The hardworking design feature setting up this Brisbane home for entertaining
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The hardworking design feature setting up this Brisbane home for entertaining

It’s business at the front and party at the back in this transformation of a classic Queenslander

By Robyn Willis
Fri, Jun 23, 2023 12:01pmGrey Clock 4 min

T o homeowners in other east coast capitals, the inner suburbs of Brisbane are quite the surprise. Just minutes from the heart of the city, they are consistently populated with traditional Queenslanders positioned on generous sites. So generous, in fact, that the 500sqm or so block that this home in Paddington sits on is considered on the smaller side.

Architect Alexandra Buchanan was called in before the owners had even purchased the property in the highly desirable suburb to see if it had potential for renewal without having to sacrifice its original charm. Still in ‘very original’ condition, the three-bedroom weatherboard cottage had been virtually untouched over the years but was deemed in sound enough condition to make the transition into the 21st century.

The owners wanted to maintain the Queenslander at the front of the house. Image: James Peters

Characterised by lightweight timber construction, decorative timberwork and verandas to keep out the sun, Queenslanders are most notable for being built on ‘stilts’. Constructed from the mid 1800s to after WWII, the increased air flow under the house helped to manage the climate, as well as mitigate flood risk and make it easier to build on uneven terrain.

The new owners, who were experienced builders and developers, were keen to let the original house shine while creating a significant contemporary extension at the rear that would make the most of the subtropical environment.

“It was a classic ‘worst house on the best street’ scenario in a tricky spot in the low point on the street,” Buchanan says. “In Brisbane there are overland flow issues which we had to overcome because this house is sitting in a low point.”

As demonstrated by the 2022 floods, Brisbane is on the Brisbane River floodplain. While Paddington is just under 5km from the CBD, it is subject to overland flow flooding which Brisbane City Council defines as ‘run-off that travels over the land during heavy rainfalls’ with depth and impact depending on the prevailing local conditions.

Safeguarding the house against future flooding was a top priority.

“It’s a low set, single-storey house with a lovely big back garden that raked up away from the street at the back of the property,” Buchanan explains.

“It’s on an elevated slab so the water way is still on the lower level under it. We don’t impede the water flow, the house is sitting above it so that you don’t know anything about it at all.”

Rather than continue with the traditional weatherboard construction at the front of the house, Buchanan specified a mix of concrete, stone and natural timber to create the two-storey extension to the rear. At the heart of this is a dramatic void above an open plan living space that takes in the kitchen, dining and living room. 

“A lot of the design was about making sure we had good access to natural light while opening up the side of the house,” she says. “That’s why it has that beautiful void space in the heart of the house. 

“When you come through the front door it reveals itself to you and it’s quite a dynamic space as the light tracks across it during the day.”

A double storey void adds drama and draws light through the house. Image: James Peters

The articulated floorplan includes a second living space on the ground floor, specifically designed to have quite a different feel.

“We wanted to close off the second living space that addresses the garden because it’s a TV space,” Buchanan says. “It’s more intimate with a lower ceiling.”

Upstairs, there’s a library, as well as a spacious balcony off the main bedroom suite overlooking the garden and pool below.

But perhaps the real drawcard is the flow between indoor and outdoor spaces. Using the upper floor as an overhang, Buchanan designed a paved alfresco dining space that leads onto an outdoor living area that almost feels like an internal courtyard. Key to this is a large concrete planter that extends beyond the footprint of the upper floor to wrap around the outdoor living area. Built by master builders BBH Projects, landscaping by local firm Brooke’s Blooms has further enhanced the site by selecting a combination of architectural and hanging plants so that it’s hard to discern where the house ends and the garden begins.

The outdoor living spaces have been treated like internal rooms, increasing the sense of space. Image: James Peters

“The brief was very much about the connection to the garden and having as much garden as we could afford them,” Buchanan says. “We live in subtropical Queensland so that indoor/outdoor flow with beautiful cross flow of air was critical.”

With neighbours to both sides and the rear, it was important to lean into the local landscape as much as possible.

“We had to juggle some proximity to the neighbours,” she says. “They had quite a beautiful, lush garden on their block and around them and their neighbour has some beautiful established trees so we made sure to enhance that to provide privacy.”

Taking on the weight of the hanging gardens would not have been possible without concrete.

“The benefits of having that concrete base allowed us to have the planting to carry the site and provide the screening,” she says. “It also allows for an outdoor fireplace which is embedded in that as well. It’s a very hard working element that integrates front and back.”

While visitors to the house are drawn to the dramatic living space and garden, for Buchanan, it’s the quiet moments in this house that please her the most.

 

“There’s a gorgeous informal meals area off the side which is one of my favourite spots,” she says. “You can imagine informal catch ups with friends happening there with a glass of wine while you’re in the kitchen. It could have been a dead corner but it gave it activation.”



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Stronger demand in some areas is pushing unit rents up faster than houses

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Renters are returning to the apartment market, leading to higher growth in weekly rents for units than houses over the past year, according to REA data. As workers return to their corporate offices, tenants are coming back to the inner city and choosing apartment living for its affordability.

This is a reversal of the pandemic trend which saw many renters leave their inner city units to rent affordable houses on the outskirts. Working from home meant they did not have to commute to the CBD, so they moved into large houses in outer areas where they could enjoy more space and privacy.

REA Group economic analyst Megan Lieu said the return to apartment living among tenants began in late 2021, when most lockdown restrictions were lifted, and accelerated in 2022 after Australia’s international border reopened.

Following the reopening of offices and in-person work, living within close proximity to CBDs has regained importance,” Ms Lieu said.Units not only tend to be located closer to public transport and in inner city areas, but are also cheaper to rent compared to houses in similar areas. For these reasons, it is unsurprising that units, particularly those in inner city areas, are growing in popularity among renters.

But the return to work in the CBD is not the only factor driving demand for apartment rentals. Rapidly rising weekly rents for all types of property, coupled with a cost-of-living crisis created by high inflation, has forced tenants to look for cheaper accommodation. This typically means compromising on space, with many families embracing apartment living again. At the same time, a huge wave of migration led by international students has turbocharged demand for unit rentals in inner city areas, in particular, because this is where many universities are located.

But it’s not simply a demand-side equation. Lockdowns put a pause on building activity, which reduced the supply of new rental homes to the market. People had to wait longer for their new houses to be built, which meant many of them were forced to remain in rental homes longer than expected. On top of that, a chronic shortage of social housing continued to push more people into the private rental market. After the world reopened, disrupted supply chains meant the cost of building increased, the supply of materials was strained, and a shortage of labour delayed projects.

All of this has driven up rents for all types of property, and the strength of demand has allowed landlords to raise rents more than usual to help them recover the increased costs of servicing their mortgages following 13 interest rate rises since May 2022. Many applicants for rentals are also offering more rent than advertised just to secure a home, which is pushing rental values even higher.

Tenants’ reversion to preferring apartments over houses is a nationwide trend that has led to stronger rental growth for units than houses, especially in the capital cities, says Ms Lieu. “Year-on-year, national weekly house rents have increased by 10.5 percent, an increase of $55 per week,” she said.However, unit rents have increased by 17 percent, which equates to an $80 weekly increase.

The variance is greatest in the capital cities where unit rents have risen twice as fast as house rents. Sydney is the most expensive city to rent in today, according to REA data. The house rent median is $720 per week, up 10.8 percent over the past year. The apartment rental median is $650 per week, up 18.2 percent. In Brisbane, the median house rent is $600 per week, up 9.1 percent over the past year, while the median rent for units is $535 per week, up 18.9 percent. In Melbourne, the median house rent is $540 per week, up 13.7 percent, while the apartment median is $500 per week, up 16.3 percent.

In regional markets, Queensland is the most expensive place to rent either a house or an apartment. The house median rent in regional Queensland is $600 per week, up 9.1 percent year-onyear, while the apartment median rent is $525, up 16.7 percent.

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