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In the 1980s and 1990s, a smart young Australian family’s dream home was a clear concept: a big suburban three-bedroom house on a modest block, with a neat lawn and two-car garage, replete with a backyard pool (if you could afford it). Tastes evolved, of course, and as the cultural might of cities such as Melbourne and Sydney boomed, families looked to smaller-footprint living in apartments and terraced homes, closer to the action. Today, with urban property prices soaring, families are retreating back to the suburbs and the Australian bush beyond them. This time, however, they are making more informed decisions and choices about how they live.

The new home of photographer Sean Fennessy, his stylist wife Jessica Lillico and their two small children reflects this change. Having spent most of their professional lives in the well-heeled inner suburbs of Melbourne, the couple have now opted instead for country living in a spot that feels like the bush but is just a 40-minute drive from the city. “Its position and its place, the outlook onto nature, the relative silence except for the birds in the morning and the option to let the kids run around the backyard – the essence of this house is satisfying,” says Fennessy, showing us around the cosy 1969 modernist residence, which the family has just completed renovating.

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Main living space with built-in sofa and dividing wall designed by Melbourne architect Adriana Hanna
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Designed in 1969, the house allows inhabitants to look out at nature

The place is relatively small and could have easily been knocked down in favour of erecting a beefier building but the pair saw something special in the slight timber and brick bones of the property. “The home’s architect was never considered cool, like Robin Boyd and the great Aussie modernists,” says Fennessy of Alistair Knox, the little-known designer who created the home and many others in this leafy, loosely suburban pocket northeast of Melbourne. “He wasn’t even an architect; he was self-trained,” adds Lillico. “For this reason, he maybe didn’t have a desire to replicate the more sophisticated modernism of the time; he was doing his own take on it. It was a bit of a hippy artistic area back in the day and this style suited the place well.”

“Its look changes: parts fade in the sun, it takes nicks and bumps. But we don’t want this place to be pristine”

Whether he knew it or not, the free-spirited approach Knox pioneered here is one that somehow feels better suited for a modern Australian family home now than it did 50 years ago. “The materials he worked with included mud bricks and recycled timbers – just whatever was available to him,” says Melbourne architect Adriana Hanna, who designed the renovation for the family and was attracted to Knox’s low-impact way of working. “The simplicity of his designs seems effortless and there is an appreciation for local materials. It is sustainability in its first principles; it is all passive design.”

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Artwork by Elyss McCleary

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Matilda peeks through the shelves

The winning features that create this passivity are simple and smart. The home’s skylight-lined clerestory roof and several openings downstairs negates the need for artificial lighting during the day and allows air to flow freely through the house. The timber deployed across the home is hard-wearing and from the area – spotted gum, blackbutt (an Aussie hardwood) and cedar. The brick floors, meanwhile, help to absorb the day's heat from the sun to keep the place warm during chillier nights.

Biography: Alistair Knox
Born in 1912, Alistair Knox spent most of his career pioneering a low-impact style of architecture in Melbourne and further into the state of Victoria. Known for drawing upon local materials, his approach was born from shortages after the Second World War but evolved into trailblazing work, for showing what could be achieved with mud brick. Knox was responsible for more than 2,000 properties but, sadly, much of his work has been badly renovated or torn down and replaced with bigger homes. But gems do still exist on the market and are being snapped up by a savvy set of young Aussies.

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En-suite bathroom adjoining the master bedroom
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Sculptures by Sean Meilak and drawing by Emily Ferretti

The new owners aimed to honour this approach in their refurbishment. This spans from a development of the hilly garden, with the reintroduction of native plants and hefty boulders (popular in the 1960s) through to the interior. Hanna was asked to design built-in elements that complemented the original look and feel, including a timber-lined lounge, adjoined to a handsome shelving unit that also acts as a dividing screen. Modernist wooden furniture completes the look. “The use of timber links to the idea about the house growing into itself,” says Fennessy. “Its look changes: parts fade in the sun, it takes nicks and bumps. But we don’t want this place to be pristine.”

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Master bedroom with artwork by Ita Tipungwuti
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View of the dining and kitchen space

As an architect, and in respect to Knox, Hanna says that her aim was always “to deliver a look that didn’t feel like I put a hand in it”. And she has achieved exactly that. The result is one that will hopefully continue a positive movement in Australian architecture around reducing the impact of the built environment, while eschewing some industry insecurities about relying on what’s available down under.

“For a good quality home you need good quality materials,” says Hanna. “But the mindset here is that this means imported materials,” she adds, noting that Knox showed long ago that buildings which honour the environment could be built entirely from what was easily available. “This home is a joy at all times of the day. The lightness, the warmth – the design really enhances the way you live. It’s a rare thing and it’s something worth celebrating.”

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