Homeowners are getting back to nature, thanks to new trends that have architects embracing the great outdoors and landscape designers letting their gardens grow wild.

BY STEPHEN CRAFTI

LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTS AROUND the country are letting loose, trading box-hedged English-style gardens for a less tame, naturalistic approach that’s in keeping with Australia’s botanical vernacular. It’s part of a broader trend that sees designers, architects and homeowners moving away from anything too manicured, too controlled, as they seek a deeper connection with nature.

Matt Cantwell, the managing director of Secret Gardens, a Sydney-based company whose projects line the eastern seaboard, says clients in both urban and rural settings are moving away from the formal gardens that have been popular in recent years. “People are starting to embrace what I often refer to as the ‘last frontier’, happily accepting a few scrappy plants rather than tamed ones.”

In his designs, Cantwell typically blends native plants with succulents and species found in Mediterranean climates. One of his recent projects is Crane Lodge at Sydney’s Palm Beach, about an hour’s drive from the big smoke, where he assisted with the landscape design and construction.

Approximately 80% of his plantings at Crane Lodge are endemic species – no small feat given that they can be hard to come by. “Even if you happen to have seeds, it can take years to see the effort take shape,” Cantwell says. “And in the case of Crane Lodge, we had a few months to bring things together.”

The result is a luxury stay that knows its place. Spread across 2,000 square metres, and with a 30-metre drop to the road, the five­bedroom guest accommodation is a favourite among locals who want a wilderness experience without having to trek across the continent. The moment they reach the front door (via an inclinator), the natural world makes itself known.

It’s easy to be enchanted by the enormous roots of an established Moreton Bay fig, its tentacles wrapping around sizeable ancient boulders. Inside the home, terracotta tones dominate, blending with Tasmanian-milled timbers and recycled materials. Built in the mid-1990s, the home was re-imagined by the architect Carl Redfern and the interior designer Carol Whiting before it opened as Crane Lodge in late 2020.

“Once you arrive, you feel like you’re in the treetops, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Pittwater on the other,” says Kim Ellis, the co-founder of Wild Luxury, which operates Crane Lodge, plus Calabash Bay Lodge in Berowra, on Sydney’s northern edge.

A big believer in “eco-positivity”, Ellis is driven by a desire to connect people with the outdoors. “People are looking for sanctuaries to escape to: places where they can reconnect with the natural landscape, to feel like they are part of it and enjoy what it has to offer, both mentally and physically,” she says.

“At Crane Lodge, we’ve planted about 45 species that are endemic to Pittwater, including lemon myrtle trees and burrawangs, which were used as a food source prior to colonial times. Our brief to Matt was to create a natural forest for an outdoor bathing experience,” she says, referring to the heated pool and hot tub that sit at the foot of a giant boulder.

For Cantwell, it was a challenging project. Not only did he have a dramatic slope and rocky terrain to contend with, he was tasked with creating a natural curtain to shield the home and ensure complete privacy. In response, he planted blueberry ash, lilly pilly and lemon myrtles along the boundary and had silver lady fems installed below the dense tree canopy. “The aim was to make the grounds look and feel as natural and un-orchestrated as possible,” he says, “with nothing that appears ‘manicured’.”

MEANWHILE, AS LANDSCAPE designers embrace chaos theory, architects have turned to biophilic design. This trend, which sees the power of the natural world incorporated into the built one, has gained major momentum throughout the pandemic. At its best, biophilic design offers a sensorial connection to nature, elevating it from an external accessory to an intrinsic element of the interior. Sustainable principles are de rigueur and extend from the materials used to the people involved (locals, ideally).

These principles echo throughout Coastal Court, a property in Flinders on the Mornington Peninsula. The owners moved into the new build having spent the previous 40 years on the family farm, and wanted to retain a connection with the natural world. And so Melbourne’s Bower Architecture treated the L-shaped concrete and timber-clad house in a holistic manner.

They had reverse-block masonry walls and polished concrete floors installed, both of which act as heat banks, capturing and storing the sun’s rays. “There was certainly an emphasis on using natural materials, with the absolute minimum of plasterboard used for walls,” says Chema Bould, a director at Bower Architecture.

The resulting home has a seven-star energy rating, with generous doors and windows that allow for plenty of cross ventilation. And with its thoughtful design, it can be completely opened up or alternatively modified to ensure accessibility for the owners in the years to come.

The low-slung windows allow for privacy while incorporating the exterior’s native plantings, including endemic grasses, into the design of the interior. “Many of the noxious weeds were removed and coastal plants were brought in,” Bould says of the garden, which also features vegetable beds and a chicken coop. It’s the work of Andrew Laidlaw, a landscape architect who was integral to designs at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria.

For a recent project, Corner House, also in Flinders, the design studio Archier treated the house and garden as if the two were in con­versation with each other. Created for two architects who realised their shortcomings when it comes to domestic design, Corner House is more akin to a series of living platforms than a house bordered by a garden.

The 200-square-metre two-bedroom residence is anchored by an internal courtyard (designed by the landscape architects at Openwork). “Our clients weren’t looking for a particularly large house, but they wanted areas where they could be together and others where they could be on their own,” says Chris Gilbert, a director at Archier. The brief also stipulated that the clients needed sufficient wall space to showcase their art collection.

The facade is clad in fibro cement and is relatively anonymous, ensuring privacy from the nearby road. Beyond that, there are five main rooms conceived over five different levels, giving each room a distinct feel and a unique relationship with the internal courtyard. “We used the planting in the courtyard almost like a veil, where you get glimpses of spaces on the other side of the courtyard,” says Gilbert.

Gilbert wanted the home to have a sense of place and, most importantly, he wanted his clients to feel as if they were part of the landscape rather than looking at it from afar. As for the plantings used, the owners were keen to include a number of the European species that they grew up with in England, however they also wanted a naturalistic style in the courtyard, which offers the main aspect. Established gum trees provide a canopy over the property, adding to the cocoon-like atmosphere.

Archier included a number of sustainable features in the design, such as structural insulated panels for many of the walls, which ensures they are airtight and reduces acoustics from nearby roads. Double glazing with integrated IPlus glass mitigates heat loss during the colder months of the year, while the silvertop ash on the ceilings and blackbutt on the floors were both sourced locally.

In Tasmania, the architect Lara Maeseele worked in association with Tanner Architects to design her Bruny Island weekender, Killora Bay House. Sustainability informed every aspect of the build, which was awarded best new home at the 2021 Tasmanian Architecture Awards.

“We wanted to retain the protected white gums on our property, as they are a food source for 40 endangered spotted pardalote parrots,” says Maeseele, who also had to contend with a range of council restrictions, including a limit of one storey (so the home wouldn’t be visible from the bay) and a total diameter of just 18 metres.

Modest in scale, the resulting structure is entirely clad in fire­resistant, locally sourced silvertop ash and beautifully integrates with the bush setting. With space at a premium, Maeseele carefully considered the function of every room. The second bedroom, for example, not only serves as a playroom for Maeseele’s three young children, it can also be a guestroom, thanks to the double bed hidden within a wall cavity.

Maeseele has maintained a neutral palette throughout, from the white tiles that line the open-air shower to the stained Tasmanian oak floors. With sliding doors and sweeping windows blurring the distinction between inside and out, natural light floods the home, dappled by the island’s established gums and dense, fem-filled terrain.

“We love spending time in the bush and being so connected to the environment,” says Maeseele. “You’re always conscious that you’re here, surrounded by birds and these towering gum trees.”