How to enclose a rock in a living room? – Stories from the Rockhouse
When anyone first enters the Rockhouse, after a moment of disbelief, they invariably ask, "How on earth did you manage to enclose a rock bluff inside a living room?!"
So we decided to share what we learned from this experience in the blog, from the conceptual, practical and technical sides.

 

I have to say that the largest barrier we had to overcome was the problem of perception rather than technical difficulties. Before we could get anywhere with the idea of enclosing a rock inside a living room in the rainy climate of BC, we had to believe for ourselves that it was possible. I will not underestimate the importance of this first step because nothing could have been accomplished without it. This proved to be very challenging at times when everyone and everything around us seemed to suggest that it could not be done. So the next big step was to convince others of our vision. This included everything from having the support of our family and friends, to having the support and expertise of fellow professionals to work with us towards that vision, convincing builders that they already had the skill to do something they had never attempted before and getting their input on how it could be done, convincing municipalities that together we were a competent team that could successfully bring this vision into reality.

Another big part of this learning experience for us was understanding our relationship to the building site. Our first desire was to have the entire back wall of the house exposed to the rock. But there were problems with this idea. Although most of the rock face was smooth and dry, there was a big crack on the lower portion of the rock face we wanted to expose where water was constantly draining out of. We contemplated various ways of dealing with the water drainage problem, including plugging the crack with epoxy. One day we were standing at the construction site already well underway, like two little specs in front of this massive rock bluff surrounded by the footprint of the house foundation, and we understood for the first time our place in the whole picture. We could not impose our will on nature. Plugging that crack on the rock face would likely generate leakage unpredictably elsewhere. To succeed we had to work with what was already there. So we studied the rock face more closely. We observed the parts of the rock that were naturally kept dry and how the water naturally drained. We went back to the drawing board to reformulate our strategy. Instead of exposing the entire rock face we decided to strategically expose only the portion of the rock that already "wanted" to be exposed. From that standpoint, the design evolved smoothly into what came to be a very special "picture framing" of the rock, as well as a cozy seating space where we could hang out by the rock.

The conceptual lesson the Rockhouse taught us was twofold - That it is important to have the confidence to believe in our ideas and to be able to bring others along with our vision. But that it is equally important to be humble in the understanding of our place in that vision - to understand that we cannot impose our will on others and much less on nature. The best we can do is to bring out the full potential of what is already there.

Travelling through Italy last summer we were reminded of Michelangelo's famous quote: "I saw the angel in the marble and I carved him until I set him free." Never before had that famous quote resonated with us so deeply. We understood that just as we cannot impose our own will on our clients, we also cannot impose our will on our building sites. Our building sites are in a way also our clients. We have to work with the clients' ideas to bring out the best in them, just as we have to work with our building sites to bring out the full potential of what we already see in them.

On the practical side, we also had to deal with the nagging question, "But how much is enclosing a rock inside a living room going to cost? And is it worth it?"

This question comes hand-in-hand with other questions like, "What is the relationship between "design" and "money"?, and "Does innovative design need to cost a lot of money?"
Our understanding is that whenever we dive into any project, there is already an existing flow and logic to it. We always have the choice to go with the flow or to go against it, but going against the flow will always take more effort. In the same way, working against the building site will always cost more money. Lots of money could have been spent blasting away the site to impose a pre-conceived design on it, or in trying to control the water drainage pattern of the rock. On the other hand, lots of money was saved by working with the land and what was already there, instead of imposing our will on the site.
If a design becomes prohibitively expensive, we have to pause and ask ourselves, "What are we working against here? And how can we reformulate our strategy to turn this around and swim with the current instead of against it?" If all the options are considered and the design still proves to be prohibitively expensive, it is important to have the courage to ask, "Is this site right for me?" A relationship between a house and a building site is not unlike a relationship between people. If after doing everything to try to make a relationship work it is still not working, letting go may be the best option. On the same token, if the site proves to be not right for the house you envision, it is important to have the courage to either let it go, or to adjust your vision to work with the site. In the case of the Rockhouse, we chose the latter.
Having said that, it is very important to pick a site that works for you. If you are someone who can't handle too many stairs, don't pick a steep site to build your house on. If you have to work against your piece of land to impose your own needs and desires on it, it will inevitably cost you more money in the end. Pick a site that resonates with you. A site that already brings you closer to what your needs and desires are, and work along with it, not against it. We have learned that this attitude in itself can not only make the design more affordable, but will also go a long way in bringing out creativity and innovation in the design without prohibitive extra costs.

 

Another side of the relationship between "design" and "cost" worth mentioning is that it is also important to understand that you cannot accomplish something great unless you invest yourself in it. If a creative feature of the design is important to you, if it is something that you feel will really enrich the space and make that space more special and unique to you, understand that you will have to invest some money into that portion in order to express that feature well and fully. In other words, you want that special part to be done right. But this does not mean you need to go above and beyond your means to accomplish it. We often advise our clients to weigh their priorities and put their money where it means the most to them. Perhaps another feature of the design that is not as important can be cut back to make room in the budget to more fully express an important feature. The exposed rock wall was a very important feature of the Rockhouse to us, and to make room in the budget for that we ended up eliminating a few items from our 'wish list', such as a wood fireplace, an outdoor tub, and a green roof over the bridge entrance, with the understanding that these features could be added in the future when our budget allowed. In some cases we even made provisions for the future addition of these items.

Finally on the technical side, the solution to enclosing the rock in the living room ended up being fairly simple once we realized that we could take advantage of the dry portion of the rock face. The decision was made to cast a concrete frame around the perimeter of the rockface to be exposed, leaving the crack out of the exposed portion so that the rock could continue to drain out naturally. Within the concrete frame we embedded bentonite rope as a natural sealer. Bentonite is a natural clay material that expands when it comes in contact with water, creating a flexible seal against the uneven rock face. On the top portion of the concrete frame we created a gutter against the rock face to collect and drain the rain water away to one side. The gutter is built up with roofing membrane and metal flashing against the rock face. We insulated the concrete on the inside face with rigid insulation and covered it with drywall, creating a nice color contrast between the grey rock face and the white walls. The inner edge of the concrete frame was skillfully crafted in bamboo, using the carpenter's technique of scribing to cut the bamboo edges to closely follow the uneven surface of the rock face. This visually created a warm frame around the rock, and also a nice seating space.

The other technical question we are often asked is, "Is the rock face cold?" If we consider the rock as a massive object, it is easy to see that it would take a long time to heat or to cool such a massive object, so its temperature cannot vary much. We find that the rock stays at constant temperature of about 15 degrees Celsius all year long. So it gives a nice cool feeling to hot summer days, and in the winter it is still warmer to stand by the rock face than it is to stand in front of a window. There is in fact a lot more radiative heat loss through windows than through the exposed rock.

On a final note, I have to admit that even though I am used to seeing a rock in my living room everyday, from time to time when I enter the Rockhouse I also stare at it in disbelief... The disbelief comes from the feeling that there is more at work here than anything we could have originally conceived - the confluence of the site's influence and the efforts of all the people that have believed in the vision and had a hand in bringing that vision into reality created something that is really outside of our hands, it has a life of its own. And again we humbly stand as little specs in front of this massive rock bluff.