Houses in Brisbane’s pre-war inner suburbs are compact, with small setbacks and open verandahs resulting in loved and active streets. This is a very different approach to the inward focus of so many contemporary houses.
To encourage a return to this engagement in new estates and subdivisions, projects are needed that demonstrate a renewed level of engagement.
MAKING PLACE IN THE SCALE OF THE SUBURB
On what was once semi-rural land between Brisbane and Moreton Bay, there now stands the suburb of Wakerley, a series of estate developments that have grown up over the past decade.
The streets are empty as we wind our way through one such estate on a 35-degree day. Only the mechanical hum of air-conditioners murmurs in the air, sustaining the people concealed in their houses.
At the end of Bisley Place, James Russell Architect has designed a house that is a solid demonstration of the benefits of opening to the street. In contrast to the surrounding empty streets, children here are running to and fro; not just the inhabitants, but neighborhood children, visitors from across fences.
The aroma of fresh cooking carries unobstructed on the breeze from courtyard to curb.The ritual of cooking and meals happens right here on the street edge, a place for community. Building outdoor circulation through sites and along boundaries also allows for enjoyment of south-east Queensland’s benign climate.
This is the new house; not merely a dwelling place for individuals and families, but an interface at which habitat, street and the many rooms within a house can fuse and play.
The insular “hot boxes” common to estates are not the fault of builders and property owners. Covenant writers — those charged with maintaining the consistency of the estate — prescribe minimum total floor area, garage space, façade materials, and roof pitch.
The result? Large structures with consistent roofs, left-over strips of landscape and entryways wedged in beside double-car garages.This is uniformity at the cost of people and place.
But imagining between the lines of a building covenant presents another opportunity: that of the covenant as palette only. From this, spaces and materials can be put together in ways that optimise places for the people who use them.
THE INS AND OUTS
Redefining the concept of place is crucial if we are to create shelters that exploit both the local climate and the benefits that community living conveys.
At the Bisley Place House, the outdoors and the indoors cease to be separate.The envelope is robust and permanent, with adaptable glazing, walls and landscape. Structural face brickwork and concrete make up the dwelling’s outer sleeve.These are materials that are inherently strong, self-finished, and can withstand diverse and exceptional weather conditions.
The inhabitant is therefore able to create and recreate their own space by manipulating skins – doors, windows and curtains – to alternate between internal and external use.
Four large screen doors provide a veil to the street and admit gentle breezes as they build throughout the day.With a push of a button, these doors tilt open to provide shade and threshold, and create an opportunity to initiate conversation with the street. Curtains are drawn to enclose space or redefine a threshold.
Incorporating the outdoors into the indoor living spaces and establishing circulation throughout the entire site allows the dwelling to breathe and to merge seamlessly with its environment. The house becomes a series of spaces along a passage, a journey that encourages relationships between people and their shared landscape.
THE HOUSE, THE BODY
Brick is a diverse material.As a core structure, it may not only face a building but can be the structure itself: the “visible bones.”
Systems to maximise the functional potential of brick by managing the flow of water through structural brick walls were developed for the Bisley Place House.The ground level brickwork is laid in a Flemish bond (with alternating brick headers and stretchers).
The combination of fully-glazed bricks and Porters A1 mortar with a waterproofing additive on the front elevation and sleeping areas will ensure these walls remain watertight.The side elevations at ground level are clad in conventional bricks.
Single-skin brick walls laid in a conventional stretcher bond construct the attic spaces, generating an expanse within the dwelling that is intentionally raw and technically outdoor.This is a place for dreaming, reading, for study, making music, for contemplation. Moisture penetrating this upper level walling is captured and drained through weepholes.
The roof meets the 22.5-degree requirement of a local covenant but without gables, twists or turns.There is no visible roof to speak of: it simply slopes down to a central courtyard, protecting the outdoor edge.And within the roof is a magical space — a veritable opening to the sky.
Thick foliage flourishes around and within the glazed black brick dwelling, a home that both welcomes the landscape and protects its inhabitants, with simple control and flexibility, from undesirable elements.
The materials and making of space is honest and efficient, a nod to the functionality of industrial building. But, more significantly, the dwelling manages also to return to the original definition of a home: a unity with place and environment, a coalescence of community.
James Russell is a registered architect and builder based in Brisbane specialising in houses that encourage the occupants to interact with the environment and neighbourhood.
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