A powerful piece of architecture with extruded mortar and tonnes of precast concrete.
Lightweight, elevated Queenslanders are a dime a dozen in the Sunshine State, but Couldrey House breaks the mould with its heavyset connection to the earth. Designed by Peter Besley from Assemblage and tucked away in the foothills of Mount Coot-tha, the Bardon abode is surprisingly light and airy. The building approach was as bold as the landscape from which it now emerges.
The exterior is strong and unmoving thanks to extensive masonry work. As Peter explains, the structure is intended to look and feel heavy, so the rectangular brick envelope was an important feature in achieving the desired weightiness. Long, thin and off-white, the bricks (and matching white mortar) set the stage for a robust material palette.
Adding to the building’s imposing nature is a street frontage devoid of windows, a deliberate attempt to shield against the harsh western aspect. A concertina of brickwork accentuates the front door and imparts a whimsical permanence. “We wanted to create a feeling of both solidity and being ensconced, but also otherworldly,” Peter notes.
If you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, then you shouldn’t assume Couldrey House is stagnant and airless because of its windowless facade and heavyset stature — the home still manages to snatch prevailing breezes. Optimal orientation, sliding doors and windows work alongside thermal mass cooling methods. A total of 30 9m concrete floor and roof units aid natural heating and cooling. A microclimate of planting beds surrounding the home also helps cool the interior as the plants soothe the sides of the structure and soften its impact.
The building is closed to the west and south and open to views and breezes to the north and east. A large photovoltaic array resides on the roof and powers a sophisticated air-conditioning system that modulates humidity and purifies the air. “To my knowledge this is one of the only houses in Australia that cools by utilising both breezes and thermal mass together,” Peter explains. “It mimics the ‘cathedral effect’, like walking into Notre Dame on a hot summer’s day and finding the interior cool and moody. I love it, and it brings a whole architectural lexicon of masonry, weight and masses with it.” A tandem act of solar hot water and immersion hot water keeps the busy household running smoothly.
Despite the structural essence of the home remaining consistent throughout the project, Peter reworked much of the detailing in order to make the building process simpler, inject richness into the design or to utilise a particular material more effectively.
“The house superstructure and roof use large planks of precast concrete. Each plank weighs nearly four tonnes and spans 9m,” he says. “This long span plus the scheme’s high ceilings provide surprising lightness inside.”
Unlike the easy feel of the house, craning the precast concrete into place was arduous and ranks as one of the build’s most challenging aspects.
A minimal interior palette is thoughtful and serene, while the layout is somewhat more controversial. Flipping the program on traditional domestic floor plans, this four-bedroom family home boasts living zones on the upper level instead of the ground floor.
The owners’ three teenage children spend a sizable chunk of their days in the TV/games room. Their parents, meanwhile, can often be found in the large open-plan kitchen, dining and living space, or relaxing on the upper external terrace.
At its core, Couldrey House is a structure that pays homage to its landscape — not with frilly battens and pitched corrugated iron roofs, but with a subtlety and strength inherent in the Australian landscape.
Words: Louise Smithers; Photos: Rory Gardiner