Second Time Around

Many architects would regard an 80-year-old wood-frame house as a prime candidate for a teardown. But faced with one such Queenslander (the vernacular residential style of Australia’s second-largest state), Riddel Architecture was inclined to save the aging structure by working it into a new commission. That plan hit a snag when the Brisbane-based firm, which specializes in preservation and adaptive reuse, deemed the old home beyond rescue. Instead, Riddel reimagined the project, recycling 80 percent of its materials into a residence that produces all of its own energy and water.

Located on a narrow riverfront site in Brisbane’s Hill End suburb, the 4,155-square-foot Ecohouse, completed in February, represents an ideal intersection of the firm’s sensibilities and the wishes of its clients, who prefer to remain anonymous. “They wanted a speculative sustainable home for resale or rental,” says Emma Scragg, one of the project’s architects. “I wrote up a brief of every single facet we thought a truly sustainable house should incorporate, and they said yes to everything. I was over the moon.” Riddel planned a multilevel building that would maximize winter sun and summer shade and capitalize on prevailing breezes.

Dismantling the original 2,788-square-foot, tin-and-timber house cost about the same as demolition would have. The architects collaborated with Robert Peagram Builders, materials-recycling specialists, and adjusted the design to suit the available resources, with prime materials receiving star billing. “Vertical joints, or ‘vj’ boards, are a quintessential feature in twentieth-century interwar homes here,” Scragg says. “Retaining these for the new house preserved some of that original character. The initial intent was to leave them unpainted, a bit more rustic among slick finishes. The client left only the ends of the dining-room fin walls untouched, but that small amount is a reminder that the timber has a history.”

Other cases of creative reuse include turning the old pine rafters into a stair screen and refashioning the previous house’s eucalyptus frame into a balcony trellis. In the end, 15 percent of the dismantled materials had to be recycled elsewhere; the remaining 5 percent went to landfill. Ecohouse, which has photovoltaic panels and a 6,604-gallon rainwater-storage tank, earned a 6-star House Energy Rating, well above the 3.5 stars required by Queensland for residential construction at the time of its completion.

“In too many projects, architecture is subservient to sustainability, but here we achieved both,” says Robert Riddel, the firm’s founder and principal. Working with recycled materials definitely did not hinder the firm’s aesthetic ambitions. “The finished house is a beautiful design,” one of the clients says. “We hope it will serve its new owners well.”

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