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."
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.
"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."
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."
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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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 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 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 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.
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.
"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."