, he took it a step further in his own house, creating a system he describes as a “rock store” containing tonnes of river stones placed under and around the building as both insulation and a heat trap.

The rocks collect heat on warm days and then slowly release it, regulating the temperature inside the house. The system is complemented with rooftop solar panels that provide the two residents’ basic electricity requirements.

“The heat exchange from the rocks tends to be very slow,” says Fritz. “Day to day, we don’t need to heat the dome at all, so our electricity requirements are extremely minimal.”

The circular front door repeats the house’s dominant visual element and leads directly into the soaring, open-plan main dome. The all-white, jungle-filled interior has a warm microclimate, while the living areas on the ground floor are all oriented in relation to the indoor swimming pool, an unusual central feature that creates an ever-shifting interplay of light, water and foliage.

Fritz has created pools inside many of his projects, and the couple have had one in every house they’ve lived in. As the weather is highly temperamental on the Pacific coast, and winters can be blustery and cold, the couple rarely swim in the sea. The ozone-treated pool, however, can be used in any season.

Glass apart: the bedroom with matching colour theme and octagonal-shaped windows.


Glass apart: the bedroom with matching colour theme and octagonal-shaped windows. Photograph: Rachael Smith/The Observer

Higher than usual humidity levels are one downside of this otherwise happy arrangement, says Helen. However, the glass wall was designed to extend to the base of the dome, so any condensation drains into the garden.

“It’s also very calming sitting at the dining table seeing the reflection of the water dancing on the ceiling. It’s something to wake up to every day,” she adds.

The couple chose plants that are known to be effective at cleansing the air, including peace lilies, banana palms, ferns and palm trees.

“Over the years, we’ve tried different things,” says Helen. “It’s been a system of trial and error, but we’ve discovered peace lilies are best as they’re not affected by humidity – and they’re a lovely white or red, so they make beautiful indoor displays.”

As the curved interior walls aren’t suited to traditional furniture, the leather seating throughout the house was custom-made by the Auckland-based firm UFL to Fritz’s specifications. He then designed and hand-built the dining and coffee tables using recycled and repurposed materials.

Making an entrance: the front door sets the design template for the rest of the house.


Making an entrance: the front door sets the design template for the rest of the house. Photograph: Rachael Smith/The Observer

The exceptions to this are the Eero Saarinen Tulip dining chairs, and the hardy Corian work surface in the kitchen. “We’ve had the Corian for 20 years and it’s fantastic,” says Helen. “It still looks new and it’s not too cold to the touch.”

Fritz planned the compact, U-shaped kitchen to be simple yet efficient. Divided from the dining room by a breakfast bar, inside the kitchen cooking is arranged on one side, and the fridge on the other, connected with worktops to either side of the sink bench in the middle for economy of movement.

The mezzanine level above holds Fritz’s studio, the couple’s bedroom and a bathroom. Also, two steps up from the bedroom, is a second living area that can be divided off from the main space with a vertical blind. It has views out over the sea towards Kapiti Island, a nature reserve that sits just off the coastline.

“I think the best part of living in such an unusual dwelling is the huge open space we are lucky to spend most of our time in,” says Helen. “In fact, I now find smaller rooms slightly confining. The other key factor is the peace and tranquillity, as so little noise comes into the dome from outside. Playing music is a joy because the whole space fills with sound like a bandshell. After so many years living here I would find it difficult to live in a conventional house.”

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/may/17/ahead-of-the-curve-an-eco-home-by-the-sea-in-new-zealand

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