Designing your home around nature

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BE Architecture built this rear extension and deck around a spectacular old gum tree

The desire to connect with nature can be powerful, especially for urban dwellers used to navigating the concrete jungle. But that yearning isn’t just the nagging need for a holiday — the scientific label is biophilia.

“The idea of biophilia is that humans have an innate biological tendency to want to connect with the natural world of which we are part,” says Stephen Choi, executive director of the Living Future Institute of Australia.

By embracing Mother Nature at home we could be living happier and healthier lives.

This house in inner Sydney won a National Sustainability Award for its socially responsible design by C plus C Architectural Workshop. Picture: Murray Fredericks

“Architecture, put very simply, is the art and practice of making the built environment. Biophilic design is the practice of connecting people and nature within our built environments and communities,” Stephen says.

Prior to the industrial revolution, the vast majority of humans lived much of their lives among nature, says Stephen, but now too many of us live under artificial lights, in mechanically ventilated spaces and are often more likely to explore nature though a screen.

Architect Matt Elkan worked around the existing trees on the site of his Ozone House. Picture: Simon Whitebread

“There has been solid growth in work around the critical importance of this human-nature connection — especially in urban areas,” Stephen says.

“Great biophilic design considers all our senses. In the design of homes, it is not just about providing access to green space, but allowing people to experience nature through touch, smell, sound, and even taste, as well as sight.”

While some architects and homeowners are pushing the boundaries with biophilic design, Stephen says anyone can turn over a new leaf at home.

“Rearranging spaces to better experience the time of day, the weather and the seasons is a great starting point,” he says. “Considering natural materials is another important option — anything from a new doormat to the choice of flooring are little ways to reconnect with the natural world outside.”

The Ozone House brief was to retain the natural environment. Picture: Simon Whitebread

Inviting nature into your new home can start with the floor plan, says architect Matt Elkan.

“With our 3 + 3 House the idea was to bring nature right into the house,” he says. “We broke the building into pieces to introduce courtyards and gardens that have equal value. It’s not just about outlook, but light and airflow as well. It’s everything in terms of how you’re living in the house.”

Director of C+C Architectural Workshop, Clinton Cole, practises what he preaches.

Matt Elkan’s Tree House design in Sydney’s Northern Beaches has a connectivity through the house to the landscape beyond. Picture: Clinton Weaver

As well as creating his own eco-friendly domain at home with a rooftop vegetable garden and edible fish, Clinton has created Acqua Permis, a transformation of an existing terrace into a family home complete with chook run and planting beds installed throughout the design.

“The owners got to the point where they were producing so much they literally had to go door knocking and give away their veggies and eggs. That’s how they got to know their neighbours. It really was the best unplanned outcome of that project,” he says.

C plus C Architectural Workshop worked with the environment on this inner Sydney home. Picture: Murray Fredericks

Architect Clinton Cole of C+C Architectural Workshop says our desire to connect to the environment is now extending to the animals we live with.

“We want to reduce our dependence on externally sourced services and produce, like eggs and vegetables,” he says. “People in inner cities are becoming more conscious about feeling connected to their environment and community.”

Clinton says we need to think outside the box that makes up our urban backyards.

“Maintaining your plants and gardens shouldn’t be viewed as a burden, but rather something that adds value,” he says.

The Tree House was designed by Matt Elkan to engage with the landscape. Picture: Clinton Weaver

Architect Matt Elkan says you can design your home to put you in more in touch with nature. Sometimes this is best achieved using a series of pavilions to put you right in the landscape.

“What it gives you is massive permeability and engagement with the landscape,” he says. A biophilia design can also reduce the footprint of your house.

“It allows you to build smaller houses. If you’re looking on to a wall then you’re immediately aware of how small the space is, whereas if you’re looking into the landscape the house can be fairly minimal but it feels generous,” he says.

To save a grand old gumtree, Broderick Ely and his design team from BE Architecture engaged engineers to meticulously study the sophisticated root systems

When Broderick Ely of BE Architecture took on the renovation of a historic home in Sydney’s east (above), there was a longstanding resident in the backyard — an old gum tree.

“Trees usually come off second best,” he says. “The building was designed around that tree and I’d say that as a result, the best aspects of the design come from that difficulty. There were a lot of reasons why we kept it, but it wasn’t council telling us to.”

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