“Mindful use of space”


Of all the words, phrases and even images used by the architect to describe the 2015 AIA Gold Coast House of the Year, Northern Rivers Beach House by Refresh*, “mindful use of space” is perhaps my personal favourite. It combines three beautiful and fundamental concepts of architecture: mindfulness, utility and space.

Erhard Rathmayr, Director of Refresh*, offers a refresh-ing alternative within a sometimes weary construction industry that is often be accused of belting out built form as if it were an extrusion rather than an opportunity. As an expression of Erhard’s architectural values and philosophies, the award-wining Northern Rivers Beach House is a perfect case study.

The beach house was the first of two planned by the architect for a subdivision within a dual occupancy development in a quite beachside setting close to Byron Bay. Located on a corner, suburban lot surrounded by a mix of traditional cottage-style houses and shack-like structures,  the architectural brief for this project was to design a contemporary, cost effective three-bedroom house for an owner-builder and friend as a ‘re-interpretation’ of the beach shack vernacular in a contemporary way. A subtropical open-plan living space well connected to nature was also critical, while making an architectural statement was a must.

The challenges of the small site area, just 343m2, along with flood constraints and a low budget, resulted in exploring the unconventional concept of a cantilevered structure, with both ends overhanging in a delicate counterbalance achieved with the lightest of steel members.
“With a sparing use of steel for the major structural elements and traditional timber for the secondary structure, an economical, bridge-like architecture was created to inspire a soaring visual effect,” explains Erhard.

The house floats above the ground, almost taunting the floods to arrive and render visually irrelevant the toothpick-like columns that form the only structural connection between house and earth.

In fact, the challenge of the flood-prone site inspired the suspended ground floor concept, disconnecting the natural ground and elevated living areas, leaving undercroft parking and utility areas to be screened with a delicate array of battens.
Above, large openings from the house onto an expansive deck to the north and east provide great connections to the environment as well as generous shading and essential privacy.
This large expanse of glazing embodies the light and lightness of the architect’s vision, while instantly arousing in me the pleasant architectural memory of a visit long ago to Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, the quintessential glass house in a green setting.

Finished with a simple material palette of corrugated metal cladding, timber battens, plywood ceilings, bamboo floors and an affordable IKEA kitchen, the house is environmentally sustainable, featuring beneficial solar orientation, generous cross ventilation, wide overhangs, rainwater harvesting and much more.

But it is Erhard’s philosophy of compact living that is best expressed by the Northern Rivers Beach House and by his own words, “The design of this house follows the most genuine strategy of sustainability by saving on resources through mindful use of space”.