Living room with open door to outside

An Architectural Legacy with Fox Johnston

Sydney-based architectural practice Fox Johnston has been an exemplar of sustainable design since its establishment in 2004, with every project regarded as an opportunity to enhance, rather than detract from, the natural landscape. We spoke to Associate Stefania Reynolds about designing with future needs in mind, investing in objects with meaning, and creating a timeless interior.

Ballast Point House photographed by Anson Smart.
Ballast Point House photographed by Anson Smart.
Ballast Point House photographed by Anson Smart.

Describe the Fox Johnston aesthetic. Is there a common thread that runs through all your projects?

Our aesthetic has a certain focus on materiality and amenity of space. It is about something sophisticated and elegant that can stand the test of time. We carefully choose our materials and there is a sense of boldness and a raw quality that can be seen in a lot of our projects. All our designs focus heavily on bringing light into a space, creating a beautiful quality to make you ‘want to be in it’ and slow down.

How does a sense of sustainability permeate your work?

We always think about sustainability – we just have to do it these days; it shouldn’t be a choice. We think carefully about where the materials we choose are from, and how we can best use natural resources like the sun and wind to limit the energy output a house requires.

Bondi House photographed by Dave Wheeler.
Bondi House photographed by Dave Wheeler.

Give us a little insight into your design process. From initial meetings to breaking ground and beyond, what aspect do you enjoy most?

We always start with the site – the orientation, topography, views, and light – then this gets overlaid with the clients’ requirements into a site-specific solution. There are quite a few different stages in a project, all with their challenges and rewarding aspects. Those initial conceptual ideas and sketches, and testing things in a model, are always great. I really enjoy going on that journey with the clients of choosing specific materials – for example, looking carefully at joinery details and handles. I really love the furnishing aspect as well – a house can be made or broken just by the furniture and layering various textures and colors.

Bondi House photographed by Dave Wheeler.
Bondi House photographed by Dave Wheeler.
Bondi House photographed by Dave Wheeler.

Can it be challenging to steer clients towards more eco-friendly design decisions?

Yes, that is always a challenge. The eco-friendly solutions tend to be more expensive upfront but would save a lot of money later on in the process. People can’t always see that straight away. Some clients are very conscious but it’s always a struggle when people come to us a with a big brief and we want to limit our footprint.

Bondi House photographed by Dave Wheeler.
Bondi House photographed by Dave Wheeler.

Your projects are often informed by their environmental context. With the SRG House as an example, how was the exterior and interior inspired by the natural landscape?

Careful research was undertaken to establish the materiality of the existing heritage 1970s home. The plasterboard was removed to reveal timber linings, wood wool ceilings, cork flooring and red glazed ceramic tiles. These discoveries formed the basis of the material palette for the house. Materials and colors were tuned to the original palette of painted brick, cedar windows and concrete [and chosen to] reference the era of the building, [but] updated in contemporary, sustainable versions.

On the living level, ceiling panels of carbon-positive wood wool and new-generation cork flooring bring a retro texture and warmth, plus acoustic performance to the middle level. In the kitchen and bedrooms, plywood joinery is finely detailed with brass. Bathrooms are tiled in red Japanese finger mosaics, a nod to the original bathroom tiles.

Beyond its architectural legacy, the project makes an environmental and ethical point of conservation and reuse. Restoring the original structure has saved embodied carbon and avoided material waste. Environmental performance and indoor air quality have been dramatically improved, with new and expanded windows for cross-ventilation, along with high-performance glass, facade insulation and hydronic heating to concrete floors.

SRG House photographed by Anson Smart.
SRG House photographed by Anson Smart.

At Armadillo, we are advocates of slow design. What considerations do you think should be front of mind to ensure that a home will endure and evolve over time?

The Slow Design movement is interesting as it touches on some key principles that I think most designers aspire to; it’s about thinking beyond the obvious functions, appearance and lifespan of an object, and seeing its potential for other meanings and uses. Even though the movement is essentially about slowing down, it’s also about looking ahead and seeing what will be needed in the future and creating designs that become richer, which is exactly what we try and do. For example, we love to use materials that will stand the test of time and design homes that are flexible and multi-generational for the ever-changing aspect of a growing family through life’s different stages.

SRG House photographed by Anson Smart.
SRG House photographed by Anson Smart.
SRG House photographed by Anson Smart.

Are there any natural materials that you find yourself continually drawn to?

We love materials that patina over time and age with the clients of a house. Time puts its stamp and imperfections on these materials, making them even more beautiful as they change with time. A couple of examples we see ourselves using a lot are copper and brass.

We’re fortunate to have worked with you on a few projects. What considerations are front of mind when you are choosing a rug for a space?

The ethical is something we always consider – that’s one thing we love about Armadillo rugs; their light footprint on the planet, and the fact that they are handmade in this fast-paced world and tell a rich story. Quality is very important, and we love an extensive colour range as well! The way the rug feels under your feet and that silky, comforting touch on winter days that Armadillo rugs have are just beautiful.

SRG House photographed by Anson Smart.

"People talk about wanting more space when what we need is fewer items."

We strongly believe in buying fewer but better things. What are your own reasons for investing in quality pieces with real longevity?

Those items just always end up having more meaning to you. They create memories with you and the fewer things we have, the less waste there is in the world. Having a good quality rug, for example, will last years rather than buying a new one every few years and throwing it out. We always believe in quality over quantity – it’s priceless. A space also feels less cluttered and brighter with a few beautiful items. People always talk about wanting ‘more space’ when, in reality, what we need is ‘fewer items.’

Whale Beach House photographed by Anson Smart.
Whale Beach House photographed by Anson Smart.
Décor trends seem to come and go so quickly these days. Do you have any tips for someone who is trying to establish a more timeless interior aesthetic?

A timeless interior exudes a sense of quiet confidence. It’s sophisticated yet feels inviting. It is a home that is neither over-the-top nor boring. Combining a multi-layered approach balances the feeling of being lived-in and curated. Think of function and flow; a home that flows well is easy to navigate and comfortable to relax in, carrying with it a sense of sophistication. Over-cluttering your home with trendy furniture pieces is ultimately going to make the space harder to use and less pleasant to occupy.

When selecting furniture for your home, pieces with clean lines, beautiful fabrics and textures, and minimal ornate detail are the best for a timeless look. Anything overly fussy is likely to reflect the trends of the moment, and therefore will detract from a sense of timelessness. Another thing is to aim for symmetry; the human brain is automatically drawn to it. It’s been a classical beauty standard for centuries, in every aesthetic field.

Whale Beach House photographed by Anson Smart.

Do you have any go-to sources for inspiration?

This may sound quite typical, but the natural landscape. Nature can inform us in so many ways, from textures to colors and beautiful organic shapes. When in need of some inspiration, the best thing I find is that, rather than scrolling through Instagram, actually switching your phone off and getting out in nature is much more inspiring. Listening to waves is one of my favorite things to do and always leaves me feeling invigorated and inspired.

Finally, what do hope for the future of Australian architecture and design?

I hope that sustainability is taken very seriously and that we achieve net zero carbon emissions by the date we have promised. I would love to see more projects like Nightingale Housing happen outside Melbourne, and more affordable projects that are of great quality in the market, especially for people in Sydney. Less waste and more consideration of natural materials will lead to innovation and beautiful, inspiring outcomes.

 Fox Johnston on Instagram.

Living room with open door

An Architectural Legacy with Fox Johnston

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