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We always find joy when we get to work with clients that are members of their community who prioritise creating spaces that bring people together. Whether it’s a playground, a childcare centre or residential project, the architecture can support activities that allow for and inspire connection. Seeing value in community connectivity allows a project to move beyond ‘hero architecture.’ The architectural gesture comes later as a result of an intellectual process fuelled by the incentive of why we are doing it in the first place.

When a family comes to us with an old house or terrace like the one in this project, they’ve accepted that the small, pokey and often dark spaces don’t provide reasonable opportunity for their young family to evolve, flourish and enjoy the lifestyle they’d inevitably like to lead. Our intention with the Elm Street project was to open the house up through the connection of spaces internally while at the same time, letting the outside in. The project also sees a balance between retaining old building stock and a reconfiguration for better family life. It also involved a restructuring of the segregation between formal and informal space.

Above: the mural identifying the side entry to the house

The family at Elm Street are really connected to their local community. They’re friends with all their neighbours and we designed to encourage that, to sustain and grow that connectivity. The clearest gesture that allows this was reconsidering how you enter the home. The entry to a Californian Bungalow is typically through the formal front door. Moving away from this, we supplemented an additional entry off the side lane. The old idea of coming in the front door, where you find the ‘nice room’ that the children aren’t allowed in, that has the crystal cabinet and granny drinking sherry is broken down. The side entry is defined by a mural that is strongly identifiable. All the neighbours know that when you visit, you go down the lane. This informal entry is straight into the living space, so the private family area can easily adapt and become community space.

Above: The flexible extra living space

Old Space – New Space

In a majority of our jobs we tend to reverse the traditional ideas inherent in the layout of older houses. The rooms provided are more defined by the sorts of activity spaces the clients need. Additionally, in two storey family homes, we aspire to strike a balance between connectivity while also providing quiet nooks. In this way, an awareness of and an engagement with everyone’s movements in the house can be fostered.

Above: Large windows and doors allow the indoor activity to spill to the outside

This house is zoned into three clear areas. The children’s bedrooms upstairs, the adult bedroom downstairs towards the front of the house and the living spaces and noisy spaces towards the rear. There is a main informal living space as well as secondary spaces provided for other family activities. On the ground level, the spaces provided have the flexibility to be used in a number of ways. For instance, the study may at times have adults doing the household bills late at night. At other times, you’ll find children doing homework or practicing the piano. It’s where long-term craft projects can take shape or where Lego and jigsaw puzzles can intermittently take over. In this way, we’re able to provide a lot more amenity in a smaller footprint.

Above: Built in seating both inside and outside

Letting the Outside In

The clients have three young children and their family life like most, centres around the kitchen. We designed a large, open kitchen area that connects to the dining and living spaces as well as the backyard. They’re also very keen cooks. They preserve fruit, make Kombucha, keep bees and grow a lot of herbs and vegetables. The open walk in pantry, plenty of bench space and storage are all approaches that allow for lots of food to be produced.

Above: The large, open kitchen

For the family at Elm St, the outside is just as important as the inside. Their backyard works hard to provide space for playing with a cubby house and trampoline while half of the area is an overflowing edible garden and chook pen. They also identified that they enjoy eating outside so the relationship to the garden was really important. To enhance this, we incorporated a kitchen window that opens to become a servery and large glazed doors that allows the dining to flow out onto the deck. The fold back windows in the living room lets the inside activities spill out with a generous space for different play activities or a number of friends and neighbours to gather and sit in an informal setting connected to both the action inside and the garden. The deck on the upper level, looks down on the main garden. Rather than leaving an accessible area of roof bare, a green roof was incorporated. The green roof becomes an extension of usable garden space with the area for bee keeping.

Above: The rear of the house and backyard

The relationship to the outside guided a plethora of other design decisions. A range of openings assist the connection to the outside and help define the spaces. For instance, hidden courtyard gardens were provided outside the downstairs study and ensuite. Expanses of glass allow these small rooms to connect out and feel more open. Longer views of trees in the distance are captured from the upstairs bedrooms. A snippet of the outside is seen through a small triangular window at the top of the stairs, providing a view that’d be missed otherwise. The central stairwell also allows a strong visual connection between the two levels providing an important sense of spaciousness.

ABove: Windows positioned to allow glimpses up to the sky and down to the front door

Sustainability Measures

By having the two stories spaced around the stairwell, a thermal chimney effect is created where cool air is drawn from below and exhausted at the top. This house has ceiling fans but no air conditioning and is really comfortable. The thermal mass of the brick wall and concrete floor also assists thermal regulation. The brick wall that runs down the middle of the house provides a visual texture that identifies the spine of the house. It works thermally as a heat sink as well as a cool sink, assisting the moderation of the indoor environment. The building fabric itself is highly insulated and considered north sun shading has been provided. The project also incorporates water tanks and PV cells.

Above: The central stairwell

The Aesthetic

Choices around aesthetics in our projects are heavily influenced by visiting clients and seeing how they live. The reality is, no matter how minimal or restrained you may create a home, clients are likely to live in a very similar way as they always have. We also avoid being too definitive. We want the house to match people’s personalities and allow them to adapt the spaces over time. For this family, we saw that they are great collectors, they have heart. There’s always food production happening, craft projects, children’s art and toys around, as well as a dog and the chooks. We prioritised making small gestures, avoiding the house feeling contrived where every beautiful thing has its place. Instead, a backdrop is laid that allows the house to evolve and change alongside the family. Gestures such as the deep blue walls of the pantry help emphasize a space. The use of a strong colour contrasts to the glass and timber that opens to the outside but it’s recessive rather than trying to stand out by itself. By being recessive, the belongings and features become the hero in the space.

Above: The feature colour to the kitchen pantry

The external form of the Californian Bungalow had the defining feature of the typical gabled roof. The roof of the new section takes the vernacular form of the gables offset from the retained roof. We liked this sensitive approach that saw the new extension not dominating the existing. In a sense, it could’ve always been there. It looks new in materiality and execution rather than form. Internally, the roof shape allows interesting and dynamic ceilings in the upstairs children’s bedrooms and bathroom.
The form of single residential homes is evolving.

Above: View from above showing the offset gabled roof design

Today we see suburbs full of bigger, grander houses with high fences and tiny backyards. In our opinion, these houses that foster a family life conducted primarily inside, miss the mark. In terms of this single residential project, a focus on community set foundations for a house to avoid being a primarily internalised experience. An internally and externally connected home is created fostering the family life the clients identified in our first meeting with them and creating a home that is comfortable, spacious, practical and flexible.

What is Engineered Timber?
Engineered timber is a whole industry of structural timber manufactured for a variety of purposes. Engineered timber comes in many forms from prefabricated stud walls, to flat plate floors and walls, cassette systems, CLT (cross laminated timber), LVL (laminated veneer lumber) beams, as well as a variety of other composite systems. The essential aspect is that it is part of a prefabrication process.

Can you explain some of these systems in detail?
Flat plate systems include CLT (cross laminated timber), which are timber planks stacked perpendicular, one on top of the other and held in place by glue. This forms a structural plate from multiple horizontally spanning layers. The system can be used to form walls and floors and a whole building can then be stacked up like a house of cards, which means very quick construction times. The other type of flat plate engineered timber is LVL (laminated veneer lumber) which uses plywood running in cross directions to build up thickness. Flat plate systems replace concrete slabs and in walls can replace load bearing precast concrete or blockwork.

1:(L) CLT (Cross laminated Timber) section. 2:(R) A CLT building under construction 

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In the show ‘The Streets of Your Town’ that aired on ABC, Tim Ross looks at residential architectural trends in Australia. He looks at the modernist movement as well as the evolution in housing design that has resulted in the contemporary proliferation of the ‘McMansion.’ Ross describes how the early modernists had a drive in the way they were thinking about homes. During the modernist era, the general public had a much higher opinion of architects than they typically do now. People were excited by advancements in housing designs that fostered new types of living. Australian Architect Robin Boyd even sold plans in the newspaper, so anyone interested could have access to good home designs that allowed for ‘future living’ as he saw it.

During the modernist movement, cities were seen as dark, dirty places while large sprawling suburbs such as those found in Canberra were more attractive. During this period, a house would take up a third of its site. Within more modern suburbs where development was initiated say ten or fifteen years ago, houses just about consume the whole property. The shift in housing size reflects the change in lifestyle present in modern culture. On the show, an interviewed real estate agent explains, “The dream before was playing cricket in the backyard, whereas now, everything is inside.”

An image capture from ‘The Streets of Your Town’ showing an estate of McMansions

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There are plenty of ways to go about a building project. As a firm we find that the role of the architect is often misunderstood or not entirely clear. Often people aren’t aware of the role architects have in a project. Fuelled by budget restraints, many people in Australia opt to buy a project home or to go to a draftsperson. The reality is, architects do charge a considerable amount of money and design a lot of high end buildings. The stereotype is essentially an egocentric turtle neck wearer and people understandably fear engaging in a design process where they fundamentally want to be heard.

Liam Neeson sporting his turtleneck as architect Daniel in the film Love Actually

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The Processes Involved and Services Available
Our interior design services are most often engaged in conjunction with our architectural services. Though other circumstances may involve client’s purchasing a new house where they want to adjust interiors to allow an infusion of their own style. Quite often, if clients have lived in a house for a long time but have entered a different life phase (a growing family, older children moving out, retirement etc.), rather than opting for a total renovation or moving to something smaller or larger, a refurbishment of interiors can be a great way to respond to changed needs, especially when a client is working with a lower budget. In other projects, clients have contacted us when the finishes in their home feel a bit dated or worn. Adjusting some key elements in the interior of these client’s homes can allow a house to be refreshed, increasing the usability of spaces and the joy in inhabiting them.

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Passive Systems
For this project, just as in all of our projects, a range of passive solar design practices were applied to the scheme. When considered in the initial design phase, they can be quite straightforward. The large expanse of glazing is facing north toward the sun. An overhang at 63 degrees shades the glazing to let the winter sun in while blocking out summer sun. A pergola structure snakes around the side of the building. It becomes larger on the western side to shade lower western sun. The form of the sun shading reflects how you’d naturally use the space at different times of the day. Where the overhang widens, a shadier, cool spot is created that can be used in warmer weather.

RG927c_0037Above: The North facing glazing screen by the pergola structure

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Maximising Space Efficiency
More often than not, the thing that drives budget is building area. The cheapest scheme always involves less building. Being smart about the planning, means reusing repurposed space in a simple way to allow for less building area. The other driver is the complexity of construction. The chosen scheme did more in less building and encompassed quite a simple structure over the top with the amount of external walls limited i.e. not too many ‘ins and outs.’ We didn’t really change the main fabric of the existing house. We treated the old and new as two distinct areas. Budget-wise, this was an important approach.

201504_WEBSITE PLANS_170419Above: The finalised plan. The area to the east is the existing cottage with a new bathroom, laundry and ensuite extension. To the west is the new area with kitchen, dining, living and study areas connecting to the north facing garden.

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The Clients
The clients for this project were a couple living in Brunswick with their two young children. Originally, their issue was that they had relatively modest requirements, partly due to money, but also because they wanted to be sustainable. They saw the benefit in opting for a small footprint. The clients had previously worked on an initial design with a different architect that didn’t provide a satisfactory outcome. The other architect had designed quite a large, two-storey renovation which, by the time it was priced, was twice their budget. The clients were really disappointed and so the first discussion with us was – “Well, it may be a nice design, but we really don’t want to build something that’s twice our budget.”

RG927c_0029Above: The front yard of the Allan Street Cottage
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Our residential extension in Northcote is nearly done! See pics below of the back garden facade and living room joinery.


We’re so pleased to see our Ruckers Hill House featured on the cover of Green Magazine Issue 43.

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