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Water World: A giant rainwater cistern is transformed into the centerpiece of an Australian getaway

Paul Morgan Architects
January 2009

By David Sokol

Cape Schanck, Victoria, juts into the Bass Strait separating Australia from Tasmania. Though half a world away, any resident of America’s West Coast will be familiar with the drought plaguing the area. The tap has effectively closed on southeastern Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin: Reservoir levels have dropped to a quarter of normal capacity; last spring, failing rice crops in the parched region made headlines worldwide.

Australian getaway
Australian getaway
Photos © Peter Bennetts
Water World: A giant rainwater cistern is transformed into the centerpiece of an Australian getaway
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The Cape Schanck vacation home that Melbourne-based architect Paul Morgan designed for himself and his sister underscores the preciousness of water. Nestled among twisting native tea trees, the house assumes an approximate T shape, with the kitchen-living area occupying its stem and bedrooms located within the arm. And while the exterior’s faceted walls were designed according to models of wind that buffets the site constantly, the metal-deck roof is prepared for less frequent precipitation: It acts like a funnel, pushing rainwater into a giant droplet-shape steel tank sitting in front of the kitchen island. (The tank, in turn, carries the roof load.)

The 450-gallon cistern, fabricated from three separate sections of flat-sheet mild steel that is galvanized on its outward-facing side, assumes a pivotal place in the living area. “It divides [the room] into four quadrants—kitchen, living, meals, and play,” Morgan says. The house is not air-conditioned, so the high specific heat of the collected rainwater means that it cools those quadrants equally, too.

Morgan also acknowledges the figurative significance of the tank’s centrality. “Other houses have given the water tank significant location over or on the perimeter of the house,” he says. “However, this may be the first instance of a water tank acting simultaneously as a passive cooling device and primary structural element, conflated in a form that acts as the conceptual and symbolic driver of the project. The water tank takes precedence, rather then the TV or fireplace.”

The interior of the cistern has a non-organic coating to prevent organic growth in the water, which is used to fill toilets, soak the garden, and wash cars in addition to moderating the interior climate. Excess water shuttles to a 1,055-gallon external tank. Trapping the overflow was a prescient move on Morgan’s part, as he says that his dustbowl hearth is always full. Yet even the architect is still learning. Noting that the cistern’s contents does not do as superlative a job of warming the living area in winter as it does in holding down temperatures in summer, currently Morgan is making an insulating jacket for the tank to wear during cold-weather months.
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