On Verandahs

4 July 2014
first published in Conversation AR Asia Pacific — 137

Words by Aaron Peters
Image 01 by Jon Linkins
Image 02 by V&P
Romancing the verandah is a cherished pastime of the Brisbane architect. The iconic verandah-wrapped timber housing stock of pre-war Brisbane, known as ‘Queenslanders’, infuse the inner-city suburbs with a particular laconic charm. The Queenslander has entered into the mythology of the place, framing its rituals and staging its events for generations. Like their near-cousin, the Singaporean ‘Black and White’, they are increasingly celebrated by property marketeers and popularised in the media. However, it is often overlooked that the Queenslander is a model intended for another time, devised by a colonial power in response to increasingly distant cultural and urban considerations. What, then, is the continuing relevance of the Queenslander a 21st century city and how might one of their most memorable spaces, the verandah, be updated or re-imagined in an increasingly dense urban fabric?

Brisbane was, in the 20th century, a great garden suburb dotted with compact timber houses. Nowadays, a cottage that might once have accommodated a family of six or seven is often seen as inadequate for a young couple and their two school age children. We have more stuff, bigger cars and would like a pool. Our increasing affluence means that many of us can afford to attain our material desires. As a result, houses are rapidly consuming their gardens to acquire more floor space. In addition, as the value of land rapidly increases, thin slices are shaved off house blocks to make way for infill housing. The rambling backyard is increasingly valued for its availability as a construction site rather than for its amenity as a place of recreation and domestic industry. The result is that the garden setting, a key part of the success of the Queenslander, is being inexorably consumed.

If current trends are to be continued, the timber house cloaked in verandah and garden will not endure as the archetypal inner-suburban form. This is the inevitable reality of a healthy and prosperous city: change. However, while there is a real and compelling case for increasing social density in the city, much of the building work being currently being undertaken would seem to increase the density of built form without a corresponding increase in the number of people being accommodated. Adapting the building culture of the city to embrace the idea of urbanity, having been afforded the luxury of space for so long, is a complex process. The effects can already be observed with a noticeable trend toward civic disengagement on the rise. Few new front fences are lower and more permeable than their predecessors and fewer residents seem to see the verandah as an attractive location for occupation. This evolution of our housing stock reveals much about the shifting tectonic plates of our collective values.

Nowadays, the average Brisbanite tends to prefer a deck to the verandah. Architects are happy enough to sling a deck or two, though many prefer to call them an 'outdoor room'. Whatever moniker you may wish to bestow, the deck certainly offers many of the advantages of the verandah with one critical distinction: where the verandah offered a chance to overlook the front and side gardens, the deck tends to face the private rear of the site. The verandah was a public gesture, whereas the deck signals a retreat from direct civic engagement. Further exacerbating this concern, the deck tends to draw many of the more active living rooms to the rear of the house with it. As such, the front façade of the building becomes largely ornamental, a symbolic image of a home as opposed to a building that is ostensibly a home by virtue of its active occupation. The privacy and security offered by these changes may be compelling, but as gardens shrink and houses expand, we increasingly encounter situations wherein the new deck or outdoor room opens onto little more than a thin strip of land between the back of the house and the rear fence. As architects, we have an obligation to ask ourselves what kind of city we are helping to evolve and how we can better define our understanding of our role as city-makers.
Architects might choose to see themselves as custodians of the city. We are in the privileged position of having been inducted into a rich body of professional knowledge handed down to us across the breadth of human history. We have the capacity to preserve, but also to enhance. Reminding ourselves of the value that is inherent in what has become commonplace is one key part of this. In our practice, we have tried to use the extant fabric around us for inspiration. Revisiting the verandah has particularly fruitful vein for exploration. Through our built work we have been privileged to test some of our suppositions and, in the self-aggrandising tradition of Palladio, Corbusier, Boyd, et al., I will attempt to reflect upon some of these projects to illustrate how our practice has grappled with the task of custodianship. 

Once upon a time, the easiest way to get a bit of extra space for your Queenslander was to enclose part, or all, of the verandah. Perhaps you’d had a couple of kids you hadn’t bargained on, or maybe you just needed a little extra space to swing a cat. Either way, before the back deck or the ‘raise and build-under’, there was the sleep-out. Today, many families seem confused by the sleep-out. It’s not quite the right shape to make a ‘normal’ room and it’s too big to simply ignore. There’s also a certain undercurrent of antipathy toward the sleep-out with its tradition of dodgy DIY construction. These attitudes can perhaps explain why the sleep-out is sometimes overlooked. Like the verandah, the sleep-out has the fortuitous condition of occupying the edge of the garden, but unlike the verandah, it has the ability to be closed down. Banks of casement windows, installed by someone’s dad in the 1960s between the original verandah posts can manage visual and acoustic privacy. Unlike the back deck, the sleep-out (when located on a former side-verandah) can offer the ability to engage both the street and the backyard. In our practice, we have attempted to explore this in a number of our residential projects. Our Four-Room Cottage (2011) project in inner-city Kelvin Grove makes use of a side sleep-out to arrange a ‘linear’ bathroom as a series of cubicles down the length of the sleep-out. The bathroom provides privacy for the bedrooms in the house proper and enables the owners to experience an ‘outdoor’ bathroom. The sleep-out bathroom also attempts to revitalise the front verandah by encouraging the pyjama-clad owners to lean on the front verandah balustrade while they brush their teeth. It may be a subtle gesture, but a smile and a neighbourly wave in the morning is the stuff that a community is built on. In addition, by re-using a greater portion of the original building, less additional building footprint is required allowing more of the garden setting to be preserved.

Rediscovering the Verandah
Another of our projects of which I have always been proud is a renovation to a timber house in Balmoral (2007). The clients had a rich history of share-housing and saw their home as a social place. They were keen to enjoy the street and wanted to know their neighbours. In this instance, we opened up the original verandah by removing sleep-out enclosures and placed a new kitchen in the front room of the house, directly behind the front verandah. The change was immediate. The family regularly eat on the front verandah. Waves to dog walkers have led to cups of tea. The kitchen has brought with it the life of the family and delivered it to the street. After observing this, we were emboldened to revisit the idea on several subsequent projects. Our Bardon House (2012) and West End Tower (2012) both place the kitchen on the side verandah, with similar results. The family are encouraged to use the front verandah and its garden. They can enjoy the condition of occupying the edge of the garden, but also the retreat to the more private inner rooms of the house

Another, perhaps more compelling example of this approach can be seen in the work of local Brisbane practice Donovan Hill. Their seminal project, the D House (2001), does not resemble a traditional Queenslander, nor does it have what you might describe as a recognisable verandah or sleep-out; it’s better described as an occupied garden wall. This wall encloses a garden overlooking the street, part of which is roofed and ‘civilised’ to create kitchen, dining and living spaces. The house boldly engages the street to such a degree that it is occasionally mistaken for a cafe, but it also makes space for vegetation within the tight constraints of a relatively small plot of land. The D House would suggest that many of the advantages of the verandah can also be found in the walled garden. As such, this house makes a strong case for the courtyard house in suburban Brisbane.

In 2003, a man entered our studio having mistaken it for a furniture store and left with a new house, the Cabarita House (2008). Our practice had first explored a courtyard model in our renovation project, the Newmarket House (2004), and we were keen to revisit these ideas. The courtyard house is adaptable and embodies many of the essential elements that have come to define Brisbane’s inner-city suburbs: connection to nature, the informality of outdoor-living and a proclivity for engaging the street. Because the courtyard consolidates open space into a central garden one might argue that it also neatly emulates the garden oriented characteristics of the Queenslander. In addition, the insularity of the courtyard provides sufficient privacy without the usual visual and acoustic concerns, thus allowing the interior rooms to be opened up to admit light and breezes. A sub-tropical courtyard house might be thought of as an inverted Queenslander with a verandah tracing the periphery of the site with the front, back and side gardens occupying the centre of the site where the house might once have sat. By making the front rooms or walls of the courtyard more permeable, as we attempted to do at Cabarita, the sleep-out-esque street engagement was also possible with strong physical and visual connections to the street. One of our contemporaries, James Russell, recently explored this in his Bisley Place House (2012). This project makes this last attribute even more overt by placing the kitchen between the courtyard and the footpath and permitting the walls of the kitchen to be fully retracted, effectively joining the public and private realms. Seen in this way, the courtyard house could be a potential successor to the Queenslander.
Rethinking the City
The aforementioned projects are intended to illustrate some of the ways in which the economic and cultural drivers of change might be coupled with simple architectural ideas to steer the city toward a more socially sustainable course. However, one of the most difficult and contentious problems for Brisbane (and I suspect, a number of other cities) is the prevailing attitude of the community toward change. Conservatism in the real estate market, a lack of meaningful dialogue between architects and the community and occasionally outright hostility toward contemporary architecture would all seem to contribute to a lack of faith in our ability to chart a successful course for the city. There seems to be a general presumption that we are not capable of improving upon the past embedded in our planning policies. These fears are not wholly unjustified; architects and urban designers have not always covered themselves in glory. Indeed, the Queenslander is one of only a few largely unique attributes of the city and their value is immense; why would we sanction their removal or replacement? As such, our planning policies place increasingly heavy restrictions on new housing in the inner city to conform to the ‘aesthetic values’ of the Queenslander. However, this raises the question of what is likely to happen when this original timber building stock is gone (and surely it is unlikely to last another two-hundred years) or its original setting is destroyed. What value is there in a suburb that consists of buildings that approximate (some) of the proportions and details of an extinct building typology, but retain few of its true attributes: verdant gardens, traditional craftsmanship, non-ornamental verandahs, civic engagement and the luxury of open space?

Meanwhile, beyond the ‘character’ fringe the generic project home makes little concession to the sub-tropics or regional patterns of occupation. One wonders why the new housing stock of Brisbane couldn’t encourage a distinctive ‘Brisbane’ lifestyle and achieve an iconic-equivalency to the Queenslander. In contrast to the restrictions placed upon inner city suburbs, the level of control exerted by the Brisbane City Plan seems to dissipate abruptly as it reaches the brick and tile project home suburbs. As a result, the bulk of the new housing stock being constructed in the city will most likely continue to replicate the same generic planning diagrams seen Australia-wide. Nonetheless, the potential for developing a better project home model and the positive impact it might have on the quality of the city’s housing stock is a tremendously exciting prospect.

When the Queenslander was rolled out in the pre-war years, land was cheap, readily available and streets were places where children played. Many streets are now choked with traffic and children are cloistered indoors away from real or perceived dangers. A growing proportion of Brisbane’s population doesn’t live in a house with a verandah, and may not be too concerned by this reality. It’s a changing urban-paradigm that threatens the traditional makeup of pre-war Brisbane suburbia and concerns its suburban future as a whole. The good news is that Brisbane is a city blessed with beautiful natural assets, a benign climate, compelling topography, great wealth and rich architectural traditions. We are more than capable of devising a vibrant future for the city, even as our social, economic and cultural values continue to shift and traditional community structures recede into the pages of history. If professional bodies and government can safeguard the cultural values that elements of the Queenslander optimises, such as the verandah, we stand a strong chance. Queenslanders and their gardens have defined and sustained much of Brisbane’s positive self-image over the past two-hundred years. Their verandahs remind us that the rooms we make and the attitudes and behaviour that they might engender or elicit from their occupants constitute the basic building-blocks of the city, not only in physical terms, but also in broader cultural terms. Seen in this way, those custodians entrusted to ‘build’ the city might see the verandah as an important lesson in the fashioning of a community.