Green Acres

Originally published in 
Design pared to the bone is a high-risk strategy, but as this Australian home illustrates, it can also produce a sublime environmental connection.
Project 
Kropach-Catlow Residence
Architect 

The Kropach/Catlow residence at Myocum, 100 miles south of Brisbane, Australia, is set in the hinterland near the surfing mecca of Byron Bay. Here, a subtropical climate, pristine beaches, and fertile farmland are home to the diverse industries of surfing, fishing, beef cattle, and farming.

The making of this striking sustainable house brought together an equine specialist, a flight engineer, and a sure-footed architect. Clients Louise Kropach and Ross Catlow were well prepared to take up residence in a lightweight metal structure, having already inhabited a farm shed they had erected onsite. For their permanent home, project architect James Grose produced a carefully sited, lightweight assembly of steel and glass. It rises from a disarmingly simple diagram and plan, and is characterized by vernacular language notable for its bolt-together steel frame and softly burnished cladding. Its stretched veranda form, with its extruded, repeated elements, is a model of economical design.

Kropach and Catlow found their property a year after moving to Byron, and then spent the next two years planning. “We considered a cheaper but larger home from a cookie-cutter building company,” explains Kropach. “But this would have meant huge earth excavations and been a blight on the hillside. We didn’t want to upset the land any more than necessary, so this convinced us that we needed an architect.”

It took them a year to find one. “We wanted someone who wasn’t caught up in their own self-importance, who loved simple lines and could provide a solution that wouldn’t quickly date,” says Kropach. “We were referred by a friend who lived in a house designed by James. When we met James, he was so excited by our property and our thoughts about the type of house we wanted. We knew immediately we had found ‘the one.’ ”

The couple had moved to the Byron Bay area in 2000, when Kropach was facing serious health issues. “Ross and I thought a break from Sydney would do me good. Well, it certainly did. We just fell in love with the place and knew it was where we wanted to be. During that holiday we took a lease on a house for a year and returned to Sydney . . . to pack up! Since moving here, my health has improved enormously.”

In Byron Bay, Kropach saw an opportunity to return to the world of horses, her childhood passion. She can now use her home as a base for her horse-training business. “With time on my hands I immediately found a great group of ‘horsey’ people here who introduced me to a study program for equine behavior called Parelli Natural Horsemanship. It has been my focus and interest ever since. Ross went along with it all, just happy I was doing something I loved.”

For Catlow, a commercial flight engineer, the house provides another good reason to look forward to his return home from extensive international travel. With its winglike blade roof and screens, the home is a low-tech version of the high-tech craft he helps fly. “I’m interested in design that is focused on maximum efficiency,” he explains. “The house is quite unfussed. It exhibits a great economy of materials and assembly, but has a simplicity that takes a great deal of effort to achieve.”

As for their architect, he sees the house, and residential design in general, as a vital opportunity to design in an environmentally responsible way. “This house demonstrates that you can interact with, rather than impose yourself on, the natural landscape,” says Grose.

Sited on an east-west axis to take in views of Mt. Warning, the home has an elevated ground floor incorporating two bedrooms with views to the north. A deck on the western end provides highly functional additional floor space despite low overall square footage. Adjustable broad-bladed louvers provide the fine level of breezeway comfort control. Sliding walls and windows further blur the inside-outside experience while glass louvers are used to generate effective cross ventilation. An extended, raking roof line to the north shields summer sun yet captures winter light.

Standard housing developments tend to cause no small amount of environmental problems—not least upsetting the natural ground absorption and drainage patterns with consequent effects on water supply and quality. In contrast, the Kropach/Catlow house reflects strong sustainable-design principles, a factor that appealed greatly to its owners. The construction mate-rials and assembly used are highly reusable, and offer an effective environmental solution. “When the time eventually comes, it can be unscrewed, unbolted, put on a truck, and used again with very little environmental impact,” says Grose, though he predicts the house has a long future on the site.

Kropach’s assessment bears this out: “Living here is a natural observatory,” she says. “Lying in bed beneath the moon and stars is magical. It connects us to gorgeous views and gives us a real sense of belonging. After all our years of traveling around the world, we finally have our piece of paradise that we can call home.”

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