An Inky Black Melbourne Home Draws Its Hue From the Ironbark Eucalyptus

An Inky Black Melbourne Home Draws Its Hue From the Ironbark Eucalyptus

By Mandi Keighran
Kirsten Johnstone Architecture creates a sustainable home that blends into the landscape with a palette of rammed earth, concrete, and timber.

When a couple with a teenage daughter approached architect Kirsten Johnstone to design a new house in Melbourne, they asked for an environmentally friendly home that would provide a space for all stages of family life.

"This was their first experience working with an architect, and they were fully engaged with the process," says Johnstone. "They wanted a home that would encourage similar forward-thinking design nearby—and they are thrilled when neighbors comment on the home and how it responds to the area."

"I love the idea of hidden gems and an element of surprise," says architect Kirsten Johnstone. "In this project, the application of a consistent material across the front facade provides ambiguity; the front door is clad in the same timber as the walls and doesn’t have a door handle. It is a quirky element that lends the opening of the door a sense of drama." 

It was essential that the home respond sensitively to the site, which is L-shaped and located in a Significant Landscape Overlay in Blackburn, a unique suburban pocket of Melbourne. The surrounding area has strict tree protections and planning controls, which significantly impacted the home’s allowable footprint.

"We designed deep reveals, wide niches, and restrained forms to reduce the built scale of the new home," says architect Kirsten Johnstone. "The large panes of glass reflect the surrounding trees like a bush billabong."

"The restrictive planning overlays limited the height of this new home, so I used design techniques to create a light, airy home—linear wall cladding, a stepped-down floor plate to the front lounge, the stepped ceiling between the dining and rear living areas, and different materials," says Johnstone. "This completely disguises the reality that this is a very modestly sized home by suburban standards."

The home aims to reduce long-term operating costs through the use of solar power and energy-efficient appliances, resulting in lower energy bills. Carefully considered niches and deep reveals throughout allow the sun to reach the concrete ground floor slab in winter—and help moderate heat in the summer.

Properties in Blackburn are highly sought after, and local residents are strongly motivated to lodge objections to any planning application that is seen as inappropriate or insensitive. "The area feels like a secret pocket in the regular suburban offerings," says Johnstone. "It is heavily forested with native and exotic trees, and there’s a very active environmental group of local residents."

The timber batten ceiling in the living and dining area extends out over the timber deck and seamlessly folds up into the balustrade of the second-floor balcony. "I tried to use windows as transition elements between materials, such as the bifold glazing from the dining area to the outside that separates the different wall materials abutting it, but with the ceiling finish extending beyond," says architect Kirsten Johnstone. "There’s an element of playfulness with the details."

In response to the site, Johnstone designed the home to celebrate raw, tactile natural materials. She used timber both externally and internally to unify the built form, and concrete floors span the ground level. A rammed earth wall shields the northwest corner of the open-plan living area from the western sun.

Rammed earth forms a series of deep blade walls around full-height openable windows to the north. These walls also partially conceal the view of the neighboring fence.

Sustainably sourced local timber is used throughout the home for its beauty and environmental credibility—and Johnstone experimented with different profiles, timber species, and finishes to imbue the residence with texture and character. At the front of the home, for example, two different profiles of the same timber create a subtle contrast in finish.

A built-in box seat on the timber deck adjoining the dining area offers an outdoor space for an enjoyable moment in the sun. This area is shaded by deep eaves formed by the extension of the timber batten ceiling outside.

"The articulated raw materials provide a tangible connection to the landscape, with the dark cladding tones reminiscent of local ironbark eucalyptus trees," says Johnstone. "I had concerns initially with using different timbers in different applications, but I am very thankful we did! It provides a beautiful warmth to the design that wouldn’t have been the same if we kept to the one color or species. It also softens the potentially harder edge to the concrete floors, rammed earth walls, and external bluestone paving."

"There is something inherently playful about sitting on a deep window ledge with a book," says architect Kirsten Johnstone. "Throughout the home, the juxtaposition of public versus private spaces and exposure versus protection is explored in different ways. In the lounge retreat, the large corner window abuts the hidden front entry door, and the stepped-down room means this bench seat is at the same level as the front entry decking. The external wall cladding wraps into the room, blurring the line between the inside and the outside and creating a delightful nook that is almost in the garden. It also provides an opportunity for engagement with neighbors and passers-by—a connection, a wave, a glimpse." 

The entry—which is cleverly disguised within the timber facade—leads to a hallway, with a lounge space to the left. This room is accessed via two long concrete steps, and it features an oversized corner window with views to the street. Here, the external cladding wraps inside to form a wide bench seat and wall cladding.

The lounge is accessed via two long concrete steps. On the stair opposite, the continuous vertical balustrade timbers extend to the ceiling of the second floor to form a sculptural element that allows natural light and ventilation to flow between the levels.

A timber platform forms the first step of the open timber staircase in the entry hallway, which leads into the dining and living space.

Opposite this retreat is an open stair that leads to the second floor, with an internal door to the garage and a hidden coat cupboard concealed beneath the stairs. The entry hallway leads to a concealed sliding glass pocket door, which closes off the dining area from the entrance to assist with acoustic and thermal separation.

The open dining area sits between the living room and the kitchen, and it can be closed off to the entry hallway via a sliding door.

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The walk-through dining area is defined with a timber batten ceiling that extends outside to the deep eaves and folds up to form a balustrade to the balcony above. Bifold, black-framed glass doors between the dining room and the deck open up to allow the family to enjoy indoor/outdoor living in warmer months.

The entire ground floor has a burnished concrete floor slab with in-slab hydronic heating. This lends a subtle and warm tone to the floor and pairs beautifully with the timber elements throughout the home.

The walls behind the fireplace are 400-millimeter-thick rammed earth, and they were formed on site by a specialist contractor. The material not only provides thermal mass to protect the interior from the heavy heat load experienced in summer, but also heats up when the fireplace is in use in winter months to provide gentle heat release to the main living area.

The main living area, which adjoins the kitchen, features rammed earth walls that wrap around the northwest corner, and a built-in bench houses a high-performance wood stove.

The material palette is subtle, with a few feature elements. In the kitchen, for example, white cabinetry matches the wall finish for a seamless appearance, while the marble countertop is a nod to the owners’ Italian heritage and provides a natural focal point for entertaining. 

The backsplash in the kitchen is a frameless sliding window that offers natural cross ventilation. It currently frames the ti-tree fencing, but as the landscaping grows greenery will be visible. 

The more private spaces—the bedrooms and bathrooms—are located on the second floor. The principal suite, which has an ensuite and a walk-in-wardrobe, is located on the north side of the plan, while two smaller bedrooms separated by a shared bathroom are located to the south.

The principal bedroom has a generous picture window facing east, and a timber bench with drawers below. A north-facing window provides natural ventilation across the bed and protected views over the trees. 

The walk-in-wardrobe features custom-designed joinery with recessed handles, and a tall window framing the trees. 

Vertical windows flood the ensuite bathroom with natural light. 

"I love to use different window shapes to frame views in different and unexpected ways to create interest and provide a unique experience to a particular space," says architect Kirsten Johnstone. "For example, the corner window in the upstairs bedroom, with a deep boxed reveal above the study bench, is completely different from the principal bedroom with a huge picture window—yet both frame quiet views of the treetops. I believe it gives a room identity and forms what I hope are joyful memories."

The backyard and the entertaining area—which features bluestone paving and native plants—is accessed through glass sliders in the kitchen. A small above-ground pool eliminates the need for a traditional pool fence, which the clients didn’t want.

"I designed the pool as a form related to the house, but almost stepping down in scale," says architect Kirsten Johnstone. "Australia’s strict regulations around pools create challenges to achieve compliance. Here, we have used some timber battens and continuous bluestone paving to connect the pool to the entertaining area." The garden is planted with drought-tolerant indigenous plants to support local wildlife.

Sustainability was a key part of the brief, and it was essential to create a home that responded to local climatic conditions. This goal was achieved through the use of many windows, which not only provide generous daylighting but can also be opened and adjusted to provide cross ventilation. Additionally, floor-to-ceiling windows blur the line between the interior and exterior space.

The home’s window coverings are housed in recessed window pelmets, while deep blade walls and reveals disguise window frames and transition points. 

"From a design perspective, this house has an extremely tight resolution with very little waste, redundant space, or space lost in transition areas, like hallways," says Johnstone. "I love that we have managed to make every part of this home work hard while providing an incredibly comfortable and practical residence that belies its footprint."

Ground floor plan of Laurel Grove by Kirsten Johnstone Architecture. "The home has a tightly resolved and carefully curated floor plan that responded to all the elements of the brief for this family of three," says Johnstone.

Upper-level floor plan of Laurel Grove by Kirsten Johnstone Architecture

Section of Laurel Grove by Kirsten Johnstone Architecture

Related Reading:

A Couple Downsize to a Matte Black Tiny House and Discover an Idyllic Lifestyle

15 Modern Homes with Black Exteriors

Project Credits:

Architect of Record: Kirsten Johnstone Architecture / @kj.architecture 

Builder: CBD Contracting

Structural Engineer: Maurice Farrugia + Associates Pty Ltd

Civil Engineer: Maurice Farrugia + Associates Pty Ltd

Landscape Design Company: An Sun Pty Ltd

Interior Design: Kirsten Johnstone Architecture

Photographer: Tatjana Plitt

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