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A Sustainable Retreat In Rural Queensland Inspired By Classic American Glass Houses

Sustainable Homes

The philosophy of architecture practice Steendyk is that sustainability can be achieved without compromising on lifestyle and amenity. In fact, sustainable design can actively enhance a home, creating real and meaningful connections to the land.

This thinking is epitomised in Bellbird Retreat, a small but mighty project located in the rural town of Killarney, Queensland. 

Drawing inspiration from the famous Glass House by Philip Johnson (1949) and Farnsworth House by Mies Van Der Rohe (1951) in the US, this weekend refuge takes the form of a robust, fortress-like structure that frames its surrounding landscape. Contrasting protective and warm materials are intertwined to maintain high aesthetic sensibilities, while achieving an BAL 29 bushfire rating and 7 NatHERS stars. 

22nd April, 2022

Bellbird Retreat by Steendyk is a sustainable rural Queensland project that’s taken the global architecture community by storm. Photo – Christopher Frederick Jones

Drawing inspiration from famous American projects the Glass House by Philip Johnson (1949) and Farnsworth House by Mies Van Der Rohe (1951), the weekend refuge takes the form of a robust, fortress-like structure that frames its surrounding landscape. Photo – Christopher Frederick Jones

This project began with two forward-thinking clients looking to build a weekend retreat. Their chosen site was bushfire prone and remote, but with incredible views of surrounding open plains. Photo – Christopher Frederick Jones

Contrasting protective and warm materials are intertwined to maintain high aesthetic sensibilities, while achieving an BAL 29 bushfire rating and 7 NatHERS stars. Furnishings manufactured by Embassy LivingPhoto – Christopher Frederick Jones

Architect Brian Steendyk saw an opportunity to ‘step up’ in this project by responding to the environment in a meaningful and appropriate way.Photo – Christopher Frederick Jones

At only 67 square metres (about the size of a modern two-bedroom apartment), the house is compact, yet highly resolved and comfortable. Photo – Christopher Frederick Jones

In addition to passive design principles for year-round comfort, the house features battery-stored solar electricity, a composting toilet, greywater system, and tanks for rainwater harvesting. Photo – Christopher Frederick Jones

Perhaps the most sustainable feature of all is the home’s robust material palette, designed to BAL 29 standards to withstand ember attacks. Photos – Christopher Frederick Jones

Brain rejects the idea that Bellbird Retreat is a ‘simple’ home given its size and location. If anything, this is a highly complex project both in its idea and execution, proving the endless possibilities of sustainable design from both a client and architect perspective. Photo – Christopher Frederick Jones

‘Sustainability can be defined in many ways and beyond these imperative characteristics. In this example of a site susceptible to devastating bushfires, the most notable sustainable impact this dwelling makes is as a new model for fire-resistant house design,’ says Brian. Photos – Christopher Frederick Jones

This is a dwelling that performs on all fronts, designed to stand proud well into the future.Photo – Christopher Frederick Jones

Amelia Barnes
Friday 22nd April 2022

‘I think the real myth is that you need to in some way compromise, or perhaps pay extra, to achieve sustainable principles. Neither is correct.’

Bellbird Retreat by Steendyk is a shining local example of what can be achieved in residential projects that put sustainability first. The humble house in Killarney, Queensland (a small rural town about 180 kilometres south-west of Brisbane) has taken the architecture world by storm, winning multiple awards including at the 2018 World Architecture News (WAN) Awards. ‘All for a tiny house and a tight budget,’ says architect Brian Steendyk. ‘Just think what we can do with a broader budget and brief!’ 

This project began with two forward-thinking clients looking to build a weekend retreat. Their chosen site was bushfire prone and remote, but with incredible views of surrounding open plains. 

Brian saw an opportunity to ‘step up’ in this project, by responding to the environment in a meaningful and appropriate way. Sources of inspiration were Philip Johnson’s 1949 Glass House in Connecticut, and the 1951 Farnsworth House in Illinois by Mies Van Der Rohe. A project architect on this latter project, Myron Goldsmith, was a teacher of Brian’s when studying in Chicago who inspired his early learnings. ‘Both of these projects influenced me, especially in regards to the concept of prospect and refuge, which Glenn Murcutt also talks about so eloquently,’ Brian says.

Steendyk’s resulting design takes the form of a fortress-like building that opens to a light-filled interior designed in collaboration with Embassy Living. At only 67 square metres (about the size of a modern two-bedroom apartment), the house is compact, yet highly resolved and comfortable. ‘There is an ease of transition from inside to out which develops an intimacy with the setting and extends the usable living area,’ says Brian. 

In addition to passive design principles employed for year-round comfort, the house features battery-stored solar electricity, a composting toilet, a greywater system, and tanks for rainwater harvesting. Perhaps the most sustainable feature of all, however, is the home’s robust material palette (brick, concrete, steel roof and glass), designed to withstand ember attacks from bushfires and the test of time. Brian explains, ‘Sustainability can be defined in many ways and beyond these imperative characteristics. In this example of a site susceptible to devastating bushfires, the most notable sustainable impact this dwelling makes is as a new model for fire-resistant house design.’

Brain rejects the idea that Bellbird Retreat is a ‘simple’ home given its size and location. If anything, it is a highly complex project both in its idea and execution, proving the endless possibilities of sustainable design from both a client and architect perspective.

‘I think the real myth is that you need to in some way compromise, or perhaps pay extra, to achieve sustainable principles. Neither is correct,’ says Brian.

Indeed, this is a dwelling that performs on all fronts, designed to stand proud well into the future. 

This story is part of our Sustainable Homes series, brought to you in partnership with Bank Australia.

Bank Australia’s Clean Energy Home Loan offers a discounted home loan rate if you buy or build a home that exceeds a 7 star NatHERS rating, or have made ambitious green upgrades in the last 12 months. Find out more

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The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email bea@thedesignfiles.net