A Concrete House Is Softened by an Airy Internal Courtyard, Complete With an Olive Grove

For an architect’s new build in Melbourne, eco-conscious design techniques help create a minimal-but-warm home.

When architect Sarah Henry, cofounder of Australian design firm studiofour, decided to build a house for her young family, she brought clear goals to her team: she wanted the home to be private, family-oriented, unpretentious, health-focused, and sustainable.   

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With expertise in architecture, interiors, landscape, art, and fashion design, the studiofour staff conceived a holistic plan for the home, and then took inspiration from a variety of sources. The first was the surrounding neighborhood, Beaumaris, which prides itself on its classic, midcentury modern homes. Embracing the style, studiofour began the project with simple architectural lines and the primacy of an integrated landscape. 

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Next, the team allowed the natural slope of the land to lead. They cut into the front half of the lot, so that from the exterior, the home has a bunker-like appearance, heavy and low, all concrete and gray-washed surfaces. Narrow front steps lead down to the door, half-hidden in shadow, creating a sense of secrecy and privacy, and once inside, of safety and belonging.

 "Turning our back away from the immediate surrounds enabled us to focus on creating a haven and sanctuary for our family," says Sarah. 

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Inside, the team turned the slope into a single step that runs across the middle of the house. The step merely suggests division between the living room and the sitting room, as well as between the kitchen and the dining room, so that all spaces remain fluid and open.

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The home’s secret—and its heart—is revealed just inside the front door: an airy central garden, easily accessible from every room. The garden is protected by a thick concrete fascia, high enough to block out neighboring homes while allowing for views of the surrounding cedar trees.

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The courtyard makes the open concept of the home a success, providing an easy togetherness among all the living areas, while also serving as a gentle filter of trees and light and shadow between spaces.  Sarah calls the courtyard a "true success":  "Our family uses this space not only for light and fresh air, but as an additional room for our daily activities."

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Another inspiration: Concrete. Using concrete for the basic structure inspired the team to continue this theme inside, with exposed concrete brick walls, floors, and benchtops. The resulting restrained palette, says Sarah, creates a soothing backdrop.

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In the bathrooms, the walls are tadelakt, a waterproof Moroccan plaster with a polished concrete look.   

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Sarah’s existing coffee table, a solid block of Oregon wood, provided another pivot point. 

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 The team liked the warm vibrancy it brought to the living room and repeated the wood in the dining room and kitchen with the long, combined-use table and the Hans Wegner Elbow chairs.  The wood, according to Sarah, helps "provide extra warmth and a textural contrast to the grey concrete floors and rough concrete brick walls throughout." 

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 Other furniture, like the plush navy sofa and the beds, echo the coffee table in form rather than material.  Like the table, they sit low to the floor, adding to the openness of the room by leaving plenty of blank space above them.

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The final pieces, the butterfly chairs in the living room and in the garden, with their simple, dark wire frames, offer a thin-lined, almost weightless, contrast.  This contrast is repeated in the delicate branches of the olive trees in the garden, and the airy gauze of the white drapes.    

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To address Sarah's interest in personal and environmental health, the house is designed with passive design principles. Careful wiring minimizes electromagnetic fields, while a comprehensive water filtration system provides filtered water for drinking, bathing, and washing clothes. Finally, by using natural materials and maximizing light and ventilation, the team ensured the home would have near-zero VOC emissions.

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For Sarah and her family, the home is a perfect and unobtrusive backdrop for time spent together. "Simplicity," she says, "enables idleness, and the time we spend idle makes for a healthier state of mind." 

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Related Reading: This Playful Melbourne Home Embraces Its Split Personality 

Project Credits:

Architect of Record: Annabelle Berryman, Studiofour / @studiofour.net.au

Builder:  Uwood Builders / www.uwood.com.au

Structural Engineer:  webb consult / www.webconsult.com.au

Landscape Design: Studiofour / @studiofour.net.au

Lighting Design: Studiofour / @studiofour.net.au

Interior Design:   Studiofour / @studiofour.net.au

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