Amid the harsh landscape near Australia’s Bass Strait, a farmhouse offers intimacy and true escape.
Melbourne-based architect John Wardle is well versed in designing houses for challenging landscapes. Bass Coast Farmhouse, the latest project by his studio, Wardle, sits on the edge of Victoria’s treacherous Bass Strait in southeastern Australia. A rural plot of about 66 hectares is punctuated by a sandhill, buffeted by Antarctic winds and blasted by harsh sunshine (the ozone layer is especially thin here). As such, the house was designed with the most extreme elements in mind.
The commission, which was nominated for a World Architecture Festival award, is the home of a pair of Wardle’s long-term clients. It is their fifth project with the practice. “As clients, they give us a lot of leeway,” says Wardle. “They are deeply appreciative, so it’s always a joy to work on projects with them.” For Bass Coast Farmhouse, the brief was, well, brief. “Just a two-line email: ‘a place to go to escape with friends’ and the number of bedrooms for the people that they would like to be able to accommodate.” The request was for 14.
Upon arrival, the house, which is surrounded by wild native grass, appears tough: grey and stark with a corrugated-iron roof, pre-weathered retractable timber walls and a single imposing concrete chimney. “I like the way that the house is closed up when you arrive,” says Wardle. “Once you’re inside you need to physically open it up, manually turning a winding mechanism. It takes 88 rotations to then power the electric motors that open the shutters.”
Even with the shutters open, the house is still a little “cloister-like”, says Wardle. “The design is all about looking inwards. I wanted to give a sense of being cosseted in the space.” The walls and ceilings, lined with spotted- gum hardwood, use the same timber as the passageway that snakes around three sides of the building, leading you inside above a central courtyard.
Inspired by the work of Brazilian architects Paulo Mendes da Rocha and Lina Bo Bardi while on a trip to São Paulo, Wardle was determined to give the property a subterranean room. “On the ocean side of the house, it’s as though the floor has fallen to earth,” he says, discussing a sunken, semi-outdoor area that is sheltered by the building. The sloping ground, strewn with rocks and boulders, and planted with grass from the area, brings a slice of the surrounding landscape into the building. “The roof and the walls remain constant around it but we have placed a series of concrete platforms [on top of this interior garden], as if they have just landed there,” Wardle says of the intervention.
“The intimate engagement of a family house that you find here is truly wonderful”
Beyond what he describes as the “repair” of the landscape in and around the home (replanting the lush native flora, for instance), the residence also has a strong emphasis on sustainability. Completely off-grid, it is powered by a solar-panel system that feeds into an enormous battery store, which is housed in a nearby shed.
Water was a primary consideration, given the constant threat of bushfires. Rainwater is harvested from the roofs of the house and shed, and used for drinking, some irrigation and filling up the swimming pool, which is made from a repurposed water tank. It is also used in the property’s hydronic floor heating during the winter months and is stored in two 100,000-litre tanks fitted with firehose nozzles.
Not all of the commissions that come Wardle’s way are this remote. His practice now has offices in three cities – Sydney, Melbourne and Launceston – with about 110 staff. “We have undertaken some major urban projects in recent years, including the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, university libraries and civic buildings,” he says. “I like working on projects that will affect urban life but the intimate engagement of a family house that you find here is truly wonderful too.”