Architecture

Urban Trajectories

September 23, 2009

Troppo Architects’ residential project sets a benchmark for sustainable, community focused development in the tropics.

Architect’s Statement
This medium density housing development celebrates Darwin’s unique outdoor lifestyle. The elevated houses are on 350 square metre sites. The project is significant because of its scale (that of a small village) and it demonstrates the benefits of medium density housing that responds to Darwin’s climate and place.

Urban Trajectories embraces nature. A two-storey vertical galvanised sheet displays the gusto of the rainwater collected off the roof –here the wet season is celebrated. Ponds and timber decks mark the entrance to the houses – elements of water and nature designed to slow down, relieve.

Timber stairwells protect, filter the glare, a darker space; the pond is inside too. The house breathes and maintains a comfortable temperature to greet the occupants back home. Inside the living room the section is uplifting, extending to the veranda, wanting the dweller to open the doors and windows so that interior and veranda merge into one harmonious room.

The footprints of the houses are kept to a minimum, so as to maximise the area for garden and external living space. The landscape is native, with edible fruits of course. Long native grasses and trees buffer the park activity from the sociable spaces of the verandas and filter the afternoon sun.

Water falling on the site is directed to a stormwater absorbtion trench filled with recycled stone collected from the drainage for the bowling green that formerly sat on the site. This runs along the boundary between park and houses, replenishing the groundwater.

The park is a gift, a result of the Parap residents and friends standing up for a good development process. It offers a green vista to the end of the road and protects the houses from headlights. The sea breeze blows straight up Ross Smith and the houses are located to access this breeze as well as to allow it through to dwellings behind.

Urban Trajectories is not a 4, 5 or 6 star development – it’s low-energy demand housing designed for our climate.

Review
Corrugated steel cladding glittering in the late afternoon sunlight marks a new medium density housing development by Troppo Architects in suburban Parap, Darwin. Sub-titled Urban Trajectories, the project is a serious approach to sustainable architecture in the tropics – an environment that is hot for most of the year and humid during the wet season that spans from October to April.

A townhouse development in detached, duplex or triplex form on small sites grouped around an inner public street creating a tight village-like atmosphere, the project resulted from a design competition sponsored by the Northern Territory government during the Year of the Built Environment in 2004, and is situated on a site that was once a popular lawn bowls club. There is a mix of three-bedroom dwellings, mostly over two storeys, with a marked difference in design between the units facing Ross Smith Avenue to the west of the site and those towards the east. In broad terms, the former have their major living spaces on the first floor to take advantage of breezes and views while the latter comprise larger two-storey dwellings with generous undercroft space and split-level upper floors that are paired with smaller, partially elevated dwellings.

The open park to the west of the site, a brief requirement, was the result of negotiations between local residents and the government at design stage. The resulting parkland continues early patterns of use, with local residents and visitors free to wander through the area and make use of the facilities, as they once did with the bowls club. But the park has other uses both pragmatic and symbolic. It establishes a buffer between the dwellings and a sometimes-busy arterial road; when the landscaping is established, the native vegetation (that includes large rainforest trees) will provide welcome shade to the park and protect the on-facing units from the harsh western sun.

However, it is the symbolic function of the site and its contribution to the organisation of the complex that is most significant, for the park and circulation pathways continue the trajectory of Darwin’s first airstrip along Ross Smith Avenue. This is important, as the airstrip looms large in Australia’s history. It was here on 10 December 1919 that Captain Ross Smith and his crew landed, completing the first flight from London to Australia. Amy Johnson, Amelia Earhart and Charles Kingsford Smith were also some of the many aviators who landed here and it was from this airstrip that Qantas Empire Airways departed Australia carrying first mail and then passengers to the United Kingdom.

The townhouses are striking in their design, with complex and well considered detailing that contrasts remarkably well with the ordered simplicity of the planning. Considerable attention is given to ensuring visual privacy through orientation, landscaping and the use of timber slats and screening devices, yet acoustic privacy will depend largely on individual consideration. A broad material palette is used with sensitivity and precision to define each unit while ensuring a level of uniformity within the complex. The colours and textures of the blockwork ground floor walls contrast with the concrete floor slab and lightweight steel framing of the upper levels. Timber provides a delightful interlude between these hard materials. Strong references to Darwin’s early building traditions are revealed in the form and detailing of these dwellings, which echo the work of the pre-war architect Beni Burnett and pay homage to the high-set tropical house that is still plentiful in Parap.

Shelter and protection from the harsh glare of the tropical sun were important considerations in the design of the interiors, with the shaded entrance and dramatic stairwell preparing visitors for the living spaces within. These simple rectilinear spaces have extensive openings to promote cross-ventilation and there is an emphasis on the integration of these interior rooms with the exterior, both physically and visually. The planning is functional and the dwellings are well serviced by facilities, yet for all its simplicity there are some idiosyncratic circulation pathways through the dwellings.

While all bedrooms are provided with air-conditioning, several passive design strategies were adopted in the design to promote comfortable living conditions. Large open verandas provide outdoor living spaces that integrate well with the major internal living spaces. Glass and timber louvres ensure good flow-through ventilation to all rooms. Wind scoops along the ridge capture the cooling sea breezes that funnel down the length of Ross Smith Avenue from Darwin Harbour. High ceilings and strategically positioned roof vents create a chimney effect within the dwellings that exhaust the build up of hot air. Roof planes act to channel the intense tropical rains to ponds and landscaped areas around, and in some instances within, the dwellings. A large perimeter drain – filled with bluestone salvaged from the bowling green drainage system – runs along the western boundary harvesting stormwater for the site while a limited grey-water recycling system provides much needed water in the dry season.

The careful use of low-maintenance building materials, the adoption of sustainable principles in design, the provision of public space incorporating children’s playground and public art, and the use of native species in the landscaping provides a model medium-density housing development for the tropics that we can only hope will be emulated in the future.

Dr David Bridgman is an architect specialising in the field of heritage conservation. He has undertaken significant research into the built environment of Australia’s northern tropics.

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