Brett Nixon and George Fortey, NTF Architecture | Feature InterviewCremorne, VIC, Australia
Brett Nixon and George Fortey, founding directors of NTF Architecture, have been designing single and multi-residential architecture in and around their Cremorne-based practice for over a decade.
They share a strongly holistic approach to architecture – their design process begins with the site and the people who will eventually live in the home, and is strongly influenced by considerations of context and materiality. NTF view architecture as encompassing interior and landscape design, as well as the practicalities of building and trades. This integrated approach results in personal, seamless design, with a high level of attention to detail across every aspect of their work.
Of all the ways in which designing a multi-residential townhouse project differs from a single residential project, one aspect is key – while the client is almost always the future inhabitant of a single residential home, townhouses are generally purchased after the design has been completed. Yet for Brett and George, NTF’s ten-years’ experience designing residential architecture primarily in Melbourne councils of Stonnington, Yarra and Boroonda means that while they may not actually know the people who will live in the townhouses they design, the practice knows who they are designing for. This means that despite not knowing the individuals personally, they are able to never-the-less keep the design process focused on the future residents.
‘When commencing a townhouse project, we go through an internal process of thinking about who will be living here’, explains Brett. While they never know the final occupants who will end up living in the townhouses, years of experience and an architectural approach that prioritises working collaboratively with clients in their single-residential work has gifted them with the skills of intuiting the needs and wants of the future inhabitants. ‘We like to engage with the client’, says Brett of their single residential work. ‘We don’t want to impose ourselves – we design for people, and focus on working through the process of learning about them and understanding the drivers behind the project.’
This approach means that when designing townhouses, they can go deeper than just engaging with the broad demographic the townhouses may be aiming to attract. ‘Our New Street Townhouses project in Hawthorn was an extraordinary example of how close our understanding of the future resident came to the people who purchased the six townhouses’, says George. ‘They all sold very quickly, and the developer put on a drinks night to introduce the new owners and the team behind the project. Seeing them all together and meeting them for the first time, the level of crossover between the new owners was astonishing!’.
Alongside considering the characteristics of the residents, the site is a significant influence throughout the design process. NTF proudly design architecture that responds to its milieu. ‘The first inspiration usually comes from the site and the project’s context’, George explains. ‘Our architecture tries not to dominate, it is sympathetic to the context without trying to replicate what is already there’. One such example is their Chestnut Townhouses project in Cremorne, a pair of townhouses on the site of a rundown heritage home, with three elevations – the main street frontage, a side street and a back laneway. The gabled roof facing the lane is a direct response to the rhythm of the rooflines in the street, reinterpreted in a contemporary form.
With its dark-stained timber and concrete render façade, these townhouses exemplify NTF’s focus on honest materials. This approach has been with them from day one, stemming from their belief in materials that, as George says, will ‘age gracefully, grow a patina and tell a story’. Brickwork, timber, stone, concrete, zinc and steel not only change beautifully over time, but George explains ‘A lot of materials don’t tell a story of the people who put them together or made them. But these materials we accept they’re not always exactly the same, not always perfect, and that’s part of the beauty. It evokes a sense of the maker.’
This attitude aligns with their interest in the building process. Brett says ‘We’re not just focused on schematic design, having the renders done and handing over the building to someone else. We’re interested in how buildings go together, and an important part of that process is having knowledge of materials.’ This respect for the craft of building has resulted in excellent ongoing relationships with builders. They recognise that ‘architects are notorious for designing details that out of sequence to someone who has to build them’, says Brett, ‘internally it is more important to us that the beautiful drawings actually need to be built, and built in a manner that’s not wasteful.’
With this holistic focus, it is perhaps unsurprising that they practice an integrated approach to interiors and landscaping too. ‘From the very beginning when we started the practice, we always viewed interiors, landscaping and architecture as part of a whole – it is interesting over the past 10 or 15 years we’ve really seen interiors come to the fore, people are more interested in interiors than ever’, Brett comments. NTF’s design team includes interior designers, and while they do on occasion work with other interior designers it is something they have always included internally. ‘We think of our work as always coming from one set of ideas’, says George. ‘We start conceptually on the bigger scale, and bring that right through the interiors. This means there is a continuity throughout the design and the spaces’.
This is clearly evident in the Chestnut Townhouses. The kitchen and bathroom, two spaces that are very different functionally, are aligned through the monochrome colour palette, black detailing and marble finishes. The distinctive round front door handle is recalled again and again throughout the houses’ cabinetry. In the living area, the exterior concrete render is translated internally in the form of a concrete shelf. In each case, the effect is not one of repetition but of reinterpretation, taking the essence of an idea in one form and capturing it again subtly in another.
Despite the differences inherent in multi-residential developments and single residential projects, Brett and George, and the entire team at NTF, are deeply involved every aspect of the work. Whether they are delving into the character of the as-yet unknown inhabitants of a townhouse project, seamlessly integrating interiors architecture and interiors or carefully considering the materials and engaging with builders, NTF demonstrate in every step their commitment to holistic design.