Garden Lookout

Review of house at Northbridge by Andrew Burges Architecture, HOUSES Magazine, Vol.63, 2008

In this quiet harbourside suburb of Sydney’s lower north shore, the predominant house types are Californian bungalow and mock Tudor. Some are in original condition; many have been “rebranded” to accommodate media rooms, gourmet kitchens and whatever else can be squeezed into the available space. These new super-sized versions tend to crane for views and space and, in doing so, lose their gardens. This pattern of development has diminished the original texture of the suburb – an assembly of modestly sized single-storey houses in garden settings. With Sydney’s love of views and generously proportioned living spaces, it seems this trend is not about to change soon.

How refreshing it is then to see this addition by Andrew Burges Architecture. The owners purchased the original house on the basis of the garden and the amenity it offered. However, they wanted to be able to park two cars off the street and provide separate space for their active gaggle of teenage children. Understandably, separating the teens from the main house was a desired outcome. Rather than extend the house and chew up the garden, the approach here has been to keep the original house – albeit with new swimming pool – and provide additional accommodation at the top of the site within a new addition. 

The advantage of such a strategy for this site is that it utilizes an otherwise prohibitively sloping part of the garden while retaining the flatter, more usable garden space. It does this in a rather clever way – anchored to a sandstone escarpment, the new structure doesn’t so much sit on the site as hang off the side of it.

For Andrew, the project’s real intrigue was the idea of working with compactness and tightness. The addition embodies these themes – it is a compact box placed like a foreign object in the landscape or, indeed, hovering above it. The scale of the building is small, like a weekender, its footprint deliberately minimal. The two-storey structure has a carport at the upper level, accessed directly from the street and, below that, a flexible space that can be study, rumpus room and accommodation complete with small kitchen and bathroom. Working with the fall of the site, the building is supported by an innovative steel-tree structural solution. Angled steel columns support the house at each corner but all connect at one point as they hit the ground. This minimizes impact on the site and gives the house a sense of lightness. Constructed from welded steel mesh, the driveway becomes a bridge that connects the boundary to the carport. This open meshing admits light from above to the access walkway below the driveway, effortlessly reinforcing the concept of the structure floating above the site.

The design started life as a single-storey structure suspended in the trees, with the carport next to the study. However, the council indicated that this flat, wide approach would not be an acceptable streetscape response and that the footprint was too big. By refining the design and putting the study under the carport, Andrew created a more compact solution, effectively a 6.5-metre cube. The street elevation reads as a very simple carport opening that reveals little of what is beyond other than its black-stained cladding and the windows’ timber battening.

The surf-loving owners had recently relocated from Sydney’s northern beaches and wanted a modern architectural response. Andrew’s approach was to draw on aspects of beach house vernacular, though not in a literal way. Instead of the wavy roof and blue paint typical of coastal “responses,” we see here dark-stained, lightweight cladding materials, large-scale openings, fine timber battening and a flat roof. 

External stairs lead down to the floor below. Again, the decision to make the placement of the stairs external was determined by the volume of the structure: by keeping them external, the building size could be kept to a minimum. The downstairs study is a singular space dominated by a large window on the northern side. A sliding cavity window shutter opens to frame the view. By contrast, windows on the eastern and western walls are more slot-like in character, minimizing solar penetration and maintaining privacy on both sides.

The sense is almost monastic, with the ceiling kept as the unfinished concrete slab above. A long day bed doubles as storage and seating along the northern wall. The experience, however, is not spartan thanks to the careful selection of materials, such as the clear-stained timber window frames and the narrow-stripped recycled blackbutt flooring that gives warmth and a strongly patterned linear appearance. One distinctive feature of the downstairs space is its single joinery unit that doubles as kitchen benchtop and study desk. By stepping up the floor in the study area, Andrew effectively changed the height of the surface without interrupting it. This device gives a visual simplicity to the room but subtly differentiates the separate functions of the two zones.

Visiting Andrew’s studio, one gets an appreciation of his fascination for the small and compact. The place is littered with architectural models – an essential part of Andrew’s design and communication process. The early iterations of the project are in evidence, tracing various testing options and stages of development until a miniature version of the completed building – compact but considered, and perfect for its site.