A Black-Gabled Bush Retreat Celebrates the Humble Australian Shed

A Black-Gabled Bush Retreat Celebrates the Humble Australian Shed

By Mandi Keighran
Australian architect Roger Nelson spent almost a decade designing a home for his family in Lorne before teaming up with DREAMER to reimagine his vision as a rural retreat.

When Australian architect Roger Nelson and his wife, Jane, decided to build a home in the bush to escape their busy life in the city of Melbourne, they initially planned to build a permanent home. They began work on the design, but by the time they secured a planning permit eight years later, their needs and wants had shifted.

"We made the decision to keep going, rather than lose the permit," says Roger. "But, we now wanted to build a retreat instead of a permanent residence. We wanted to keep it simple, use natural products, and for it to be fluid, private, and beautiful."

The home was designed as a retreat for architect Roger Nelson and his wife Jane, a teacher of yoga. "We were very involved in the process, as once the ‘building documentation’ was complete we administered the project," says Roger. "It’s a space for us to unwind and relax alone or with family and friends." Ironbark timber was selected for the exterior cladding due to its high BAL (Bushfire Attack Level) rating. 

They also realized that Roger didn’t have the time or the right scale of work at NH Architecture—which specializes in complex public and mixed-use projects—to realize the reimagined project. So, they decided to work with Ben Shields, founder of architecture studio DREAMER, to reimagine the project as a holiday retreat. "We were looking for a young architect who would bring a new interpretation to our thoughts and would work together with us and take the work we had done into reality," says Roger.

The site is just west of the coastal town of Lorne, a two-hour drive from Melbourne. "When we first visited, what we saw excited us," says Roger. "There was space, privacy, views, and a town—plus 25 acres of bush full of wildlife. Koalas greeted us and kangaroos hopped past—we were sold."

"We wanted to make a feature of the large gable roofs," says architect Ben Shields. "A family home in Nagasaki by Matsuyama Architect and Associates was inspirational in that regard—it has a completely featureless gable roof that is the key design feature externally." 

The new brief was developed around a desire for retreat and escape, as well as a functional need for clearly developed zones and the ability for the home to work equally well for two or seven people. "Jane and Roger were very keen to have a great connection to the outdoors and wanted to be able to walk out onto grassed glades from most parts of the house," says Shields.

The verandas provide a threshold between the internal and external spaces. "They soften the abrupt change and mediate the relationship between inside and out," says architect Ben Shields. 

When developing the form, the design team looked to hyper-local Australian vernacular architecture, including cottages, sheds, and rural buildings on the stretch of highway between Geelong and Anglesea. "We love the idea of the familiar, and using the familiar to engage people in the new," says Shields. "For us, the veranda and gable roof were these familiar elements that we felt would not only meet the functional and spatial requirements, but also allow for a level of nostalgic engagement with a building that is contemporary."

The glazed entry is on the southern side of the building, and it’s accessed via a loose court. From this position, you can see the distinction between the two sheds. The home is accessed via a small timber walkway that leads to a brass door.

"We wanted the entry to give a sense of the house without giving too much away—and to draw the eye to the glazed entry gallery and the beach and hills beyond," says architect Ben Shields. "We also wanted to start to materially tell the story of the house."

The home is essentially two sheds—a private sleeping wing to the east and a more public living wing to the west—connected by a glazed entry gallery with a brass door. The sleeping wing has three bedrooms and can be closed off with a series of seamless pivot doors and sliders. "If it is just Jane and Roger at home, it will still feel like a compact house," says Shields.

Timber has been used for both internal and external cladding, joinery, furniture, and door handles throughout the home. The entry nook features built-in display storage with brass detailing, which is echoed in the kitchen counter.

The three bedrooms in the private sleeping wing are sound controlled to offer additional privacy. As in the living wing, the walls are entirely clad in timber.

The "living shed" is a larger, more open space with a central joinery unit that divides the space into kitchen/dining and living areas. "It was a conscious decision to separate the living and meal spaces," says Shields. "It is something that both the clients and we ourselves believe can work really well, as it adds a level of diversity and means that more people can occupy the different areas and still retain a level of privacy."

A bespoke joinery unit separates the living and kitchen/dining areas, creating two distinct spaces that offer increased privacy when a number of people are using the home. 

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The kitchen is located in a bespoke timber joinery unit that divides the "living shed." The timber has been stained black to contrast with the surrounding timber cladding, and brass counters and backsplashes echo the use of brass details throughout the interior. "Brass was a very special material—used sparingly—that has come to be a hallmark of the project," says architect Ben Shields. 

The entire home has been built using a simple and refined material palette of timber, concrete, and brass. "Reducing the number of materials helped to avoid visual clutter and deliver on the key requirement from the clients that the building feel like a retreat," says Shields.

At the far end of the "living shed" is a fireplace and concrete bench, which offers a contemplative space for reading and watching the bushland through the windows. 

The client desired a home with no use of plasterboard or paint. As a result, the interior walls are clad in timber. "This ties in very strongly with the idea of the retreat," says Shields. "It creates a space that feels more like a cabin, different from the home environment."

One of the main challenges in the design was bushfire management—this is what made obtaining a planning permit a tricky and lengthy process. As a result, there were a number of restrictions on the design of the building, from the choice of timber used externally to the type of glass and the type of vegetation in close proximity to the home. "Above and beyond the standards, we implemented a gutterless roof design to reduce fire danger through ember attack, and the siting of the house was key in ensuring adequate defendable space," reveals Shields.

The bedrooms and bathrooms were given priority in terms of the views, and the bathrooms were pushed toward the center of the plan, making windows difficult. The design team explored a different approach to natural light through the use of skylights. "We do this a lot now, remove windows from bathrooms," says Shields. "We believe it gives the space a different feeling—one that is softer and more intimate."

The bathroom vanity’s concrete counter echoes the use of concrete in the living space. "We tend to try to use as few materials as possible when we design at DREAMER," says Shields. "The calmness that comes with a pared-back approach is something we value in spaces." 

"The interiors of the Zinc Mine Museum in Norway by Peter Zumthor were a big influence on the feel of the bathrooms," reveals Shields. The render finish on the walls in the bathroom is Giorgio Graesan Venetian Marble. 

"Having an architect as a client is not without its challenges, but the design conversations and explorations you can have with clients that are already very experienced with building are on a different level," says Shields. "With this project, I genuinely love the external resolution—the way the roofs work and verandas work and how the charred timber comes together with the brass and galvanized roof sheet."

Over the coming decades, the owners plan to rejuvenate the surrounding land, which features beautiful blue gum trees and scented gum trees, but is badly affected by invasive species. "The bush has been let go and is infested with weeds," says the client Roger Nelson. "We need to reduce the fuel load and allow the wildflowers and native grasses to come through."

Although the project was a decade in the making, the couple believes it was worth the wait. "After ten years, it was hard to believe that it was finally done," says Roger. "The end result being so much more than we could have dreamt, and we have so much gratitude for the handcrafted nature of the space and the craftsmen who brought it together. It is a work of art, and we get to live in it."

Ground floor plan of Two Sheds by DREAMER with Roger Nelson.

Section through the bedroom of Two Sheds by DREAMER with Roger Nelson.

Section through the kitchen of Two Sheds by DREAMER with Roger Nelson.

Related Reading:

A Black-Gabled Farmhouse Harvests its Own Electricity, Heat, and Water 

A Fire-Resistant House Cuts a Striking Figure in the Australian Bush 

Project Credits:

Architect of Record: Roger Nelson with DREAMER / @dreamer.lab

Builder: GD Construction

Structural Engineer: 4D Workshop

Civil Engineer: Tomkinson Group

Landscape Design: Eckersley Garden Architecture

Lighting Design: Inlite

Interior Design: DREAMER

Cabinetry Design: Mawson Joinery

Photographer: Rory Gardiner

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