Romancing the terra firma

Romancing the terra firma


by Mark Story  

The indoor and outdoor realms of your home will be inextricably linked in this new age of home design.

Romancing the Terra Firma 1 Romancing the Terra Firma 2 

Maximising the interconnectivity between indoor and outdoor spaces on progressively smaller and often challenging topography within our capital cities and beyond has reignited the importance of incorporating hard and soft landscaping within modern home design.

Considering how much of the Australian lifestyle is shaped by climate and nature, it’s hardly surprising that a lot of living is done in the great outdoors. Due in part to TV garden shows, glossy magazines and the internet, there’s growing interest in not only redefining outdoor spaces, but also ensuring they blend seamlessly with the home’s interior. 

In recent years we’ve witnessed the backyard brick barbecue slowly reincarnate itself into an outdoor kitchen, while the humble sun umbrella has morphed into either a shade sail, retractable roofing systems or more permanent structures.

The final frontier of this evolutionary curve was the birth of the outdoor room. Now regarded as the latest addition to the Australian home, outdoor rooms encompass myriad functionality and scale depending on location and climatic conditions. But having pushed the envelope on outdoor rooms about as far as it can go, Jim Taylor, CEO of Gold Coast Unique Homes, says there’s growing emphasis on reclaiming the land beyond.

Two key elements:
Rather than just happening by chance, Jim Taylor says great landscaping results from a close assessment of the site, prevailing climatic conditions and the personal preferences of homeowners. He says it’s important to realise that the two elements to good landscape design encompass both the hard and soft elements. 

Hard landscaping, adds Taylor, incorporates how the home’s interior relates to the outdoor entertaining areas — where barbecue facilities will be positioned, pool, pathway and driveway designed. “Once these are in place, the most effective forms of soft landscaping — shrubs, trees, lawn, garden plantings, and any eye-catching architectural features — can be integrated,” advises Taylor.

Vibrant design:
Having experienced something of a revival in recent years, Brian Bass of Popov Bass Architects says landscape architects typically bring a different vibrancy to the overall design table. Apart from adding colour/texture by carefully matching selected vines, trees and shrubs to the landscape, he says they also bring a strong feel for what a garden will look like long-term. “Because they conceptualise gardens differently, landscape architects bring an evolutionary approach to future site development,” says Bass. 

Owing in part to an ever-expanding plethora of new furniture/fittings, awnings — plus windows, door and other commercial systems — that interconnect the inside with the outdoors, he says there’s been a notable change in the way outdoor spaces now operate. “No longer regarded as wasted spaces, courtyards have become more user-friendly living areas,” says Bass. “Combining hardy natives and grasses with water collection makes for more maintenance-friendly spaces.”

Owing largely to the steep drop to the street, the courtyard within a Popov Bass-designed home at Sydney’s Point Piper forms the centrepiece from street to house. Linking the house to harbour views, the private courtyard is integral to the overall house design, says Bass.

As well as adding ventilation and light, the carefully positioned courtyard within another Popov Bass-inspired home renovation at Sydney’s exclusive Chinaman’s Beach connects the north-facing house with the gardens, pool and recently added pavilion to the south. In addition to working with a challenging land form, Bass says added land usability also had to be worked around established trees on the site. 

Reinventing precious space:
According to Ted Quinton of MaSQ Architects, Australia’s gravitation towards medium and high-density living on smaller and narrower lots — often complicated by challenging topography — has upped the ante on maximising precious outdoor spaces. He says the downsizing of the average suburban site has, by default, forced a rethink of the need for a double-fronted garage — once considered indispensible. 

Less precious about where they park cars, people are increasingly unwilling to give up 30sqm to a space that’s empty all day, according to Quinton. “This valuable turf is being reinvented as a multi-use extension of outdoor areas front and back,” he says. 

Quinton believes that a growing number of architects are re-discovering the value of multifunctional courtyards as key elements in the planning and design process. “The key to creating a good relationship between the landscape and the built form is getting the bare basics right,” he says. “There should be a gradual progression from hard to soft landscaping on any site by maximising the use of fixed structures, awnings or hanging roofs that provide all-important shading when first stepping outdoors.” 

Reactivating static spaces:
Quinton is proposing to replace obsolete traditional linear suburban housing designs with a revolutionary zigzag plan type he’s dubbed “the Orchard House Solution”. He says an efficient zigzag plan complements zero lot line/townhouse development with shared courtyards and side gardens — while allowing for more compact houses. 

As well as reactivating static narrow sides and courtyards as active spaces, Quinton’s Orchard House solution also includes parking a second car behind the first, multipurpose street frontages with more green space, side courts with diagonal access to gardens, cross-ventilation and good solar access all year round — plus strong connectivity between active courtyards and an entire house. 

“The Orchard House solution embraces self-sufficiency through water reticulation, orchards and vegetable gardens,” says Quinton. “Carefully placed openings, cross-ventilation, side courtyards, and the broader urban model of market garden-type communities also complement more flexible lifestyles.” 

Complementing the built form:
Based on his 20 years experience as a landscape designer, William Dangar of Dangar Group says pragmatic and practical principles responsible for delivering good landscape outcomes are often overlooked when designers get carried away trying to “over-design”. “Designers need to continually refer to the clients’ brief and budget to achieve a responsible solution that works and is affordable,” says Dangar. 

Aesthetics and functionality aside, he says homeowners who create stark inconsistencies between the quality of their home’s interior and its surrounding landscape unwittingly compromise their resale value. Ideally, Dangar says the architectural component of the house itself is the most meaningful insight into what the landscape should look like. He says while a cottage garden ideally complements a Federation home on a tiny inner-city site, it would be inappropriate on a larger suburban block where there’s sufficient space for buffer zones on each side. “Even though landscape is the last thing to be completed, it still needs defining along with the conceptual footprint for the built form,” says Dangar. “Only once this is done will a landscape architect be able to successfully satisfy the client’s brief.”

Textured tropical zones:
Critical to Dangar satisfying a client’s landscape brief on the Popov Bass-designed home renovation at Chinaman’s Beach was the creation of child-friendly gardens around a resort theme. The landscape has been re-established as a series of textured private grounds using carefully selected tropical flower cover within key zones, supported by 36,000 litres of water storage. 

Centred on a 3000sqm expanse of lawn, the u-shaped house has a decidedly “mid-century” Hollywood Hills feel. But Dangar says a striking solitary palm to the back courtyard is in keeping with the overall look of the property.

As with most landscape briefs, Dangar says the key to successfully fulfilling the client’s brief at Chinaman’s Beach was keeping it simple. “One of the first principles of landscape design is correct shading, and by putting a large frangipani by the pool, we provided cover in the summer while allowing light to come through in the winter,” says Dangar. “By increasing the paving around the pool we added to the amenity by creating extra room for the kids to play. You know you’ve created the right outcome when there’s strong integration between house and landscape.”

Design challenges:
Given some of the design dilemmas that small, narrow and sloping sites throw up, Caroline Pidcock of Sydney-based Caroline Pidcock Architects says the real challenge for today’s designers is cleverly linking the house and courtyards with the open spaces both in-between and beyond. “The challenges at the luxury end of the market are higher. That’s because the often challenging landscape also needs to reflect the quality created inside the house,” says Pidcock.

She says the drive towards greater urban density only makes the need for clever and intelligent home design — encompassing both the inside and outside — much more critical. To deliver the best landscape outcomes, Pidcock says it’s critical that architects spend time understanding the site, and identify where inherent problems and opportunities lie.

Wherever there’s challenging topography, she says courtyards, roof terraces and other outdoor spaces need to work doubly hard to deliver on aesthetic and functional elements, including access, greenery, ventilation, solar/thermal qualities, wind protection — plus integration with the streetscape. 

“In addition to helping rediscover the value of courtyards, these challenges have spurred new ways of connecting the indoors with outside spaces, and how all this engages with the neighbouring streetscape,” says Pidcock. “There’s growing interest in building to the boundary to maximise gardens, while eliminating wasted side passages.” 

Tiny Darlinghurst:
As a case in point, Pidcock cites the recent restoration work needed to transform a tiny derelict 19th century two-storey terrace house in Darlinghurst in Sydney’s inner east into a contemporary 21st-century home. She says by incorporating a courtyard there’s a heightened sense of spaciousness which belies the 40sqm site. “A new kitchen dining area was added to the rear of the living room, opening up to the remaining space that formed a compact courtyard,” says Pidcock. “The result is a compact, but relatively spacious home that offers great accommodation in a lively inner-city location.” 

Gifford Stutchbury house:
Similarly, over in Ryde to Sydney’s north, Pidcock shows how a difficult long site — which falls from the back in the north-west to the street in the south-east, while dropping several metres over the area — could positively influence the entire design. This is reflected in the lively and interesting built form that steps down the site around specifically designed courtyards. 

Pidcock’s brief for this suburban block was to design a sustainable home that would provide a wonderful place for the owner’s family to live in. As well as offering low maintenance, materials were also selected for their simplicity, natural beauty and minimal environmental impact.

Given the close proximity of medium-density neighbours, it was important that both house design and external spaces could access the sun and prevailing breezes, while maximising privacy. “The house is designed to step around a variety of courtyards, which provide private external living areas, beautiful views and/or cool air supply for the house,” says Pidcock.

The garden has been designed with native plants, a “river bed” to accommodate stormwater overflow, plus 18,000 litres of tank water located under the house that also services toilets, washing machine and landscaping. “The angular roof line, with its gallery windows, captures views to the Jacaranda tree’s canopy, yet the lower sections of the walls block the views to the medium-density development of single-storey rooftops,” says Pidcock.

Merging public/private spaces:
Interestingly, in an attempt to sustain outdoor areas, local councils typically mandate for between 40 to 60 percent of a total site to remain in landscape. However, within highly dense urban areas, especially in our capital cities, there’s a push by some councils to replace front masonry fences with natural hedging. According to Kiril Manolev of Manolev Associates, it’s all part of a drive to improve the quality of the public domain by removing the demarcation between front yard and streetscape. 

By encouraging deep soil planting between the boundary and the building line, many inner-city councils now want to merge the boundaries between public and private spaces. The net effect of leaving the house front open, adds Manolev, should be better integration for the overall community. 

In some cases, residential downpipes are feeding directly into surrounding gardens to help engage the landscape with the neighbourhood. “Ideally it’s the vegetation that should define the boundary between two properties,” says Manolev, who designs luxury homes on Sydney’s waterfront where sloping sites make connectivity to the outside landscape even more problematic. “Assuming the house is designed to stop the intruder, security should be less about the front yard.” 

Connecting with streetscape
Serving to illustrate examples of houses addressing the public domain and the streetscape are the Manolev Associates-designed “twin” houses in Sydney’s Castlecrag. “We’ve managed to extend the visual boundaries of the public domain over their front yards to the houses themselves — without erecting over-sized street fences,” says Manolev. “In the case of the house on Edinburgh Rd, the exposed sandstone rock outcrop is retained and is complemented by different sandstone finishes to the house, fence and driveway.”

Interestingly, Manolev says properties where the rear yard butts natural reserves also creates its own unique set of challenges. He says the growing trend within scenic areas — like those on Sydney’s lower North Shore — is for rear yards to complement the natural topography that lies beyond. “Council’s may require a rear yard to connect with the public domain by stipulating a wider set-back — with 1.5 metres cleared to the side boundary,” advises Manolev.

Contemporising the landscape: 
Lend Lease’s acquisition of the Sunshine Coast’s Hyatt Coolum resort landmark in 2004 triggered a major landscape rethink. Having been designed primarily as a high-density, pedestrian-oriented resort with detached dwellings, the challenge was to incorporate roads and cars without these dominating the vegetation types and surrounding rainforest, explains design manager Gary Searle. 

Given that the grounds needed to accommodate walking, cycling and vehicular access, Searle says the landscape needed to be contemporised. That meant balancing the right connectivity between natural fauna with an expanding variety of permanent and temporary living options. 

Ensuring the grounds interact seamlessly within a high-density environment, adds Searle, meant creating a heightened sense of emotional attachment among all occupants. “The blurring between common areas and private spaces helps to create a greater sense of ownership,” says Searle. “Ultimately the landscape is a ‘tying element’ where dwellings enjoy filtered views to both Mt Coolum and various levels of species types.” 

Maximising the topography:
Completed in October 2009, the 500sqm site for a Manolev Associates-designed house at Amaroo Crescent in Sydney’s Mosman abuts the reserve off Balmoral Beach to the north. Adding to the design challenge was single access via a separate driveway, with a cross-fall in a north-south direction of between 8.5 metres along the eastern boundary and 11.5 metres along its western boundary. 

Further complicating matters, a 50-year-old frangipani tree, located close to the top southern boundary, had to be retained. Due to the excessive slope of the site and the driveway access terminating at the rock face at the bottom, the house had to be designed to follow the topography of the site. As a result, it has a total of four levels that are serviced by a lift and internal access stair — with the top floor level being at ground level as seen at the rear of the property. 

Despite the extreme topography of the site, Manolev says each house level has access to external gardens and decks. A total of four external decks and two garden areas are provided for the occupants, plus the pool deck and the pool itself. 

The pool has been located on the eastern side of the site, where the site slope is less pronounced and sits perpendicular to the site width. The pool deck sits below the frangipani tree, allowing for the tree to tower over the pool and be seen from the bottom of the site and from the floating entertaining decks on the third level of the house. 

This arrangement allows for unobstructed reserve and filtered water views from the rear of the site, the pool and its deck. With the exception of the driveway width, Manolev says the rest of the site directly abuts the reserve. “The roof of the garage contains a 600mm-deep planter which is intended to continue the reserve up the site and bring it up to the house structure — while the subject planter is connected with the natural ground along the side boundary,” says Manolev. 

Courting courtyards:
According to Trevor Reitsma of Reitsma+Associates, designers won’t know where to place all-important courtyards if they haven’t taken the time to understand the topography, where light falls, wind patterns and impact of existing vegetation and neighbouring properties. 

Unbeknown to most homeowners, Reitsma says insufficient courtyards can create one the most significant problems by limiting energy-efficiency and the overall “liveability” within contemporary homes. “The embracing of the courtyard concept in Australia remains under-developed,” says Reitsma. “But when correctly incorporated within good home design, it accentuates the living style by maximising the ability to entertain, dine and relax in the sun out of pesky breezes.

As well as providing all-important connectivity between a house and landscape, cleverly constructed and located courtyards maximise the comfort-factor of both internal and external spaces, says Reitsma. What they also provide, he adds, is a lighter, brighter and better ventilated home interior, fewer dark areas, while increasing the capacity of the floor to provide winter heating into key living spaces when the sun goes down. “It also offers increased privacy, while cooling breezes complement airflow in summer months,” says Reitsma. “Remember, the most important courtyard is the one attached to the kitchen and family living areas.”

In Reitsma’s opinion, nothing exemplifies good courtyard design better than the O House, a canal-front dwelling he recently designed at Mooloolaba on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. He says the primary challenge was to create a comfortable outdoor space usable all year round, without ignoring waterfront views on the south-facing block.

He managed to overcome this hurdle and optimise all available space via a central court feature which incorporates pool, breakfast patio, sundeck and extensive glazing to the canal front. “The low-set layout is cleverly zoned into main living area, bedroom strip and entry via the interconnecting court,” says Reitsma. “This court can extend to the canal front, covered outdoor living and family areas via large multi-track sliding doors.”

Romancing the Terra Firma 3