Innovative, contemporary architecture is not necessarily synonymous with approachability. The architects behind Archier are changing this, creating designs that combine innovation and cutting-edge contemporary design with a personal, laid-back approach.
This attitude is exemplified in the Arthur Street project, which saw Archier take on the task of renovating a 100-year-old Hobart cottage. The project tackles everything from bringing contemporary passive solar principles into a west-facing, 1920s brick house, to creating the perfect sunny spot for beloved resident labrador Ollie to snooze in, and designing a minimalist kitchen for the clients who love to entertain. This combination results in a thoughtful home that elegantly combines respect for the original structure with contemporary aesthetics, sustainable design and attention to the local environment. Most of all, it is an example of architecture that places the residents’ lives at the centre of every decision.
Having a conversation with Chris Gilbert, Design Director of Archier, is rather like having a conversation with an unpretentious friend who also has some very interesting ideas about architecture. As it happens, this is exactly how Archier‘s Arthur Street project came to be. While catching up over drinks with friends Matt and Nicola while Chris was still an architecture student, the couple mentioned they were thinking about renovating their 1920s Hobart home. Wild ideas were thrown around and sketches were drawn. As tends to follow from these kinds of spur-of-the-moment conversations, the idea was put on the back burner, until fast forward a few years and Chris was a qualified architect, Archier had been established in Melbourne, and the Hobart practice set up. While the initial sketches, based on Chris and Matt’s self-described ‘wild ideas’, did not turn out to be usable, Archier’s client-focused approach meant that the design process was just as collaborative and dynamic as that first chat between friends.
Matt is a keen entertainer and cook, so creating welcoming and practical spaces for cooking, eating and socialising was a key element of the design. Following the line of the original house would have resulted in a kitchen, living space and outdoor area that faced west, in the full glare of the harsh Tasmanian sun. Fortunately, the block is large enough that the architects were able to re-orient the living areas and kitchen around a central north-facing courtyard, which is sheltered from the elements, providing a usable outdoor area and maximising the house’s passive solar performance.
The north aspect is not only practical, but Chris explains that ‘by opening the side to the north, you can look up to the sky and see the cloud formations created by Mount Wellington’. ‘The question with Arthur Street was how can we connect to the landscape?’, agrees Josh Fitzgerald, project leader and Archier Technical Director, ‘the yard is west facing and really dry, so the building encloses around the courtyard as a retreat’. The design also connects to its environment through the considered use of materials.
The architects were keen to ensure they were designing for the next 100-plus years, so focused on raw, robust materials like concrete, OSB (oriented strand board), brick and solid timber. Much of the brick is recycled from the original cottage, maintaining the continuity between old and new. Brick was used for the street-front exterior to tie in with the neighbouring cottages and provide a solid front façade. Then, as one enters and discovers the more private social spaces, the exterior walls of the enclosed area within the courtyard are clad in locally sourced timber. The timber, Chris explains, is not only sourced locally for reasons of sustainability but also because Archier believe that using materials that grow locally or are used locally, such as the timber and original bricks, speaks to an undertone of place and participates in the architectural vernacular of the area. Aesthetically, timber cladding also has a softening effect on the exterior walls within the private courtyard, creating a welcoming outdoor space.
This thoughtful use of materials, coupled with the courtyard designs, serves to connect the original house with the new addition, linking them as parts of a whole while also respecting the space and differences between them. Reflecting on the houses of the 1920s, Josh says ‘those houses are amazing. They have a real presence, they almost vibrate when you walk in and have a real weight’. Both the couple and Archier were in agreement about not wanting to do a standard modern renovation, ‘we weren’t interested in making the old house feel like a new house’, says Chris. Instead, the courtyard connects the new to the old building, going back to the Scandinavian approach to the seasons – a dark part of the house to retreat in winter and a light part. The original house was quite dark, in a warm and cosy way. They kept this cosiness in the original section and borrowed the dark tones from the old house throughout the new section in the form of black ceilings, recycled brick, and polished concrete. This dark palette is contrasted in the new section with floor-to-ceiling windows that allow in the northern light and look out onto the courtyard from all sides.
Chris describes the courtyard as becoming ‘the heart of the house’, with the kitchen, dining and living spaces all connecting to it. While each space has a sense of being its own zone, they are integrated through their shared aspect onto the courtyard, and through the design of the kitchen. The kitchen was intentionally designed to feel ‘like a piece of furniture’, says Chris. A scullery creates extra practical room for storage and dishes, keeping the open-plan kitchen as elegant and minimalist as the rest of the house. It sits lightly in the space, feeling like a seamless part of the living and dining areas, rather than imposing its presence onto the interior.
The design process for the kitchen, in particular, was extremely collaborative, with both Nicola and Matt making their mark on the design. The black cabinetry is made from OSB, giving it a subtle yet defined texture that reflects the considered use of predominantly raw materials throughout the rest of the house. ‘The cabinetry is a real credit to Nicola’, Chris stresses, ‘she worked really hard with the joiner to get that finish’. Nicola also pushed for black, which Chris notices is unusual as ‘many people shy away from black, but it’s actually really restful, it doesn’t ‘grab’ the eye’.
Given that Matt loves to cook and entertain, the appliances were just as important as the layout of the kitchen. Archier worked closely with Fisher & Paykel, who recommended the 900mm pyrolytic built-in oven, rangehood and induction cooktop. ‘The 900mm profile is important when cooking for groups of people at dinner parties. says Chris. With the washer and dryer located close to the main living areas, they needed to be quiet as well as energy efficient, so an 8.5kg front loader washing machine and 8kg condensing dryer by Fisher & Paykel were also installed as part of the build. The appliances not only had to be energy-efficient, practical and great for cooking – the contemporary nature of the kitchen design meant they needed to look the part as well. The slim profile of the induction cooktop and oven makes them seamlessly form part of the kitchen, while the minimalist stainless steel fridge picks up the materials in the stainless steel benchtop.
Archier are passionate about design that ‘takes inspiration from real life’, which comes through not only in their approach to designing collaboratively with clients but also in the builders and suppliers they choose to work with. It’s not surprising, therefore, that they chose Fisher & Paykel for the Arthur Street project given that their values are so aligned, from sustainability and energy efficiency to their focus on innovation. ‘I think they’re one of the few brands that still feel personal – they’re very approachable’, says Chris. ‘That New Zealander, chilled, approachable vibe comes through. Fisher & Paykel are also constantly innovating, which is really refreshing. We find they’re really supportive, we can have real conversations and they’re always keen to chat about the broader ideas of architecture; it’s a real credit to them and the level of engagement is much more dynamic and engaging than the standard approach’.
This personal attitude to architecture, focused on design that is first and foremost created to support and enhance the lives of the people living within it, was particularly evident due to the friendship between Chris and the clients. ‘It was a really nice journey, seeing them grow as a couple’, he says, reflecting on the time between the first conversation some years ago and when they moved in with labrador Ollie (who enjoys his spot in the sun and the consideration that went into designing stairs he could easily climb!), and their newest family member, born while the project was progressing.
Much has changed during those years, both for the architects who designed the renovation and the family who live there, but the approach that began with friends catching up, sharing drinks and dreams for the future, is shown in every considered detail of the Arthur Street house. From the thoughtful use of materials to the respect for the merits of the original cottage and creative use of the site, Archier have shown the value of architecture that is unpretentious and approachable, and that the greatest innovation comes from the inspiration of real life.