Designs for Living

Article on Australian residential architecture, CONTEMPORARY HOME DESIGN magazine Issue 5.1, 2006, co-written with Deborah Dearing.

Houses are the shells in which we create our lives.  They may be freestanding houses, attached houses or apartments. When we inhabit them, we give them character and life, and they become our homes.  Equally they can open opportunities to us by the way they shape and mould our day-to-day lives and relationships.  They can raise the experience of each day to a different level.

While many hold the view that Australian architecture began in 1788 with a collection of huts around Sydney Cove, Australian culture began fifty thousand years ago.  Based on an intimate understanding of our land, climate and resources, our first inhabitants fashioned shelters that were an integral part of their existence.  Their housing was carefully sited and orientated to provide shade and shelter from the wind and rain.  The form of the shelters varied according to local context and the available materials.  They were flexible and versatile to support their lifestyles.  These shelters shocked the English colonists by their simplicity. 

In stark contrast, the colonists imported more ‘sophisticated’ dwelling styles.  Houses were laid out and built in line with concepts and techniques that hadn’t changed substantially from what they knew in their homeland.  The verandah was an addition that began to appear around 1800 as its value in moderating the sun’s heat was realised.  In the early 1800s, when the colony got better established Georgian, Greek Revival and Gothic Revival buildings were built that often showed less adaptation to local conditions than their predecessors.

Australian architecture then went through a period of exceptional borrowing… Queen Anne Revival, Arts and Crafts, Tudor style, Californian Bungalow, Hollywood Spanish and Moderne. Even the design of Federation houses, that many regard as our first distinctively Australian house style, was underpinned by diverse overseas styles. While clearly there were regional variations, it was quite some time before Australian architecture developed the confidence to draw its inspiration directly from local context, climate, culture and lifestyle.

Contemporary Australian design

So what inspires the design of our contemporary homes and how are our avant-garde architects responding? It can be argued that the major creative impetus of contemporary housing bears more in common with the shelters of our original inhabitants than with our colonial forebears.  Empathy with the character of a place, respect for the landscape, an understanding of context (be that urban, suburban or rural) and materials, and design for climate are all key drivers.
Sustainability is again paramount.  It relates to the environmental characteristics of the house such as water management, energy requirements and the selection of materials. But sustainability also encompasses social considerations.  These can include the way in which the house interacts with the street and public spaces around it and the need for flexibility within the house to support changing family structures and demands. The best contemporary designs arise from close interaction between client and architect. New designs need to be tailored not only to suit the original occupants but also to provide a timelessness that will last well into the future.

Social sustainability

Immense hours are spent conceiving the design concept and details based on an understanding of traffic flow, cooking routines, entertaining, optimum views and lifestyle aspirations.   Much of our time is spent outdoors and the design of outdoor spaces is now an integral part of the design work.  These considerations are married with site, context and climate. Design drawings, studies and models are prepared, architects often questioning the basic living patterns of the clients to extend the possibilities and to inspire.  Budgets are set and builders interviewed to ensure expectations can be achieved.  Houses that provide a degree of visual interaction with its street frontage can improve the safety of the public street as well as increase the security of occupants.

Model projects

Australia is lucky to have many talented architects whose skills can bring these diverse and complex requirements together into a solution that is creative and often deceptively simple.  Each year the Royal Australian Institute of Architects seeks submissions from the profession for consideration in its Awards program. It is always a challenging task to determine those who are to receive the highest honour from the large number of high quality entries. Those architects that are awarded and commended demonstrate talent, vision and an understanding of our contemporary challenges. Their houses set new standards and inspire us with their solutions. 

The character of a place and a respect for landscape.

Place is a major informant for the design of any building, but particularly housing. Whether an urban, suburban or rural setting, there are inherent determinants prevalent in any site. Architects respond in many ways to these. Glenn Murcutt is quoted as the need for his buildings to “touch the earth lightly”. He often designs houses for bush land settings and sets out to provide a minimal impact on what is often a fragile landscape. Often his approach has been to design a platform that hovers above the ground, supported on columns, which allows the ground water to flow across the site as well as flora and fauna to remain undisturbed. Rooms can be located to respond to prevailing solar and breeze conditions on a site.

Our built environment also provides indicators that inform design decisions. David Boyle has designed a house in Sydney’s inner suburbs that creates a private inner courtyard. Taking an older cottage, the rear has been transformed by opening up spaces and creating a series of split-levels that respond to the topography of the site. The rear of the house is overlooked by an adjacent residential building so a solution was sought whereby the house wraps around the back of the courtyard and shields it form overlooking. This also allows some flexible accommodation at the rear in the form of a separate studio over the garage.

Understanding the context

The first role of an architect is an analysis of context. This can come in the form of surrounding buildings, roadways or natural features. Modernism through the early and mid-twentieth century was often criticized for ignoring context in lieu of a tabula rasa approach, where every new structure is a conceived as independent and isolated from its surrounds, pursuing an abstract exploration of space. However the architecture that emerged from the latter part of that century revised this view and contextualism evolved. This recognized and indeed celebrated existing streetscapes and patterns. Earlier housing types such as nineteenth century terraces were lauded for their contribution to urban form. Contemporary housing tends to combine the qualities of both. Houses now are designed to respond to street and place, yet the modeling of space can be sought though open floor plans, split levels, voids and façade modulation.

The context of the Meta residential development is a warehouse area of Sydney’s inner city. The original site included a Federation warehouse, which was kept and finely re-modeled. The primary elements of the building were retained in an attempt to retain the integrity of the original building. A new building was built adjacent to the original warehouse. There was deliberately no attempt to mimic the warehouse appearance in a stylistic manner. Instead, the new building creates its own language and identity.  Given the urban context, the new building builds to the street frontage and thus continues to define the block edge, as per the original warehouse.  Similarly, parapet heights are similar, in a response to context. Where interventions have been required in the original building, contemporary detailing and materials have been employed and tend to work as a contrast to the original fabric. Their language pays homage more to the activity and colour of nearby Oxford Street than to the mechanics of historical building techniques.

Design for climate

The Australian climate, in all its elements, can be one of extremes.  Sweltering sunshine, torrential rain, high humidity, howling winds, and in some places, cold winters. Contemporary housing, through its design can seek to temper these extremes.  Floor layouts, including the zoning of living and sleeping areas, transition zones that enhance the indoor-outdoor relationship and blur the edges between the two.  Location of window openings can encourage cross ventilation and therefore contribute to thermal comfort. Eaves overhangs, sunhoods, awnings and the like, while not new ideas can be interpreted in contemporary ways, through their design and detailing.

The ‘house in the trees’, designed by Virginia Kerridge uses a suite of louvers and slatted timber and metal screens and hoods for sun control and, in doing so, creates a finely scaled character that defines the house.

Another example is the house at Northbridge designed by Alex Popov.  This also responds to climate but using a very different architectural character and palette of materials. A north-facing courtyard allows a sheltered outdoor space that is protected from the prevailing gusty winds.  Living rooms open on to this space, which is also shaded by a deciduous tree. A lap pool adjacent gives a cooling effect in summer as hot air passes over and is cooled by the water. The use of concrete floors means that in winter, the sun heats the floors and re-radiate heat during the night to assist in maintaining a thermal equilibrium.  The vaulted concrete roof planes have cutouts that allow northern light penetration while eaves overhangs control sun penetration as the season requires.

Materials and Technology

Timber, steel, glass, concrete and masonry have long been the building blocks of our houses. While these materials continue to serve our needs, new technologies and materials are constantly being developed and utilized in residential construction. Timber research constantly evolves in response to, particularly, sustainability concerns.  Manufacturers now produce glass that can self-clean and provide solar performance.  Concrete can be delivered in pre-cast and lightweight formats; while brickwork continues to offer an ever-increasing range of sizes, colours and finishes. Panel cladding can come in steel, aluminium, fibre cement and the like, while plastics also offer a range of building products.

Materials can express a variety of messages about the house.  At the house in Dulwich Hill by Nobbs Redford, traditional materials such as stucco and brick have been used though in a contemporary twist of the conventional application. For example, brick has been used in the horizontal plane, laid into the slab along the entry path and continuing beyond the entry foyer and through to the courtyard.

All of these recent RAIA NSW award entrants can be described as excellent examples of the contemporary house. Through the architecture of our housing we hold a mirror to the values our society holds as important. Just as we get the politicians that we deserve, so to do we get the quality of architecture that we deserve and accept.  These examples offer a great promise for the future while showing that contemporary housing comes in many forms and responds to many
factors as befits our increasingly complex and diverse society.

Deborah Dearing + Ben Giles