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Sea breezes and sweeping views… These are defining features of the modern Australian home. Here, LOUIS WHITE sits down with the experts to talk about the evolution of local architecture and interior design, and what we can expect in the years to come.

OWNING A HOME is the great Australian dream and when it comes to residential design, our practitioners lead the way globally. “I actually think Australia influences other cities around the world when it comes to architecture,” says Richard Peters, of the award-winning practice Tobias Partners.

So, what is it that defines the Australian approach? Peters says it’s the combination of natural, unadorned materials; relaxed, informal areas; an embrace of outdoor living; and a strong connection with the landscape, which is typically a coastal one. 

At its best, he says, Australian architecture encourages airflow, sea breezes and shade (think big verandahs with barbecues, swimming pools and established trees). In winter, it bathes its occupants in sunshine; in summer, it protects against harsh winds and excessive heat. “The use of natural light really says a lot about the way we live here,” says Peters, “and I think a lot of people probably aspire to that.”

Based in Sydney, Tobias Partners has a strong aesthetic that is both refined and timeless. As the firm’s founding partner Nick Tobias explains, “Every decade, every century, of Australian home design has some influence on current residential architects. But we have spent the past 20 years staying away from trends: we are very focused on what a project needs from a look, living and feel perspective.” Describing his approach, Peters, a principal at the firm, says: “It’s all about tapping into the tranquillity of the place and its engagement with nature. In many ways, the house is the backdrop and the natural surroundings are the focus — with bare feet, family and friends also key elements.” 

The firm recently completed a project on the Sapphire Coast, New South Wales, where the outdoor living spaces were just as considered as the indoor ones. “Designing the interior and the garden together helped us focus on the connection with nature and tempering the elements,” says Peters. “The building’s finely detailed concrete form enables large retractable window openings, and that was key.” 

Living spaces 

“Design is not about the aesthetic or the superficial; it goes much deeper,” says Sue Carr, one of Australia’s most revered interior designers and the founding principal of the Melbourne practice Carr.

“Design is about creating space that enhances the quality of life. It is about the feel of the space, not just the look.” 

Sue, who was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2021 and is a member of the Design Institute of Australia Hall of Fame, says Covid-19 has changed the way Australians utilise their home. “The pandemic has called for spaces to work harder,” she says. “Living spaces that can be flexible — where people can work during the day and be social with their family in the evenings— are increasingly important, particularly in smaller residences.” She says clients want a central place in the home that encourages informal gathering and has a strong connection with the outdoors.“ The kitchen is often the heart of the home,” she adds, “with our clients embracing a sense of informality in dining and entertaining spaces.” Nic Brunsdon, the principal and creative director of an eponymous firm that has studios in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Denpasar, Bali, also notes a change in the way Australians view their home as a result of the pandemic.“ As we are moving through the back end of Covid, there is a shifting understanding of the importance of home in facilitating our wellbeing on a personal, interpersonal and professional level,” he says.“

Our homes recently became our whole world; they had to be a place to live, work, raise families, recreate and so forth. During this period, we became acutely aware of their shortcomings, not only in how they are planned and function, but also in how they address their external environment — for example, access to daylight and fresh air.” 

A light touch 

According to Carr, what people want right now are “spaces that have a feeling of generosity”. She explains: “In this sense, generosity doesn’t necessarily mean large spaces; rather, rooms that have a sense of purpose, with good proportions, natural light and ventilation, views to the exterior, and considered materials.” 

For Carr, one of the most important steps in the design process is helping her clients understand the essence of their existing house. “We review what elements ought to be preserved and celebrated, and where we can refine or extend the dwelling to accommodate the owner’s needs,” she says. 

She has recently been through this process with the owners of a Federation-era house in Hawthorn. “While the original home was well-built and had character, it was also quite dark and had extensions that compromised connections between rooms,” she says. “We sought to celebrate the Federation character, while making considered openings and a series of moves that unlocked the plan and created connection between spaces.

“We have brought in ample natural light, created long vistas through the house, distinct areas for living and sleeping, and a stronger connection to the large garden. The new elements are distinctly contemporary but complement the existing architecture.”

Seeing Stars 

Brunsdon sees a connection between modern Australian design and features embraced by homeowners of centuries gone by. “I think there is a real movement back to ancient technologies,” he explains. “We have celestial and climatic patterns that can be predicted and understood, and they’re the most powerful systems available. It is only in the last 80 years that we have relied on external and mechanical means for powering the comfort of our home.” 

His firm recently designed a home in East Fremantle, Perth, that harnesses celestial and climatic patterns to ensure the occupants are comfortable. “The most important part of this house is the space that is not built — specifically, a large northern void — a space for sun, light, sky, sound and breeze to inhabit,” he says. “The house- then traces this edge, creating rooms with immediate connection to these elemental conditions. 

”By adding a simple, linear form to the northern face of the heritage cottage, the southern mass of the building has become an efficient, connective living space — in effect, a garden room. “It gives incredible amenity to the project,” he says, “and shows that a connection to our celestial sphere can shape the rhythms, patterns and quality of daily family life.”

According to Brunsdon, whose work has featured on the television program “Grand Designs Australia”, the ultimate Australian home is a well-orientated structure that takes advantage of prevailing breezes. “It has mass and thickness to hold in heat and keep the cool out, it can use the sun to power itself, and collect and re-use water.” Most importantly, he adds, “it does it all in away that doesn’t feel like a clumsy add-on, but is natural, integrated and beautiful. Then we will have created a calm, confident, and settled space.”

‘The most important part of this house is the space that is not built —specifically, a large northern void — a space for sun, light, sky, sound and breeze to inhabit’.