Bulimba Boathouse

December 16, 2009

Owen and Vokes’ compact residential project in suburban Brisbane provides generous open space on a narrow lot, proving that greater suburban density need not threaten our ‘garden city’ ideals.

Architects’ Statement: Sustaining density
Managing the setting The built environment of a city is made of two principal and complementary elements – the object (buildings) and the field (settings). The character of a city is defined by these same elements.

As compact city advocates solve the ills of our automobile cities and accommodate the housing objectives of the South East Queensland Regional Plan through urban consolidation, public and private open space is being lost to more buildings. The character of Brisbane Town, and its historic low-density setting, is under threat.

Despite the local planning instrument and its Character Code being solely interested in the form and appearance of the object (our building), and in the absence of a neighbourhood code or garden code to manage the field (setting), we set out to make simply, a house in a garden.

Presence of nature Humans are biologically predisposed to liking natural settings. The pleasure derived from a proximity to nature, a view to trees, blue sky or the stars, is enduring and increases the chances for contentment.

Preferred room types, the peninsula and the walled garden, offer both prospect and refuge within the house, and idealise the presence of nature in the setting. This planning approach reveals a valuing of gardens over car accommodation or extra rooms, and enables a genuine contribution to the private open space of the city.

Scale thing The site of this house is considered a small lot in development terms and has a width of 10 metres. This proportion is not only the historic site size of the town’s first workers’ cottages, but is also currently the smallest lot size allowed for suburban densification.

Scale is a matter of perception. Our preferred approach to scale has been to manipulate one’s perception of not only the scale of the house, but also the scale of its setting.

To achieve this, spatial experiences move between extreme compression, and overt release. For example, 2.1-metre high volumes make 2.4-metre high rooms feel generous; a narrow, dark entry walkway anticipates the scale of the site, enabling a more generous garden; a compressed threshold is a prelude to the towering volume of the library; a 600-millimetre wide stair is contrasted with the infinite scale of the sky above the roof deck.

A singular open-plan diagram has been discarded in favour of numerous smaller rooms, each with their own defining character, offering a generous suite of spatial experiences, multiple orientations and varied relationships with the setting. Generosity and luxury are both a scale thing.

How should our ‘spatial appetite’ be satisfied? The sociologists Michael Young and Peter Willmott introduced this term into urban discourse in the 1970s, in an explanation of how the suburban expansion of London, population growth aside, was a reflection of an increasing desire for space.¹ Most of the Londoners they interviewed, even those living in the city’s outer ring, wanted to live further out, at lower densities. Young and Willmott observed that the modern appetite for space was a peculiarly difficult one to satisfy; in our contemporary societies, fuelled by rising levels of affluence, it has proven to be as much. In Australian cities, for example, the return to smaller lots and scattered increases in housing densities need not have undermined the amenity usually associated with suburban gardens or a way of life oriented to the outdoors, but our ballooning house sizes and current housing models have made a good fist of that.

In a recent article in Brisbane News, a local lifestyle and property newspaper, the move by a family of four to a modest new three-bedroom house of 190-square metres is prominently described as ‘downsizing’. In 1950s Brisbane, families like mine were ‘upsizing’ to new three-bedroom houses little more than half this size. Those small detached timber houses on their relatively large lots were reasonably forgiving of indifferent design skills – just as well perhaps in postwar Brisbane. But design skill and imagination are at a premium now if we are to avoid the loss of spatial amenity, both inside and out, that the allowable, bloated building envelopes entail. Deep interiors, rooms with outlooks fi lled with privacy screens and desultory scraps of outdoor space are now the industry standard.

The house cited in the Brisbane News above is the Bulimba Boathouse by Owen and Vokes, and it sits on a 430-square metre lot, next to a sailing club, on the edge of the Brisbane River. In tackling this vexed problem of growing spatial appetites and shrinking lots, the approach adopted in this scheme is as refreshing as the north-easterlies off the river. In addition to a riparian setback of about 17 metres, the strategic move has been to make an 11-metre deep front garden and loggia that extends over a bit less than half the width of the lot, on the side next to the sailing club. This move is then repeated on the diagonal of the plan in a smaller riverside courtyard, adjacent to the sweep of the garden of their other neighbour, a large and comfortable timber and stucco house (occupied by close family).

Unlike Brisbane’s behemoths on their small lots, jostling their set-back lines, the Boathouse derives several advantages from a site diagram that has forsaken some possible built space for carefully positioned open space. Principal rooms or spaces can now also look sideways on the narrow lot, taking in the made landscape of garden or courtyard, including a Tuckeroo tree or two. Second, the natural light and ventilation of the interior spaces is considerably improved. Third, the form of the building can once again articulate the disposition of its spaces. So the loggia structures our experience of the front garden and measures our progress to the entry and vestibule, from where a glimpse of the river is had and the circulation of the house is laid out. The library is a free projection, like a peninsula or jetty, offering either glimpses or more expansive views of the river on its three sides. At the upper level this experience is mirrored in the children’s wing with its views back to the street and down to the front garden. Conversely, the sitting and family rooms in the core of the building have the character of refuges, looking out to the courtyard and river beyond or the front garden and entry, and the section is everywhere manipulated to enhance these spatial experiences.

A secondary vertical circulation route is introduced in the library, which, by increasing the way the space of the house can be navigated, may help to satisfy part of our desire for space in the first place. From a wine cellar secreted below the floor of the library, a stair to the study above announces itself on the eastern edge of the library. The stair then slips behind and over the adjacent office to reach the study, which is perched within the double-height space of the library. From there, an external stair hung from the eastern wall completes the journey to a crow’s nest, overlooking the Hamilton Reach of the river.

One final and important consequence of the site diagram is that since the bulk of the building is held back from the street and river setbacks, the scale of the Boathouse (which in effect registers as a balance of figure to ground) is in keeping with its older neighbours. A carport without a front gate is substituted for the usual garage, and unadorned concrete car tracks and open fencing to the front garden combine to present as unassuming and sociable a face to the street as those immediate older neighbours.

The relatively deep front garden of the Boathouse is a surprise, and suggests some novel urban possibilities for small lot housing in Brisbane. In early garden suburbs such as Brentham in west London, for example, the front gardens of adjoining houses on one or both sides of a street sometimes deepen quite substantially (at the expense of their back gardens²). Hedges and fences are kept well below eye height so the effect is to create from several narrow lots a wide pool of deep garden space that has been given over visually to the street. The generosity of this move expressed the sense of community the original garden suburbs aimed for and conjures the impression that the suburb is not as dense as it is. It may seem counter-intuitive, but a key to higher densities lies in understanding the value and function of open space, and the Boathouse offers a spirited precedent for rediscovering the possibilities of garden space in satisfying or diverting our spatial appetites.

1. Michael Young and Peter Willmott, The Symmetrical Family: A Study of Work and Leisure in the London Region, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Penguin, 1975.
2. Aileen Reid, Brentham: A History of the Pioneering Garden Suburb 1901-2001, Ealing: Brentham Heritage Society, 2000.

Greg Bamford is a Senior Lecturer in Architecture at The University of Queensland with a PhD in Philosophy. His research interests include the social aspects of housing, housing density and urban form.

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