Less but Better - The Three Piece House by TRIAS Studio
Newcastle, NSW, Australia
The Three-Piece House by TRIAS Studio is named for the three essential elements of the design – a house, a studio, and a series of courtyards. These three elements work together to create a home that deeply reflects the complementary identities of its inhabitants, one extroverted and active, the other quieter and introverted.
With a restrained, warm material palette, modest size and emphasis on simplicity, the project embodies the architects’ and clients’ unified belief in the idea of ‘less but better’. The result is a home that proves how, with shared values and the will to tirelessly distill every element of the design down to what is essential, beautiful sustainable living is not only possible, but a joy.
With its courtyard design and considered arrangement of living and sleeping pavilions, the Three Piece House deftly arranges public and private spaces that are intimately connected with the outdoors. Set on a distinctive wedge-shaped block, the architects worked with the site to create a configuration that generates public and private courtyards and separate yet connected wings of the house. This design indelibly linked to the clients’ personality and lifestyle, reflective of the slow, considered design process embarked upon by TRIAS Studio and their clients.
TRIAS Studio is an emerging practice led by Jennifer McMaster, Jonathon Donnelly and Casey Bryant, and the Three Piece House was the practice’s first project. The clients came across a design Jennifer and Jonathon submitted to a competition as final-year architecture students. ‘In the submission, we wrote about housing that was well-built and timeless, and felt contemporary yet familiar. This message, along with the design, caught the eye of our clients, who happened to see the exhibition’, explains Jennifer. They began with a loose brief – a small house for just the two of them that they could retire into, with a studio for guests to stay, and an emphasis on sustainability and materials like brass, brick and timber that aged well.
The design process developed relatively slowly over the course of a year and a half, Jennifer explains that the benefit of a slower design phase meant that ‘Our clients are now big advocates for a longer design process as, ultimately, it means everyone knows exactly what’s being built.’ The architects also found it enjoyable to slow the process right down, allowing time to present the clients with drawings, models, 3D renders, sketches, material samples, diagrams, reference images and reports. ‘We also met regularly to explain our process and receive feedback’, Jonathon says. ‘There were plenty of sessions up on site, sitting on a picnic table in the park or gathered around their kitchen table, over cups of tea.’
As a result of working so closely, Jonathan says ‘The house is such an expression of the way our clients live. It is a house that is totally, completely theirs’. Interestingly, this means that it works not only for them as a couple, but for them as individuals too. ‘One is an extrovert, who loves to perch on the porch with a glass of wine and chat to the neighbours. He’s most often found home on a weekend, with the windows thrown open, blasting Bach at full volume’, says Jennifer. Exuberant and active, he ‘loves nothing more than moving around the house, tweaking windows and ventilation flaps to make a comfortable environment’. The other, meanwhile, is more introverted. ‘She is caring and thoughtful, and loves to research and read. She is also a fantastic cook and hobbyist. She is at her happiest out in the sheltered, sunny courtyard, reading the morning paper.’, Jennifer says. ‘Otherwise, she is often at the island bench, working through a recipe or sorting veggies from the garden.’
The floorplan is designed to support these two quite different ways of living ‘with minimal fuss’, providing places to come together, and places of retreat. The spaces relate to one another in very unexpected ways, with views appearing and disappearing as one moves around the house. With an angled footprint, small, framed glimpses of the home are experienced at different points in a constant process of revealing and retreating. This is also felt in the outdoor spaces as much as the indoor, with the protected private courtyard on the one hand and the street-facing veranda on the other. ‘This means that, within a very small footprint, two people can live collectively and yet autonomously, and easily host others without it feeling cramped’, Jennifer says.
That this is all achieved within a small 114m2 floorplan, plus a 22m2 studio, is a testament to the architects’ and clients’ commitment to building only what was absolutely necessary, continually resisting the temptation to build more. This emphasis was born of the clients’ desire to downsize, and the architects’ and clients’ shared focus on sustainability. The project’s modest size limits the resources consumed both during the build and in the everyday running of the house. The design delivers cross and stack-ventilation, cooling the house in summer via the ocean breezes, while in winter it is heated by the warmth retained in the thermal mass from the sun and a gas fireplace. Solar panels and battery storage power the entire house, resulting in a quarterly electricity bill of just $6.
During the design process, they discovered not only the site’s unusual triangular shape but that it was subject to a flood control, which meant raising it one point five metres off the ground. Where a conventional architectural response may have been to raise the house on stilts, the architects were instead inspired by Jørn Utzon’s text ‘Platforms and Plateaus’ to place the house on a solid brick platform. The bricks were sourced from the crumbling 1940s house that had previously sat on the site. The clients painstakingly cleaned the bricks to reuse them for the new build, not only reducing the embodied energy of the new house by recycling, but creating a unique connection to the site’s history by building the new house upon the bones of the house before it.
Throughout the Three Piece House, the materials chosen all contribute to the house’s sustainability and will age gracefully. Internally, brass fittings will gather a patina with time, combined with a restrained crisp palette of plywood and white plasterboard. From the outset, Jonathon explains, ‘we wanted the house to feel ‘wrapped’ in timber’, so they searched for a cladding and were impressed with radially-sawn silvertop ash from a Victorian supplier. By sawing the log radially, greater efficiency is achieved with minimal wastage, and they appreciated the beauty of the timber’s raw aesthetic. The combination of brick and timber reflects the surrounding area’s quaint weatherboard cottages on brick bases, following the same language but replacing the upper volume with a rough-sawn timber. ‘This makes the materials we chose both nostalgic and fresh – they feel like they belong, and yet feel contemporary too’.
There is much more that could be said about the Three Piece House, yet it is perhaps best summed up by the architects, who say ‘we like to think of architecture as a process, rather than a product’. For the Three Piece House, this process began with the serendipitous meeting between clients and architects, the slow, considered design journey, dismantling the old house and building the new home, and now continues as the clients carry out their lives in this home that is so uniquely theirs.