- Article by Online Editor
- Photography by Christopher Frederick Jones
- Architect Brian Steendyk
The worker’s cottage typology is not unique to Brisbane. Other Australian towns and cities contain humble, barely sufficient, family cottages intended to accommodate the working class close to traditional working centres. The Queensland worker’s cottage however displays a level of ingenuity, economy and material poverty which changes its character altogether from its masonry counterparts.
‘Timber and tin’ residential structures could be viewed as nineteenth century ‘systems buildings’. They were an exercise in resourcefulness and commercial savvy. The lightweight, single-trade buildings were primarily a response to skills and material availability, transportation of materials and avoidance of wet trades. Timber stumps were also used for reasons of material or skills availability – and in hilly cities like Brisbane, as a cost effective alternative to cut and fill.
Commercial equations, not architectural, were the driving forces, particularly because early cottage models were providing housing for pioneering industries in the north like mining and forestry.
Single skin, ‘timber and tin’ houses are now a part of our cultural heritage – but there are myths surrounding this typology, particularly to do with their climatic suitability. In The Australian House, the widely used handbook to traditional ‘timber and tin’ architecture, Balwant Saini clarifies the issues.
The lightweight building fabric is thermally fickle, allowing relentless summer heat to easily penetrate the interior. Cross ventilation, important in hot, humid regions is often inadequate, because of small fenestrations, and relies on fortunate siting and favourable aspect. Roofs and walls (not protected by verandas) can become a source of radiant heat to the interior, as can uninsulated roof spaces. Typically, traditional ‘timber and tin’ houses are hot in summer and cold in winter and often the only cool part of the house in summer is the masonry walled, slab-on-ground DIY extension built under the original house. This is supported by the evidence that Queenslander houses were mounted on tall stumps to provide for cool utility and family spaces beneath the house itself.
Writing this reminds me of my grandparents’ house in Roberts Street, Townsville – the house sat three metres above the flat suburban lot. In the forest of timber stumps beneath were not only the laundry, dunny, workshop and car accommodation but also cane sitting room furniture – and I have clear memories of a 1970s Christmas lunch under the house on the cool concrete slab.
Today, thermal issues can be corrected by using insulation and roof ventilation.
We treasure these houses for their cultural appropriateness. Compared to the masonry, attached housing found in southern cities, the Queensland house offers an almost tent-like accommodation befitting Queensland’s assumed cultural profile. It seems there is reciprocity between the Queensland people and our beloved ‘timber and tin’ dwellings – whereby the casual, outdoor life is perpetuated.
Adjusting the original
The scheme employs a diagram, which raised the original cottage and occupies the space beneath. This is a significant change to the original siting of the worker’s cottage because the original dwelling no longer houses the important entry sequence and public rooms. The wonderful conditions of a veranda on the street, and a floor platform hovering one metre above the site have been adjusted in this scheme. The benefit of the strategy is that by raising the cottage and building beneath it, a small footprint is generated at the front of the 200 square metre site, with a generous and open landscape at the rear. As a result, although the new work attains more floor area, it does so without altering the site cover. This affords the ground level public rooms a working climatic and spatial condition, whereby those rooms are able to borrow open space and favourable northeasterly climate from the open backyard space.
Steendyk adopts this manoeuvre for reasons of human comfort and climatic correctness. The ground level rooms have been deliberately moderated in their size to enjoy an intimate condition, but can also be unified with the open rear landscape by opening the sliding door system. The scheme utilises the original cottage for private (bedroom) space and its original room planning has been preserved. The architect is interested in recognising the cottage’s original central corridor planning and has set up the new stair location accordingly, establishing vertical circulation to align with the original corridor. The diagram for the whole scheme also affords a welcoming and appropriately utilitarian entry sequence, bringing visitors from beneath the front veranda, into the kitchen – the heart of the house.
The new ground level public rooms are insulated from summer heat by the upper level, which also contains wall and roof insulation itself. Their northeast orientation allows winter sun to enter the interior, whilst summer sun is excluded, thereby using the ground slab as a thermal mass for cooling or heating at the appropriate times. Western sun is managed at the street façade and the driveway wall through the use of solid elements – both static and operable.The new rear façade assists in capturing desirable northeast and southeast breezes and managing them to good use. The building harvests its roof water, which is filtered by the bamboo garden and stored beneath the rear lawn.
Now and then
The existing cottage on the site was derived by default from Georgian planning principles and pioneer commercial forces. Our love for the building type has perhaps created restrictive expectations – particularly with respect to the preservation of the verandas quaint public demeanour. Likewise, climatic and cultural concerns had little to do with the design of the original dwelling, even though it has an architectural value that is hard to reproduce. The new scheme, however, has been conceived of by a local architect with a knowledge of appropriate climatic design and who views the city in progressive and intelligent terms, rather than in the light of jingoistic nostalgia.
Significant revision of the siting and role of traditional ‘timber and tin’ houses is not unexpected or rare in Brisbane. Surprisingly (or not) few of these houses receive attention from an architect, so it’s interesting to critique the outcome. Brian Steendyk’s adjustment of the original cottage displays admirable confidence in that it provides a correct climatic condition and sets up a valuable landscape-sanctuary in what is a very small and challenging CBD site.
All aspects of the project have been executed with a great deal of thoughtfulness and skill – the dark interior successfully moderates the abundant exterior light; the stair landing provides a special private view over the street; a lively yet private connection with street-life is a virtue of the scheme, and these manoeuvres negotiate the house’s public/private role more successfully than original veranda.
The scheme provides a genuinely interesting, amiable relationship with the street but at the same time a private backyard open space. Compliance with fundamental climatic and human concerns has allowed the architect to adjust the original icon so that virtues of the original cottage have either been sensitively recognised or cleverly adjusted to create an ideal set of experiences.