Karri Loop House
Margaret River, Australia - 2013 Photography: First three photos from Giulio Aristide - Peter Bennetts
The large Eucalyptus found on the lot played an essential part in shaping our concept. While the clients recognized their majestic quality, they were hesitant to retain them as they believed it would be impossible to construct a generous family home on the block. However, we saw this pre-existing condition as what ‘made’ an otherwise anonymous site, and after consulting a leading arborist, we carefully designed the house to enable family life to unfold between and around those old, magnificent trees. As a result, the house bridges in between the tree-trunks, and its outline defines two open courtyards of irregular shape that embrace the trees and the surrounding landscape. A tall window in the dining area and a periscope-like skillion in the master bedroom celebrate the presence of the trees within the house, framing views of both foliage and peeling trunks in the golden afternoon light. In visual and tactile response to the trees and the surrounding forested area, the house was constructed of plywood, whose grain and texture inform interior and exterior spaces. The dark and somewhat abstract form was conceived as a complementing visual background to the surrounding vegetation to further enhance the presence of the trees. The house is fully constructed out of sustainably sourced timber, with extensive use of exposed and concealed LVLs, and different types of plywood as external cladding and interior lining and joinery. Straw-bales insulation was used in all external walls in a further effort to contain the environmental impact of construction. Though contributing strongly to the quality of the project, the trees’ shallow root systems and unstable large canopies presented a challenge to the house’s build-ability. The coordination and integration of different competencies and skills (an arborist, structural engineer, timber-prefabrication company and traditional carpentry craft-man) was crucial in being able to respond to such challenges and successfully complete the project. The footing system employed a matrix of hand-dug steel tripods raising the house off the ground to protect the tree roots and to avoid any digging. To minimize change in watering patterns, rainwater collected on the roof is taken under the house, channelled into trickling irrigation pipes and evenly fed to the roots.
ENCLOSED HOUSE I
Floreat, Western Australia - 2017 - Photography: Givlio Aristide
Our clients, a couple came to us in search of a house in which they could feel a sense of refuge; somewhere to peacefully dwell for the coming chapters of their life. Softly lit, relaxing, with a distinct presence. This part of the brief interested us; however, upon visiting the site we realized there was some reconciliation to be done. A subdivided lot with frontage onto a high-traffic road, surrounded by an unremarkable built environment and no vegetation - not exactly a place of respite. Generally speaking, the suburban fabric of Perth consists of single or double story houses, situated in the middle of their lots. In times past, the standard quarter-acre block (1,000s/m) could support this kind of residential typology: a dwelling in the landscape. However, as land sizes decreased with suburban densification, and house sizes increasing, this kind of centered lot-development results in strangled out-door spaces and wasted alleys flanking either side of the house.
In order to achieve a sense of privacy and respite from the surrounding suburban landscape we decided the house should be enclosed, inward looking and occupy the edges of the site. By turning our back on the suburban context, we shield the occupants from the noisy street, and create an inner sanctuary within. This answers both the client brief and the issue of context through the design idea of an enclosed house.
The hidden courtyard is the heart of this house in every sense. It simultaneously orders program, frames the rituals of its inhabitants, distributes light and facilitates ventilation all the while denying any reminder of the suburban context beyond its massive walls. The brief required us to come to terms with the idea of ‘a family of two’ – the couple, although living alone, often have their sons visiting for a few days at a time. Our answer to this component was to conceive two areas: the area for our clients and the area for the sons or guests. With a distinct hierarchy in mind, we organized the area for our clients around the central void while the other zone is located at the rear of the house. In this way the everyday activities of the two inhabitants are continuously framed by the central void, and protected by its material presence.
Strong winds and harsh sun are the major climate challenges when you design in Perth. Durable environmental solutions therefore must be embedded organically in the design, as additive solutions inevitably perish in the elements. The nature of being enclosed helps protect the inner space from the summer sun and the strong wind. The courtyard mediates the sunlight and facilitates consistent cross ventilation, extracting the heat from the house during the warmer months. The thermal inertia of the rammed concrete walls and the use of hydronic floors add further comfort to the space.
As is the case with all of our projects, we are interested in materials that tell you a story; materials that are washed out by time, with a natural feeling and texture. It is the timelessness of these materials that offer a sense of repose. Often born from conversations with artisans that we have encountered along our path, the materials were arrived at carefully and organically. Seeking this idea of timelessness, we needed a material presence that was monolithic and able to weather over time. Constructed utilizing an ancient technique called pisé, rammed recycled concrete walls comprise the entire vertical structure. Rough sawn red hardwood is oiled and used for the ceilings and joinery, and humble concrete pavers give a uniform rhythm to the floor. All of these materials softly and subtly reflect the light that enters the courtyard and is chromatically filtered by the vegetation.
Despite the complexities, the project’s response to both brief and context remains simple, and innate: the house is conceived as a solid enclosure ordered around a central void. The daily life of a couple unfolds around the vegetated courtyard which offers openness to the surrounding spaces that are in turn removed from their suburban context. A sense of enclosure is expressed through the materiality of the house, which is entirely constructed of rammed recycled concrete. The use of only few raw materials generates a harmonized background that in turn places the emphasis on the space and the inhabitants’ lives within.
Wardandi, Western Australia - 2016 - Photography: Peter Bennetts
“If we could live on the site in a tent, we would.”
The simple statement summarizes the aspirations of a young family of four for their new house to be built on the sloping forested site - an amazing, delicate, challenging site - on which they required generous spaces for everyone and forest views for each room. Their aspirations however were faced with two substantial hurdles: the fire risk and a modest budget. The bushfire risk of the site is obviously very severe and associated regulations extremely tight, limiting both design possibilities and selection of materials, as well as substantially hindering the economy of the project, in addition to the relative remoteness of the site. As we often do, we saw these constraints as the generator of our project. Conceived from the inside out, our design response proposed a continuous fire-resistant enveloping surface, which follows the terrain’s topography and frames the views of the forested landscape. Within the perimeter shell, a central family area overlooking the forest is surrounded by an array of rooms each framing the views in different directions. As in a turtle shielding itself from danger, the outer shell protects the inner parts of the building. The economic materiality of the project can be described as an outer layer of black-painted fiber cement, and an inner layer of clear finished, warm plywood. The steel-trowelled structural slab completes the limited material palette. The deep recesses protect the house from bush-fire with the aid of gravity fed sprinklers, which form a “curtain of water” within the fibre-cement enclosure to protect all glazing. Such recesses however were also conceived to visually frame the views of the forest through a black cornice, which dims the surrounding light, contrasts the tones of the forest and funnels the user in the trees. Seeing challenges and constraints of the site, the dichotomy between protecting from the fire and opening toward the forest, and the limitations of economy, as the generator of our design is the first fundamental move for architecture to embody the notion of sustainability, in a holistic and cultural way. In particular, within the obvious limitations, the house engages with a significant social and cultural question: how can we build in the Landscape and where do we find a balance between architecture and preservation - of self and the environment - and, with more difficulty, can we still enrich the landscape through (meaningful) architecture? The budget of this project was rather modest. Accordingly, an economical material palette for interior and exterior lining was selected, an efficient plan layout was created, most of the timber structure was detailed as a prefabricated truss system and, similarly, all joinery and cabinetry. Further to this the quality and cost-value outcome of this project is also due to a truly collaborative approach between the architect, builder, joiner, cabinetmaker and others - all led by an ambitious yet clear architectural vision.