Q & A with Lesiuk Architects

Q & A with Lesiuk Architects


tropical gardens

Lesiuk Architects on their development, Seagrass at Ocean Shores.

By Lynn Malone

Lesiuk Architects was formed nearly 15 years ago by Nanna and Stephen Lesiuk. While the practice is based on the northern beaches of Sydney at Palm Beach, the studio has undertaken projects in rural NSW, Western Australia, Queensland, the ACT and the Pacific. The majority of projects undertaken by Lesiuk Architects are one-off houses, however the office also regularly undertakes heritage and commercial projects like restaurants and boutique hotels. The principles explored in the one-off house have been more recently applied to medium density housing projects. The practice has taken much delight in applying these much-crafted elements to multi-housing developments.

The studio has maintained a strong initiative in areas of environmental and ecological design. In 1984 Stephen was awarded his Doctorate in Architecture from Sydney University for his research into the integration of landscape and buildings and areas of environmental design. In keeping with this background, all projects undertaken by the studio have a strong underpinning in environmental and ecological design overlaid with inspiration from traditional and vernacular design, both regionally and internationally.

What was your project brief for Seagrass, from the client?
Very simply, Augusta Properties wanted the best possible development. And yes, they wanted something different — something exceptional — and wanted to be surprised.

Tell me about the building site, and its challenges and attributes.
The site was exceptional. For years it had been used as a car park, but what a car park! To the east the site looked down to the ocean with views up and down the coast. There are views of the Byron Lighthouse and the Brunswick River. It was breathtaking. To the west the views were over the golf course and lake, together with the distant views of the rugged mountains of the hinterland. It was a site with two different sets of views, two different atmospheres, two different qualities.

What made the site even more exceptional was that it was on the ridge of the hill. It fell away, opening views in both directions. What was outside the site was the opportunity; what was within the site, however, was the challenge. It was a near-flat open field that had been compacted by cars over the years, with nothing but weeds and little tufts of grass providing a visual relief. I recall taking the client up to one of the hills overlooking the site and the Brunswick River and pointing out the natural landscape structure. This was the challenge — the development had to be understood from the outset as a major landscape regeneration and restoration. The individual dwellings would then be inserted into this restored landscape structure.

What was your reasoning to position the buildings in rows?
The model for the building alignment went hand-in-hand with the development of the landscape regeneration. A zone of landscape was identified to the east, west and centre of the site. Within this landscape structure we identified two landscape ‘lanes’ that were to be configured with ‘dry river beds’ to accommodate high-intensity rainfall. Using this landscape structure, three building cluster groups were identified. Each ‘cluster’ was then designed as a response to the new landscape structure and other environmental criteria. Each dwelling had to follow the sun and have ability to ‘breathe’ or be be naturally ventilated.

I was particularly impressed with views from the middle-row villas and how in many instances they have splendid views over the front-row villas rooftops (both on the ocean side and golf course side). Tell me about the positioning of the buildings and what you wanted to achieve in terms of vistas.

We are particularly proud of what has been achieved with this central cluster of dwellings. A favoured design feature to us is the development of a large central landscape court onto which four of the dwellings could open out onto. Further, each of the dwellings in this cluster is configured with an open landscape court and a sheltered ‘outdoor room’. In addition, elevated decks and terraces were developed to provide as much opportunity for outdoor living.

Rather than making each of the units identical, we took the opportunity to refine the designs so that each unit can take particular advantage of site lines, whether it is to the ocean or the hinterland, as well as taking advantage of sun and breezes. It was like playing chess — configuring a Chinese puzzle. I think the end result speaks for itself. For example, from the island bench in the kitchen of Villa 12, you can see out to the ocean and in particular, take in the view of the Byron Bay Lighthouse. Upstairs, one of the bedrooms steps out over the street with windows to the east and west, taking in views of the ocean and the hinterland. In Villa 6, however, the kitchen opens to the central court and outdoor room, but turns your head, and the views open out to the hinterland.

Each villa is unique. How did you achieve this and was it your intension for each villa to have points of difference?
The individual character of each of the villas was achieved by working directly with the landscape and the environment. Rather than saying everything had to be the same, each was designed to take up the opportunities of its position in the site. A villa to the north of the site would not be same as a villa to the south because of the way the sun tracks across the site. Similarly, if there was a view corridor to the east or to the west, the opportunity was grabbed. They are often very subtle differences, but collectively these little differences create strong points of differentiation so that each unit becomes unique.

What has also been achieved but is not overtly apparent is the use of common details and standard elements throughout the development. These details and elements afford continuity in the design. It is, however, the subtle changes to these common details and elements that enhance the uniqueness of each dwelling.

Again, this type of thinking is directly drawn from the landscape. The same tree grown in different positions will grow differently — it will still be the same tree, but the way it interacts with the environment will cause its branching structure to differ. It is a natural way of creating diversity.

What was the inspiration for the design vernacular?
We have long been impressed not by the clever but by the simple; something that tells the story of the region of the area. From travels to Europe through to Asia and the Pacific, we have always been drawn to the way communities have built dwellings and structures that are unique to their locality. The way in which dwellings are configured, the way they face the sun and turn their backs to the wind, the way they use different materials. The north coast of NSW also has a particular character, a particular vernacular, a particular language. It is a language which tells you that it gets very hot in summer and that the roofs of houses must afford shade. It is a language that speaks of the heavy rains that are so characteristic of the area and therefore the need to shelter spaces and openings to the dwellings to driving rain. It is a language that speaks of swollen rivers and flooding. It is a language of sea breezes. The vernacular of northern NSW is rich indeed and a profound resource for design inspiration.

With the mature trees planted in the middle-row villa courtyards, it appears the buildings were dropped in and have been there for years. What was your intent and how were you able to plant trees that required a significant root structure?
Again it was by structuring: designing the landscape first, before thinking about the buildings. Our clients were both shocked and delighted with our first sketches — drawings of the landscape elements and details, but no buildings or dwellings. We can assure you that this is not the normal approach. But to their credit, the clients became excited with the approach and shared the vision that this approach would create a very different product.

What are your top-three aspects of the buildings’ architectural expression?
Environment, landscape, vernacular. What we are particularly pleased with is the simplicity of the development, but in this simplicity a striking layering of materials and openness in the design. Just when you think you get it, you turn the corner and another aspect of the development — the site, the views — reveals itself to you in different ways. It is a development in which you have to move, it’s dynamic. There is also a tension between being inside and outside — none of the rooms, none of the spaces are separated from the environment; you always feel connectivity to the landscape.

What was your inspiration for the interior and exterior finishes and colour palette?
The palette had to be fresh and crisp and natural. Your eye is always being drawn to the timber work and the white walls become a great foil. Other parts of the palette are drawn into the shadows of the landscape — elements are seen to move back. These darker earthy tones are also used to ground the building in the landscape. The use of the dark stained timber work was also intended to create a ‘moodiness’, but as the landscape gets further established, the pattern of shadows falling across these surfaces, the quality of these shadows are amplified.

What are your three favourite villas?
We have no favourite villas: each villa is like a character, a personality and you find yourself drawn to the qualities of each as an individual. Each character, each villa has a story to tell, and they are all good stories. So no favourites.

Please tell me about the building and landscape materials selected, particularly in terms of sustainability and regionally sourced materials, and particularly the timbers used both internally and externally.
The landscape of Seagrass was drawn primarily from local indigenous species. This would ensure that the plant communities on the Seagrass development would with time blend with and merge with the native landscape of the surrounds. The material selection for the buildings was very much drawn from a local vernacular. Strong masonry walls were used to ground the buildings and connect them with the landscape. At higher levels, the materials became lighter. The exposed timbers used in the roof structure have been tapered to further lighten the development without sacrificing structural strength.

The hardwoods used externally have been locally sourced from managed plantations. Internally, blue gum floors and cedar framed doors and windows have again been sourced from managed plantations.

The selection of these different materials adds a certain warmth and quality to the development while also being kind to the environment.

What makes Seagrass environmentally friendly?
Seagrass works on a variety of levels. First and foremost it addresses the environment by being a major landscape restoration and regeneration project. Our early sketches illustrated that the restored landscape would create a new micro-climate for the site. It would be a landscape which would filter the winds coming off the ocean, it would be a landscape which would shade and shelter the site.

Water harvesting was also a high priority. In an environment of high rainfall, there was a need to look at means of capturing this water — not just in pipes — but with landscape structures. Each of the main ‘village lanes’ in the development is defined by landscape swales — open water courses. Many of the dwellings are accessed by small bridges over these landscape swales. Stormwater is then gathered and collected in a large concrete water tank set below the main driveway. This water is used for landscape irrigation.

There was a primary need to allow the dwellings to breathe — to have good cross-ventilation. A variety of openings have been used for this purpose. These range from large bi-folding doors, which also connect the dwellings to the landscape, through to the extensive use of louvers, which can be adjusted to control the rate of air movement. No matter where you are in the development, you are always connected to the environment, to the landscape.

It was also important that doors and windows should be well sheltered. This gave rise to large overhanging roof structures and a stepped arrangement to building facades.
The ground floor for each dwelling is constructed with concrete floors with a stone-like finish. These slabs stay cool in summer, reducing the imperative for air-conditioning.
The use of water-conservative fittings and low-energy lighting systems also means a lower need for water and energy.

Clever environmental design, design mindful of the environment, gave the Seagrass development a 5-star rating for most of the dwellings — very impressive for a development of this type.

Who is the building contractor and project manager for Seagrass?
The project manager was Andrew Hahn from Augusta Properties, while Marty Brennan was the project manager from Ware Building in charge of delivering the project. Put us into the equation, and you have a formidable team. Where things worked and worked well on this project was that each and every member of the team was committed to delivering the best possible outcome to the project. Yes, there were disagreements and dynamic discussions — but always directed at finding the best outcome. 

What was also very impressive was the attitude of the many sub-contractors involved, whether they were the carpenters building walls through to the painters. As the project evolved, they became very proud of their individual contribution. They could see that their care and crafting were adding significantly to the total project. With Seagrass, it is true that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.