Jungle Treehouse Meets Urban Brisbane Home

Located halfway up a ridge of Highgate Hill in inner-Brisbane, stands the lush Terrarium House, created by owner-architect John Ellway.

John and his wife Amber Winter reflect on their considered design for this dreamy home, adaptable to the seasons and imbued with cherished memories.

Elle Murrell

Architect John Ellway and Amber Winter outside their home in Highgate Hill, Brisbane. Photo – Toby Scott.

The ‘Terrarium House’ is an atypical extension of a 100-year-old cottage. Photo – Toby Scott.

Joinery throughout the home is by Mast Furniture. Photo – Toby Scott.

Kitchen with artwork on timber wall by Laura Patterson.Photo – Toby Scott.

Rear exterior, showcasing John’s adaptable screen and door systems. Photo – Toby Scott.

Meals and living area downstairs. Photo – Toby Scott.

Kitchen details. Photo – Toby Scott.

In winter, a large panel slides to enclose the rear void, while in summer deep eaves protect the north from the sun and the aforementioned large panel can be left open allowing breezes to flow through. Photo – Toby Scott.

Ceramics by Amber Winter. Photo – Toby Scott.

The food preparation bench in solid blackbutt with black granite on a narrow, rendered block plinth. Photo – Toby Scott.

‘The semi-transparent downstairs eastern windows are magical on misty, drizzly days,’ tells Amber. Photo – Toby Scott.

This home is designed to be adaptable to the seasons. Photo – Toby Scott.

John was inspired to integrate lush greenery into the home from past trips to Japan, Malaysia and Singapore. Photo – Toby Scott.

Built-in bed and shelving system by Mast Furniture. Photo – Toby Scott.

Upstairs, the two front rooms can either be opened up to a common hallway space or separated by their large floor-to-ceiling sliding panels. Photo – Toby Scott.

Terrarium house is a physical manifestation of memories – from childhood through to more recent travels – for owners John Ellway and Amber Winter. In his design, John used screens to open and divide space, along with semi-translucent glass, invoking memories of past trips to Japan, while the lush planting, rendered block, and semi-outdoor bathroom are inspired by more recent travels to Malaysia and Singapore.

Other aspects of the design have more pragmatic origins – responses to managing the overland flow of storm-water, sewer pipes, easements, planning rules, budget, as well as a ‘100-year-old cottage that was slowly crumbling into a backyard jungle.’

Rather than building up, John’s extension utilises the space below the original one-bedroom cottage and its sloping site. Comprising laundry, bathroom, meals and lounge areas, this new lower level is both designed and detailed to reflect the former shadowy under-croft. Black stained ceilings, concrete floors, rendered walls, and a perimeter ledge all contribute to a ‘grounded’ atmosphere.

The kitchen, with its stunning white polished plaster walls, incorporates two zones. A more public, open area for food preparation, cooking and entertaining, whilst appliances and pantry – with beloved gauzy glass doors – are all carefully hidden.

The large cantilevered concrete bench on the western side of the house was poured as part of the wall construction. The dishwasher and a series of wide timber drawers are hung from its underside, keeping the floor visible. ‘It feels like a really generous large space – since we spend so much time in there, we can both be cooking or cleaning up without tripping over the other,’ jokes Amber.

The lower level can be enclosed by timber framed sliding doors to the north and south, and when open these slide seamlessly behind external walls. The solid wall to the west protects from the afternoon sun, while finely textured glass to the east captures winter morning sunlight. Furthermore, greenery casts dappled light into the space, providing sanctuary from what the couple notes can be intense Queensland sunlight!

Upstairs is accessed via protected external stairs, or through the original cottage door – with its charming, flaking green paint – and comprises three bedrooms and a shared bathroom. The two front rooms can either be opened up to a common hallway space or separated by large floor-to-ceiling sliding panels. Featuring custom cabinetry by Mast Furniture (wardrobes, shelving and extendable bed frames), there are lots of nooks for trinkets in these rooms too, harking back to John and Amber’s childhood homes.

The upstairs bathroom feels almost open to the sky, drawing in light and the calming sound of rain, thanks to its semi-transparent polycarbonate roof. The vanity and a third bedroom sit adjacent to a large void in the rear northeast corner of the house – connecting the two floors. ‘The daily ritual of brushing teeth and drying hair becomes a social one that isn’t hidden away; everyone can communicate while breakfast or dinner is being made,’ explains John. ‘I’ve lived in lots of houses, but this is the first house I’ve lived in that seems to “make sense”,’ adds Amber. ‘It feels like it was built for me (it was!!).’

Architect: John Ellway 

Size: 215m2 site, 105m2 home

Builder: Mat Saggers

Engineer: Josh Neale

Cabinetry: Mast Furniture

Steel work: Ash Brown

Terrarium House has been shortlisted for the 2018 Houses Awards, in the ‘House Alteration & Addition Under 200m2’ category. Stay tuned for our announcement of the winners this Saturday, July 28th!


Film below by Anglea Leonardi.

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