The Terrarium House by John Ellway
The Fisher & Paykel Series
Brisbane, QLD, Australia
A simple early-1900s cottage, set right on the street in Brisbane’s Highgate Hill, appears humble and unassuming to the passerby – a lush tangle of vines covering the facade are perhaps the only hint as to what lies inside.
Step behind the vines into John Ellway’s Terrarium House and suddenly one is immersed in a unique contemporary home, where walls open to bring the outside in and tropical indoor gardens provide dappled shade. With each element of the design meaningful in some way, whether a reflection of the couple’s life and memories or a response to a practical concern, the Terrarium House is a beautiful example of architecture that is deeply embedded in its context.
The word ‘unique’ is often an exaggeration, but the Terrarium House is so deeply the product of a confluence of individual circumstances that it is clearly a unique project. Built for John and his wife Amber on a tiny 215m2 block, the modest exterior is indicative of the approach to the entire project. John reflects that constraints are an important part of his design process. ‘If a client came to me with a budget of two million dollars and perfect site with no constraints, I think I’d find it really hard!’ he says. Every detail of the Terrarium House is a response to various pragmatic decisions, working with constraints that included budget, a small block with a 2.5m fall from front to back, easements and numerous stormwater, sewerage and planning concerns, and a ramshackle cottage on the site that was slowly crumbling into rubble.
In each case, the constraints have been reimagined into some practical or aesthetic feature. The fall of the land meant they could make use of the original cottage’s undercroft space, creating a two-level home without raising it at street-height, leaving the streetscape intact and respecting the home’s architectural context. A low concrete wall, necessary as a stormwater barrier, runs the length of the house and out into the garden, creating an indoor bench and outdoor garden wall while also visually breaking down the barrier between indoor and outdoor.
The size of the block and project’s budget means the home is a compact 120m2. John carefully considered how rooms relate to each other to create a floorplan that was efficient yet spacious. ‘Making sure you aren’t duplicating spaces is a big part of reducing scale’, he says. Creating a sense of indoor-outdoor living was another way to increase the sense of space, and a practical response to Brisbane’s warm humid climate. Opening up entire sides of the house to the outdoors and deliberate placement of windows has the effect of both making the space feel more open and passively cooling the house via cross ventilation.
Although it is remarkably open to the outdoors, the home is very private and secure. The metal screen across the front locks the house securely from the street, the vines softening the effect of the metal mesh and keeping the entrance hidden from view. It is only as one walks across the timber bridge spanning the plant-filled void where the front veranda once was that the home begins to open and unfold. The verdant void, protected by the vines above, leads one down the external stairs into the living and kitchen area below. Timber-framed doors to the north and south can slide away into the wall, but the finely etched glass of the windows to the east maintain privacy and shelter from the hot morning light.
In such a hot climate, light is an important aspect of the design. Etched glass is used throughout the house, influenced by the aesthetic and filtered light of Japanese screens John and Amber had encountered on their travels. Lush plantings, both inside and out, create a peaceful dappled effect, while the dark ceiling of the living space evokes the dark, shady atmosphere of the original undercroft space. John expresses that ‘we wanted downstairs to feel enclosed, low and dark, as a relief from the bright Queensland sun outside’.
The dark stain was also a practical solution that allowed for the use of affordable pine without adding too many timber finishes to the material palette. John is ‘a big believer in choosing only 3 or 4 materials’ so the Terrarium House is a simple yet effective selection of materials. As well as the dark-stained pine, timber panelling adds warmth when left natural and subtle texture when painted white, evoking the painted wood panelling of the original cottage. Glass, unusually, is given its own materiality through the fine etched texture. Perhaps most significant is the use of concrete, which intentionally recalls the slabs of concrete beneath the cottage when the renovation began. Concrete is used in diverse ways, from the downstairs floor to the indoor-outdoor bench, internal green wall, concrete kitchen benchtops and laundry tub, which was influenced by old-fashioned solid concrete sinks.
The kitchen benches were cast in-situ, cantilevering off the wall and providing the foundation for the cabinetry. ‘The kitchen was designed to have a public side and a private side.’ explains John. A ‘secret’ pantry extends off the kitchen, hiding the main work zones, while the ‘public’ side facing the dining and living areas is a social space that blends aesthetically with the rest of the room. ‘The island bench feels more like a piece of furniture. It was important to the sense of space that the cabinetry was raised up off the floor, with just the concrete plinth anchoring it to the slab’, says John. With such a considered kitchen design, John worked closely with Daniel Varcoe from Fisher & Paykel to ensure the appliances worked with both the aesthetic and the requirements of the concrete benches.
‘It’s great working with Fisher & Paykel because they’re willing to be involved in the process, make suggestions and solve problems’, says John. As the concrete bench is solid with very specific dimensions to alleviate cracking, John and Dan needed to work out how to have the three-burner black gas stove flush-mounted into the concrete. Similarly, opting for two ovens from slightly different product ranges meant they needed to find a solution to the detailing so the ovens were finished identically. A Dishdrawer instead of a traditional dishwasher ensured the island bench could be raised off the ground. In line with John’s mantra of avoiding duplicating spaces, the laundry is in the private functional part of the kitchen. ‘We used Fisher & Paykel washers and dryers as well because they match and look great, so they don’t need to be covered up’, John explains.
With such attention to detail and optimism in the face of constraints, the Terrarium House is a labour of love that layers personal meaning with innovative architectural solutions to a wide range of restrictions. Even without knowledge of the stories behind many of the decisions, the effect is clearly felt in a home that is respectful of the old, excited by the new and inspired by memory to create something truly unique.