In Praise of Shadows – Softwood by Benn and Penna Architecture

Words by Bronwyn Marshall
Photography by Tom Ferguson
Build by Darren Greenwell Builder
Landscape Design Garden Life

Stepped across a challenging site, Softwood comes together through a tight interlocking of elements, responding to its atypical conditions with a focus on its muse – the garden. Through an exploration of form, Andrew Benn, Director of Benn and Penna Architecture, details a home that celebrates light, allowing shadows and layers of transparency to activate and animate the resulting volumes.

As the reconfiguration and extension of an existing Victorian cottage in inner Sydney, Softwood focuses on creating quality and engaging spaces that enhance life. As the residential fabric of Rozelle remains mostly heritage in nature, preserving the connections of the original to its past was an integral part of the story of the home. Opening and extruding spaces that connect with how the owners lived and wanted to engage with their garden today then formed the brief. “There is a gentle quietness to the home,” describes Andrew, “and a matched modesty as well – the clients were never interested in anything that screamed loudly, they enjoyed their privacy and their out- doors – the space needed to reflect that sensibility and embed a gentle- ness in the process.”

As the reconfiguration and extension of an existing Victorian cottage in inner Sydney, Softwood focuses on creating quality and engaging spaces that enhance life.

As the home sits perched on its own platform, the original volume is elevated above streetscape. The new insertions then work in and around the existing, while also touching and engaging sensitively with the natural elements. “The scale deliberately avoids dominating any aspect of the property,” Andrew explains, “and while you see glimpses of the new forms from the street, it isn’t until you enter the home that you really experience them.” The feeling of connection within the open living areas allows the family to come together, while the clever ‘Jenga-like’ formation of stacked forms allows for separation. “The home connects to a sense of quiet and calm–like a lot of people, their lives are quite hectic, and their home needs to be a place of true retreat,” says Andrew.

Within the wedge shape of the site, and with the original home sitting in a rectilinear alignment to the front, the arrangement of the addition needed to allow for key outdoor spaces. “We’re quite familiar with the area and how densely populated it is,” says Andrew, “but the original needed a clear connection to the garden, which it was lacking. We ended up creating three distinct and separate garden spaces, to make the most of the triangular site and our opposing square forms.” Balancing privacy and openness, the creation of separate gardens sees them function for differing purposes; the back garden as the largest, acting as a place to gather; the north-facing garden, which engages with the street; and a third vegetable garden that is a working element of the home. “The big challenge was to wrap those redundant left-over elements of the garden into the architecture and allow them to become important parts of the home,” Andrew explains.

As the residential fabric of Rozelle remains mostly heritage in nature, preserving the connections of the original to its past was an integral part of the story of the home.

Optimising the southern light and the quietness that comes with that orientation, the functions of the home seem to funnel towards the rear. Awaiting is a multi-layered garden oasis, with plantings that allow dap- pled light to dance upon surfaces. “The south-facing area has a different atmosphere from the rest of the home,” reflects Andrew, “the level of light and sense of remoteness was something that we really wanted to highlight – it becomes quite a peaceful place to sit and be removed from the street. It feels almost as though you’re situated amongst a forest, with big ferns and other plantings that do so well in low light.” That same focus on the natural becomes the impetus for the materiality of the home, both internal and external, as an extension of an adoration for the land- scaped spaces.

“The overall approach is very garden focused,” adds Andrew. “The material qualities have garden-like qualities – the tints applied to timber, for example, and the textured and layered approach throughout – there the architecture and the landscape feel deeply connected.” The overlap of layers then allows for controlled privacy and the opening and breaking down of spaces as needed. Home to a blended family with adult children, it needed to allow for isolation and separation as a core function, as well as giving inspiration for the forms themselves. By combining old and new, “the home balances their lives,” describes Andrew. “With the number of people within the one space fluctuating constantly, we arranged the home to allow for the children to occupy the existing cottage, allowing the parents to have their own retreat space on the upper level – everything has been zoned to create a sense of natural separation.”

While there exists obvious contrast between the formal expression of the existing and the new, through a muted and connected tonality, the lines become blurred throughout. “The home is inspired by the garden, and the soft light was our inspiring muse,” Andrew says. “As a result, everything is diffused, and the overriding sense of calm is something that makes the home unique.”