Located in a bushfire zone, this house by architect Noxon Giffen is planned for the worst, employing a range of defensive strategies to protect it from fire. Far from being a bunker, though, the house balances defensiveness with a remarkable openness.
Sydney’s North Shore may be best known for its leafy outlook and the suburban legacy of pitched tiled roofs, but Turramurra House by Noxon Giffen has breathed new life into the local vernacular with its inspiring exploration of modern, contextual design.
The client’s brief to architect Justin Noxon was for a boldly contemporary family home that would replace the existing 1960s bungalow to better embrace the relaxed ambience of the bush reserve setting. The budget was relatively tight, and a key element of the brief was for the owners to be involved with the finishing stages. “We had to ensure the design offered a suitable framework to allow that input without losing [the design’s] essence,” says Justin. An additional challenge for the sloping, north-facing site was the stringent construction requirements relating to bushfire-zone regulations.
Visiting the property is a journey of discovery, with bush views slowly unfolding as you leave the busy street and enter through the protective monochromatic steel-and-brick outer shell of the two-level, pavilion-style home. The front door opens into a central hallway that extends past a large home office, the stairwell to the upper bedroom level and back-of-house access to the garage and laundry zones. As you descend into the voluminous double-height public area overlooking a majestic scribbly gum, a large open-plan kitchen and living zone is placed to the left and a dining area to the right. “The house offers a range of open and private retreat spaces that will enable the family to grow and evolve over time without compromising the sense of connection with nature that is so appealing about the site,” says Justin.
To the rear of the main living zone, the more enclosed family room offers an alternative living space and opens directly out to a courtyard kitchen-garden and concrete-paved pool area, located on the north-eastern side of the house. This outdoor space is protected from the street by the rear of the one-storey double garage, which adjoins the home at the front of the property.
Upstairs in the private area of the home, the generous main suite opens out onto a large covered deck that enjoys spectacular views into the scribbly gum’s tree canopy. The two children’s bedrooms include delightful built-in plywood desks and window seats that sit beneath angled louvred window slots, cleverly capturing oblique bush views. An open-plan playroom alongside the two children’s bedrooms, a fourth guest bedroom and the main bathroom are also located on this level.
The interior is characterized by the feeling of being under an expansive two-storey verandah – sheltered from the wind and rain but able to enjoy an intimate connection with nature. Black aluminium-framed glass sliding panels and louvred windows also enhance the connection with the outdoors while adhering to strict bushfire-zone construction regulations. A long horizontal slot window supported by the steel roof structure appears to float above the kitchen and dining areas along the western side of the living area, drawing light deep into the heart of the home late into the day – especially in winter, when the sun angle is lower.
The interior finishes are simple yet refined. The overall palette was inspired by the natural tones and textures of the scribbly gums but “in terms of the architectural expression and the level of finishes, [to keep within budget] we had to pick our moments and say ‘these [living areas] are the most important elements and everything else we will keep simple,’” says Justin. Polished concrete floors, glass walls and a rhythmic expanse of structural exposed timber beams extending over the ground-level living zone create an immediate relationship with the bare tree trunks beyond the windows. This is enhanced by spotted gum joinery in the kitchen, adjacent living areas and stair screens, which extend the richer colour and textural references of the bush throughout the interior.
Externally, the material choices ensure the house is at one with its surroundings, and the integration of beautifully detailed, more humble building materials throughout is a significant component of the project’s success. The upper level of the home is clad in a skin of charcoal-coloured fire-resistant steel sheeting. This is complemented by the practical and economical use of white-painted brick veneer walls across the ground level, reminiscent of suburban traditions. Built-in steel roller shutters are fitted to all north-, west- and east-facing windows and steel mesh to all flyscreens. Fire-retardant structural materials, including bricks and roof sheeting, have also been used.
While the effects of the extreme bushfire rating have been mitigated throughout, a raft of sustainable design features has also been well considered. Sharp, linear overhangs and integrated shutters control the sun’s rays, while cross-ventilation is assisted by the use of the louvred windows and large window expanses. Concrete floors keep the interiors cool in summer and warm in winter with integrated hydronic sub-floor solar/gas powered heating. A two-thousand-litre rainwater tank is concealed in the garden bed adjacent to the pool, the water from which is used as supplementary pool water and garden irrigation.
Full of weathered textures and undulating contours, there is much to be inspired by on the North Shore’s vast stretches of natural reserves. Amid the often-uninspiring existing suburban fabric, the memory of this glass and steel pavilion surrounded by scribbly gums lingers as an uplifting, elegant and refreshing tonic.