Queensland architect Elizabeth Watson Brown reflects on her first residential commission of twenty years ago.
In the summer of 1990, I returned to Queensland after practising in Tasmania, where buildings generally defend and protect against the extremes of the “outside.” Inspired by the bright light and deep shade of the subtropics, the intense colours, the heat, the lush vegetation and the scents of the flowering trees, I wanted to develop an architecture that occupies the “space between,” the comfortable interstices between inside and out, shade and light, coolness and heat.
The first commission for my new practice in Queensland was a holiday house on the Sunshine Coast for my sister and brother-in-law and their young children. In response to the brief for a modest family beach house, the Ngungun House was created with minimal means, continuing a long historical lineage in Queensland of modesty and frugal materiality, of spatial and tectonic minimalism.
The character and aesthetic of the house emerged from the qualities, dimensions and rational arrangement of materials, set out on a constructional grid based on the sheet sizes of the unfinished external fibre cement and the internal hoop pine plywood linings. While minimizing material wastage, this arrangement also set up a simple pattern and rhythm, with no extraneous decoration.
In personality and form, the house was designed to reference the local context of mid-twentieth-century beach shack architecture. The plan is a simple, one-room-deep living pavilion, angled on the site for a northern aspect and to capture ocean views and breezes. Utility spaces occupy a lean-to structure to the south. Private bunkrooms step up to the east, culminating in the main bedroom, which has an outlook through the trees to the sea.
An important aspect of the Ngungun House, which has become a significant theme in my subsequent work, is the adjustable nature of the enclosure. It allows the family to naturally “tune” their environment for different permutations of climate and varying levels of privacy and security. I wanted the Ngungun House to be as flexible and accommodating as possible – a living, breathing, responsive building, allowing climatic and social flexibility and different modes of occupation.
On the northern face of the house, a double layer of sliding walls – louvred timber screens outside and glass inside – slides away completely for uninterrupted access to breezes and occupation of the garden. In different configurations, this adjustable edge offers varying levels of ventilation, light, privacy and spatial definition. In winter, the glass is closed and the louvred panels retracted to let in the low-angled, warming winter sun. On summer days, both layers are retracted and the northern sunshades protect the house to maximize cool shade and summer breezes. On summer nights the glass is retracted and the louvred shutters closed and locked, admitting cooling evening breezes while keeping the house private and secure.
Although the house is now twenty years old and the children have grown, family and friends, including me, still return to this place of shared summer memories and fun.
This project was first published in Houses 88 as part of the First House series where architects revisit their first built commission.