In this article, published in Architecture Australia’s Jan/Feb 2016 edition examining the trajectory of Australian housing, architect Brit Andresen reflects on Moreton Bay Houses, designed by her practice Andresen O'Gorman Architects and completed in 2001. This pair of single-occupancy houses in Queensland was designed with the potential for future use as four self-contained apartments and features generous shared courtyards.
The initial intention for the Moreton Bay Houses was to build four apartments and shared facilities within a common territory. The scheme was planned for single women who would offer one another support, particularly during retirement years. As planning progressed, circumstances led to an arrangement in which the four apartments would be built on two adjoining lots and owned by two women, who would each occupy the principal apartment on her lot and lease the smaller one. Zoning limitations that permitted only one independent dwelling to be constructed per site further modified the project. Local planning controls, introduced after the sites were purchased, also constrained rather than supported interaction between dwellings. Despite the zoning limitations, the planning controls and the various changes in brief, the project commenced in 2000 with a revised design and a reduced program.
The introduction of small-lot subdivision for single-occupancy houses in established suburbs brought with it new planning regulations principally intended to ensure contextual development and to safeguard amenity. Suburban allotments with twenty- or thirty-metre frontages are still fairly common in Brisbane and many streets between Wynnum and Manly were laid out with wide lots for the construction of timber “Queenslander” houses. The wide lot could accommodate the typical Queenslander’s generous single living platform raised over a battened undercroft, its steep roof with wide eave overhangs and its cluster of rooms opening onto a wide verandah screened by timber battens. The timber pavilion house on a wide lot offers “in the round” views, access, light and ventilation to the interior. To the street it offers a formal quality that in part derives from its scale, its proportions and a horizontality that visually extends the house into the garden.
Older Queenslander houses erected on lots with a narrow frontage often had only four or five habitable rooms arranged on one level with a total floor area under seventy square metres. These cottages had wide eave overhangs front and back, with minor side eaves and most importantly a small footprint relative to the lot size. The contemporary house on a narrow lot, regardless of household size, tends to be considerably larger than the older worker’s cottage, in terms of both room size and number. Today’s three-bedroom/two-bathroom homes result in floor areas more than twice the size of the nineteenth-century cottage. Consequently, new houses on narrow, small lots tend to fill the entire permissible building envelope. The resulting house form is a long, two-level structure that approximates the terrace house type in planning terms. Light, ventilation, garden access and outlook for the central rooms are usually compromised.
The combination of a narrow frontage, expectations of a large floor area and small-lot restrictions tends to prevent the regeneration of the essential Queenslander house. Attempts by local authorities to identify features or elements associated with the Queenslander house are well intentioned but fail to reach to the core generators of the house form or its dependence on construction methods. Working within these constraints, our proposition has been to strengthen the visual reading of the two narrower houses as one house and to establish something of the scale and proportions of the houses on larger lots. The other proposition has been to make the principal structure into a large planting frame or trellis, encouraging a vertical garden with the intention of contributing to both the street and the interior.
To maintain the idea of shared territory, a binding arrangement was made in which external common areas could be established across the sites. The common zone links the entry court, the central palm court and the garden on the north. The long site offers the opportunity to make a set of courtyards as a sequence from street side to bay side. This land-to-water axis establishes the common entry from the street through the timber screen, into the central court and to the lower garden, following views of the bay.
The street court, with its single access drive and open parking, is intended to enlarge the combined frontage and make a more generous entry to the site. The central court is conceived as the largest room in the house, providing a common area, a sheltered retreat in summer and a view from most rooms into the tropical trellis planting. The long pergola on the north is designed to underscore the horizon line and to conceal the private terrace beyond it, while the metre-wide setback zone along the outer boundaries is reserved for access, both to the house and to the northern garden. Side boundary walls alternate battens and blockwork for visual relief and privacy. Planted frames and screens are intended to establish relations with both the site and the suburban gardens of the neighbourhood. The planting screen along the street elevation also provides a degree of security, sun screening and privacy.
The two houses have been designed with the potential for use as four self-contained apartments, retaining for the future the option of housing a singles’ community. Initially each house will function as conventional single occupancy with guest facilities. The original program required that the two principal apartments be arranged on one level and be easily accessible from the car court. The principal apartments were each to comprise a bedroom, a bathroom, a small office/dressing room and a kitchen, dining and living area with a deck overlooking the bay. The smaller, upper-level apartments were each to comprise three rooms and a bathroom, with independent access and the possibility of adding kitchen facilities in the future. The house to the east has a roof deck in lieu of a third room.
In each house, the lower-level kitchen, living and deck area is located on the north, with views of the bay and the central court. The dining room and sitting room open directly onto the central court, increasing the entertainment area for independent or shared events. The living area is made as a “great room” to amplify the presence of the bay and to relieve the sense of tight containment on a narrow site. Tall windows and doors in the great room allow rooms further back on the site to benefit from the northern light and views of the bay.
The plan and the skeleton of the form are ordered by the post-and-beam structure that is set out on a simple one- and two-metre grid in the east–west direction, with five-to-seven-metre spans in the north– south direction. The ninety-by-eighty-millimetre composite posts are comprised of twinned hardwood posts on either side of a plywood panel. Along with the composite posts, 300-millimetre-deep timber beams create a structural frame that establishes a major scale and prominent order throughout the project. Secondary and tertiary scales are made by elements such as the timber trelliswork, screens and climbing frames. The primary structure carries the idea of a giant trellis that creates a habitable territory below and places for indoor and outdoor rooms.
The subtropics invite imaginings of living in a garden paradise and in a shelter made from “inwoven shade.” The architectural strategy in the Moreton Bay project has been to make a vertical garden from large garden trellis structures that can be variously occupied. This proposition allows the exploration of ideas related to transparency, metaphor and landscape alliances. The super-scaled planting frames and screens extend well beyond the weather enclosure to suppress the visual reading of the wall plane and to promote the skeletal structure. The planting frames are exposed on the interior and exterior to sustain their legibility as independent structures. Horizontal strip glazing under the beams has been introduced to further amplify this legibility.