An Architect’s Guide To Choosing A Beach House

Words by Clare Dowdy

22 June 2020


For architect Tom Kundig, beach houses are all about understanding the climate. As co-owner of Seattle practice Olson & Kundig, he has designed a dozen beach houses over the last 20 years, for environments as varied as Costa Rica and Canada.

“A home in a shoreline area has to address wind, solar and also insect patterns,” he says. If the bugs are about, then screens come into their own, “and you can make those quite beautiful.” At the Treehouse he designed on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, the bedrooms have manually-operated double-layered screens.

One of the joys of beach life is to experience the weather, and the architecture should embrace that. “But you wouldn’t necessarily want to do that in a primary home.”

In places where the weather can change in a flash, the property must respond appropriately. The windows of The Slaughterhouse on Hawaii are on a big pivot, allowing them to open “like eyebrows.” When they’re open to the jet stream, the residents don’t have to use air-conditioning. “But when the weather changes quickly and the high winds and wind-driven rain arrives, they can quickly drop the windows shut,” he explains.

A second home should be as low-maintenance as possible, and construction materials need particular consideration at saltwater locations. “Concrete, metal, brick, and stone are terrific materials as they need no maintenance.” In contrast, wooden window frames can rot. “You don’t want to have to replace or repair hardware; you want it to be bomb-proof.” Wood on the interior is fine because it’s protected. His approach is “hard on the outside and soft on the inside.”

He believes it’s best to resist the temptation to go for a house that’s almost as big as its plot. “For the most part, the shoreline homes I do are relatively small because most people would prefer to engage with the landscape. I think that’s appropriate.” On Canada’s Salt Spring Island, he has designed a cabin of just 20sqm. That approach means that the sizes of rooms don’t have to be overly generous, nor does a beach house need the levels of comfort expected from a primary residence. “So I would be more relaxed with the design, rather than over-rehearsing function,” Kundig says.

He also suggests comprising a little bit of privacy, meaning not every bedroom needs an en-suite bathroom. For Kundig, second homes can become more meaningful to a family’s memories than their main house, “because of the happy times they have there.”

For advice on where, when, and how to buy your dream beach house, enlist the help of our International property specialists.

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