Among The Scent Of Eucalyptus
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Among The Scent Of Eucalyptus

It’s what hasn’t changed on this site that makes this residence so exceptional

By Robyn Willis
Wed, Nov 8, 2023 10:17amGrey Clock 5 min

When talk turns to sustainability in residential construction, certain aspects spring to mind. Solar panels tend to feature heavily, as do rainwater tanks and heat pumps. In fact it’s often the things that are added onto a project that tend to garner the most attention.

But there’s another way of viewing sustainable design and construction which has more in common with the ‘touch the earth lightly’ approach to architecture than some might think.

As both an architect and builder, Clinton Cole understands how to find that sweet spot between elegant, functional residential design and efficient, waste-less building practices.

By the time he was invited to design this property at Palm Beach, he had already worked with the owners to design and build their family home on Sydney’s lower north shore. Nicknamed Iron Maiden, that house is defined by an open air corridor running through its heart, turning the house on a corner site back in on itself and keeping the inhabitants consistently connected to changing weather conditions while creating a variety of common living spaces and private sleeping quarters.

So when they had the opportunity to design and build a holiday home on this idyllic coastal site on the fringe of Sydney’s Northern Beaches, it was no surprise that connection to the natural world would be at its heart. Having trusted him to build their permanent family residence, the owners asked Cole to help them select the right block from a choice of three possible options.

“Someone had bought the land 20 or 30 years ago as a superannuation plan and divided the site into three parts and my clients bought the middle one, so it’s a greenfield site,” he says.

“This was the one with the most natural beauty.”

With five mature trees and a large sandstone boulder on site, it was never in doubt that this project would work with the landscape rather than attempting to bend it to the designer’s will.

Instead of excavating, Cole designed a single level house on stilts that would connect with the tree canopy as much as possible.

“Carving the house into the hill wasn’t an option – why excavate the very landscape we’re celebrating? So we decided to plant it in the ground on bored concrete piers,” he says.

“The idea was to have the house feel like a cubby house. With five trees on the site we had to get (the house) to a certain level to get to the canopy. Then we 3D scaled each tree and each leaf so we could carefully place the building and every tree would be safe.”

The digitised version of the trees, including a Port Jackson fig that was subject to a conservation order, formed part of the approval process with council and meant that when the house was complete, the residents could immediately enjoy the benefits of living in close proximity to mature trees.

The house itself is a simple design — “it took 10 minutes to design” says Cole — which is in keeping with the lifestyle the owners were hoping to capture. There’s not even space wasted on an internal corridor, so that a trip to the bathroom requires guests to momentarily step onto the deck before going back indoors. A spiral staircase is the only sculptural element to compete with the natural beauty of the site.

“It wasn’t about making a statement,” he says. “You don’t see it from the street so that was a low priority. It was designed so that you could walk around barefoot or have a shower at the back of the stairs after walking back from the beach.”

Materials are simple but have nonetheless been chosen with care. The framework consists of kiln dried Australian blackbutt and steel flitch beams with spotted gum lining the internal walls. The ceiling and roof are made up of lightweight galvanised iron sheeting while the outdoor flooring is fibre reinforced plastic (FRP). Cole says all materials, including the FRP, have been chosen for longevity.

“FRP is used on oil rigs and marine environments because it’s bulletproof,” he says. “That’s one of the higher embodied energy materials we used here but compared with timber decking, this comes out way ahead. It lasts about four times as long as timber.”

Heavy netting has also been used as an unconventional flooring/ seating option as well as ‘screening’ to add to the sense of living amongst the trees.

“The netting kept the terrace area really light,” says Cole. “I got the idea when I was at indoor cricket sitting behind the net. After a couple of minutes the netting disappears visually.”

In keeping with its summertime vibes, the outdoor areas are almost the same size as the indoor spaces, with large, timber framed sliding doors retracting to maximise the living area. Meant for hosting visiting family, the house has a holiday feel with built-in double bunk beds in the secondary bedroom ideal for sleepovers.

Keeping in mind the amount of waste typically generated on building sites, Cole designed the house ‘like a Meccano set’.

“Because of the distance in terms of travel time from the (inner city) office and I am usually on site once or twice a week, I designed it to be built without supervision, like a Meccano set, shaping bits
of timber, cutting to length and drilling the holes and putting bits into holes,” he says.

It was just as well, given the lockdown periods Sydney — and the Northern Beaches — went through when the house was being built. As a result, he only visited the site twice in the six months it took to build.

“Normally you wouldn’t be able to build a basement in that time if you were dealing with excavation,”

Cole says. “It was appropriate for the site, as well as the budget.”

Relying on passive design principles such as cross ventilation and the thermal chimney effect where rising hot air is released from the house via strategically placed louvred vents, the only obvious concessions to conventional cooling methods are ceiling fans in the living room and bedrooms.

Because the trees have been retained, solar panels were not considered suitable for this house — ‘it’s too overshadowed’ — so its sustainable credentials are not obvious.

“It’s not the most prevalent sustainability project,” says Cole. “There are no solar panels or heat pumps, it has none of those things.

“But half the carbon in a building is not in the life cycle of the building, it’s in the resources that go into building it. We worked on the embodied energy being as low as possible. It’s something we’re doing more and more.”


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Wild cities and concrete corridors: How AI is reimagining the landscape

A new AI-driven account by leading landscape architect Jon Hazelwood pushes the boundaries on the role of ‘complex nature’ in the future of our cities

By Robyn Willis
Wed, Dec 6, 2023 2 min

Drifts of ground cover plants and wildflowers along the steps of the Sydney Opera House, traffic obscured by meadow-like planting and kangaroos pausing on city streets.

This is the way our cities could be, as imagined by landscape architect Jon Hazelwood, principal at multi-disciplinary architectural firm Hassell. He has been exploring the possibilities of rewilding urban spaces using AI for his Instagram account, Naturopolis_ai with visually arresting outcomes.

“It took me a few weeks to get interesting results,” he said. “I really like the ephemeral nature of the images — you will never see it again and none of those plants are real. 

“The AI engine makes an approximation of a grevillea.”

Hazelwood chose some of the most iconic locations in Australia, including the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, as well as international cities such as Paris and London, to demonstrate the impact of untamed green spaces on streetscapes, plazas and public space.

He said he hopes to provoke a conversation about the artificial separation between our cities and the broader environment, exploring ways to break down the barriers and promote biodiversity.

“A lot of the planning (for public spaces) is very limited,” Hazelwood said. “There are 110,000 species of plants in Australia and we probably use about 12 in our (public) planting schemes. 

“Often it’s for practical reasons because they’re tough and drought tolerant — but it’s not the whole story.”

Hazelwood pointed to the work of UK landscape architect Prof Nigel Dunnett, who has championed wild garden design in urban spaces. He has drawn interest in recent years for his work transforming the brutalist apartment block at the Barbican in London into a meadow-like environment with diverse plantings of grasses and perennials.

Hazelwood said it is this kind of ‘complex nature’ that is required for cities to thrive into the future, but it can be hard to convince planners and developers of the benefits.

“We have been doing a lot of work on how we get complex nature because complexity of species drives biodiversity,” he said. 

“But when we try to propose the space the questions are: how are we going to maintain it? Where is the lawn?

“A lot of our work is demonstrating you can get those things and still provide a complex environment.” 

At the moment, Hassell together with the University of Melbourne is trialling options at the Hills Showground Metro Station in Sydney, where the remaining ground level planting has been replaced with more than 100 different species of plants and flowers to encourage diversity without the need for regular maintenance. But more needs to be done, Hazelwood said.

“It needs bottom-up change,” he said. ““There is work being done at government level around nature positive cities, but equally there needs to be changes in the range of plants that nurseries grow, and in the way our city landscapes are maintained and managed.”

And there’s no AI option for that. 


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