Through the keyhole: a sneak peek at architects’ own inspirational homes

What do architects create when they design their own homes?


We take a peek inside the residences of two Sydney architects, Simon Anderson and Jane Johnson.

There’s something intriguing about discovering the kind of building architects create for their own homes. Unconstrained by the desires and ideas of clients, do they push the envelope or play it safe? Is what is important to them very different to what’s important to clients?

Here, two Sydney practitioners, Simon Anderson of Anderson Architecture and Jane Johnson of the eponymous Jane Johnson Architects, pull back the curtains on the homes they designed for themselves and their families.
Like any other client, Simon Anderson and his wife had a budget, a bank loan and an idea. “We have a real affinity for the bush and had dreamt of a bush block for years – somewhere peaceful to escape to,” he says.But for Anderson, the bush retreat would also act as a testing ground for sustainable design techniques, ones he has since incorporated into his practice.

It presented an opportunity to be truly experimental in a way that designing for a regular client rarely allows for.After looking at blocks close to Blackheath in the Blue Mountains, the Andersons found the isolated site of their dreams a little further afield. With that isolation came distance from services which complemented their decision to go entirely off-grid.

But first the site had to be prepared. It involved removing more trees than Anderson had anticipated or wanted. “But the art of architecture is total compromise,” he acknowledges.
With the threat of bushfires never more apparent, the advice of their bushfire consultant couldn’t be ignored, and Anderson’s vision of a building caressed by branch and bush was modified to accommodate the safe distance required between the house and the vegetation around it.Happily, many of the removed stringy-bark trees were milled and used in the construction of the house itself, their distinctive texture making up for the lack of trees close to the home and blurring the inside and out in a way Anderson relishes. “And because we are between two nature reserves, the site is like a highway for wildlife!”

The timber appearance of the INEX decking and cladding, which is composed of 60 per cent post-industrial recycled materials, has a camouflaging effect, while the product has a BAL 40 and BAL FZ fire rating – the highest possible. Customised retractable metal screens provide further protection from extreme weather while water tanks have a capacity of 22,000 litres.
The opposite-facing orientation of the cabin’s two boxes ensures both passive thermal performance and energy generated by a solar system are optimised. Double-glazing and a heat recovery unit – about the size of a small filing cabinet – means the cabin stays cosy on cold days, a feature that still gives Anderson a kick. “That I can walk into the house to find it warm before we’ve even lit the small wood fire remains a real joy,” he says. It’s innovations like these that help avoid the drain on energy and resources Anderson’s practice is so determined to overcome.
Ironically, an internet aerial provides a faster connection than Anderson was used to in Sydney, and gives access to the Cloud so he can check battery capacity. “We have no backup power,” he explains. “We’ve run out of power before and ended up effectively ‘camping’ in our lovely house until the sun came out the next morning.”While a petrol generator is an option, Anderson is inclined to forgo that security and live more in tune with the environment and its seasons. And given the cabin’s extraordinary temperature efficiency, the odd candlelit night in such a beautiful spot isn’t too high a price to pay.
Jane Johnson’s Bondi “forever home”Years living in Europe had taught architect Jane Johnson that the best buildings, streets and urban spaces are the ones in which new developments are incorporated into the existing architecture.
“There is so much embodied energy in an existing structure,” she says. “One of the most sustainable things you can do as an architect is renovate and work with whatever assets a house already has.”So, when Johnson found a 1960s red-brick house in North Bondi in 1999, she recognised in it the bones of the old 1920s California bungalow it once was and knew her family’s “forever home” was in there, too – it just needed to be revealed.

Believing that site must always be the primary cue for design, Johnson and her husband, a bush regenerator, started from the outside in. “People often forget that your property goes all the way to your boundary, and visually even further,” says Johnson. So one of their first projects was not to knock down walls or build extensions, but to plan and plant the garden, which is as much a part of the home as the kitchen or bedrooms.Renovations started some five years later, with parts of the house excavated from decades of additional layers. A downstairs bedroom wall even retained a turquoise patina of original wallpaper and while the old gable setback was beyond restoration, it remains an affectionate link to the past. Recycled jarrah now makes up much of the home’s structure: “It was very important to me that we use as much recycled material as possible.”Today, the house includes a new kitchen and dining room, and two upstairs bedrooms with a bathroom and balcony, to accommodate Johnson’s family of four (and Charlie the dog). “It’s very tactile,” says Johnson.

With no air-conditioning, the building makes the most of the sea breezes: “A house should be able to live and breathe with the seasons.” The back room, home to the kitchen and dining area, is the perfect sun trap on a cold winter’s day, while in summer the doors to the garden and pond are thrown open to catch the breeze.The garden and pond remain integral parts of the home. Indeed, the area now occupied by the pond was once part of the large back room, the “extra” triangle of the trapezoid-shaped space happily given over to plants and water. With a backdrop of “rough back” sandstone (effectively offcuts from the quarry), the pond’s ripples reflect onto the ceiling of the room – a feature that still delights Johnson. 

Photo creditsPlease refer to architects’ websites for images and credit Simon Anderson (cabin) and Nic Bailey (bungalow) for photos.

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