MATT ELKAN ARCHITECT: Photosynthesis House – A suburban beach house

The house attempts to use traditional beach cottage materials and building techniques in thoughtful ways to reference the feeling of the existing suburb, to improve on it, without overwhelming it… All rooms open to the north light. Extensive use of glass louvres and external venetian blinds means that sun and airflow can always be moderated. 

Matt Elkan’s houses are at once unconventional, relevant, reflective of a down to earth Aussie-ness and beautiful.

Photosynthesis house is a stand out example of the way in which architecture has the potential to changes lives (or lifestyle) for the better because the underlying ideas are at once attuned to the practicalities of daily family life and lifestyle in the broad sense.

What is so special about this house? 

The reason this house works in terms of both design and relevance is encapsulated in the above quote.  Australians have an affinity with the beach even if they don’t live anywhere near the ocean.  The ocean (or indeed water) lives in our psyche as endemic to the Australian way of life – we view it as both an inspiration and an aspiration.  While this house is on Manly Dam, nevertheless it is both close to the water and the ocean.

Photosynthesis house embodies ideas around being Australian in an Australian house with oblique references to the beach being central to it. However, while this is true the success of the house can be attributed to universal ideas distilled through the unique vision of the architect Matt Elkan.

Wide open spaces!

The notion of Australia’s “wide open spaces” has been eulogised by Australians from time in memorial as the poem by Doretha Mackellar, My Country testifies to.  The above ideas relate to our concept of freedom also. The association with Photosynthesis house is that the architect distills these concepts through experimentation with light and space and timber.

More specifically the way space has been organised to at once take advantage of the outdoors, reflect a sense of the outdoors and open up the building to the outdoors.

The love of open space and incorporating it is evident in every aspect of this house; the living room opens up fully to the garden on one side and to the front of the house on the other.  The glass ceiling walkway is a coup both practically and in terms of a creative intersection which opens to the outdoors and from above allows the outdoors in.  It not only looks amazing but it also lightens up the density of the original two blocks.  It will never be a heat trap in summer because of the judicious use of louvres and openings in all four directions.

The front of the house has an expansive openness with the cantilevered corrugated iron roof hovering over deep space –  like coming across a beautiful clearing in the woods.  This area also brings to mind a hard day in the shed now relaxing with a beer under the old tree – full of references together welcoming and laid back.

Why unconventional architecture changes lives for the better?  

A big claim but true.  An imaginative design process has gone into how to unite and transform the two existing structures on site to work positively for a family going into the 21st century.

The first thing as mentioned is that Elkan clearly loves, respects and working with timber. The timber in the house will age beautifully and it will happily capture the history of the inhabitants as quality timber does.   It will develop its own patina from exposure to prevailing conditions. Timber has been used structurally but also to create ambiance and art.  If a thing is worth doing why not do it efficiently and imaginatively.

The architect understands that a house or home is so much more than four walls, kitchen, dining and lounge.  It is clear from looking at Elkan’s portfolio that conventional is not in his vocabulary, a blessing for the clients.  For more proof of this visit South Coast Container House on Matt Elkan’s website.

Secondly, the house is not over-designed it displays judicious demarcations of space and clever glazing solutions to ensure use of space in the house is maximised for both summer and winter.  Space is organised in an elongated cross to take advantage of the sun’s position across the entire year.

Furthermore, this house has an ideal indoor-outdoor ratio; the family, with individual members, has access to a number of discrete areas inside and outside the house.  The multiple relaxation areas take care of both privacy and entertaining issues.  This is a focused house where all members of the family are catered for.  An added bonus is the fact that nature is so much part of interiors.

Matt Elkan’s singular vision!

The architect is not following any trend and that for the clients is a plus!  If there is a trend it is that of architecture realising and focusing on lifestyle rather than trappings.  This is a home the inhabitants will love occupying because it reflects an image of themselves as interesting, appreciative of both art and atypical, yet sophisticated rusticism.  The key here is that the clients have at once a practical and a sustainable home (self-watering roof and tank as well as concrete and timber).  In short a home designed for lifestyle.  This idea embodied also in the fact that this house will be easy to maintain and look after.

But? Where’s the art?  

The art in Photosynthesis house is everywhere!  It is in the wise use of materials on one hand and where those materials have been placed on the other.

The overhead battens on the exterior north walls will both filter the harshness of the sun as well as cast beautiful patterns on floor and wall at certain times of the day.  Similarly, the strip of boards or battens which run from north to south over the kitchen are synchronised to the width of the louvres on the north side at once leading your eye to the outdoors on two sides as well as counterpointing or defining the quirky relaxed kitchen area.

That kitchen!  As you walk up the steps on the north side your eye will be caught by the simplicity and textures in the kitchen.  So enticing!  The kitchen has a beachy / hippy / outdoors feeling courtesy of the concrete bench, material textures, the soft palette and the particular configurations of the timber. Not only that, but the kitchen is buried in the centre on the ground floor (open on three sides) so it will be cool to work in.   This is a kitchen that invites communal living in a casual way.  It does not care how it is treated or if it is exposed to dirt.

The visual impact around the tank and old tree is dynamic: looking from the tree back to the house – the invigorating timber patterns courtesy of the corrugated iron.  The addition of stone with the garden and timber in this area – informal and yet refined.  This area will become richer over the years.  The whole project is worth it to have this beautiful area under the old tree at the front.

The stairwell and library area: so rich and interesting because of the light, glass, stairwell, and timber.  Moreover, in the bedroom, the interplay of light, colour and timber unfold in a simple stylish and yet unusual manner.  There are too many examples to note them all.

Photosynthesis house will never date because the architect has taken a holistic approach to problem solving and design.  The house style is eclectic which means the overall design does not rely on any one period for inspiration or decision making.  Quality materials have been used to fit specific family purposes thus the home will adapt beautifully and naturally as it ages.  Going forward the inhabitant’s lives will be enhanced by this house in ways they never imagined at the outset.

Photographer Simon Whitbread

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