Is there such a thing as an Australian architecture in dwellings? A question that is somewhat out of vogue as we strive for ‘world-class’ design; and mass media renders local identity, and Kenneth Frampton’s idea of ‘critical regionalism’, rather passé.

But I would argue that at key times we have found a national, or rather regional style, and that it is important to rediscover those traits, not for any nationalist cause (heaven forbid, in these right-wing populist times), but because it is a way of finding sustainable house designs.

Let’s start at the beginning. The earliest settlers made the houses they knew from England and Ireland; four-square crofters’ cottages and bald-faced Georgian houses; once able to be seen at ‘Old Sydney Town’ a recreation of pre-Macquarie Sydney built in Somersby as a tourist attraction in 1975, that closed in 2003.

Their transformation into more climatically appropriate dwellings is a story told elegantly in J. M. Freeland’s standard reference text of 1972, Architecture in Australia, citing designs to protect from the hotter sun and warmer climate, such as wider eaves that sometimes extended into verandas. But I think more fundamental changes were afoot.

One way to see the complete overturning of the vernacular house ideas from the ‘old dart’ can be found in a curious place: a hilarious piece of writing by the Irish comic writer Flann O’Brien in his best known, but sadly posthumous, novel The Third Policeman. It is a murderer’s first-person account of his encounters with a strange two-dimensional police station and ruminations on many things such as time and death, written in a style not unlike Spike Milligan’s better-known book, Puckoon.  

Amongst the comedic elements is a satire on academic research and writing, told in a running commentary on the exploits of one ‘De Selby’, an author who holds wild opinions refuted by researchers from throughout the world (all inventively footnoted and completely fictitious). The key passage for our current concerns is:


De Selby has some interesting things to say on the subject of houses.  A row of houses he regards as a row of necessary evils.  The softening and degeneration of the human race he attributes to its progressive predilection for interiors and waning interest in the art of going out and staying there.  This in turn he sees as the result of the rise of such pursuits as reading, chess-playing, drinking, marriage and the like, few of which can be satisfactorily conducted in the open.  Elsewhere he describes a house as ‘a large coffin’, ‘a warren’, and ‘a box’.  Evidently his main objection was to the confinement of a roof and four walls.  He ascribed somewhat far-fetched therapeutic values – chiefly pulmonary – to certain structures of his own design which he called ‘habitats’, crude drawings of which may still be seen in the pages of the Country Album.  These structures were of two kinds, roofless ‘houses’ and ‘houses’ without walls.  The former had wide open doors and windows with an extremely ungainly of tarpaulins loosely rolled on spars against bad weather - the whole looking like a foundered sailing-ship erected on a platform of masonry and the last place where one would think of keeping even cattle.  The other type of ‘habitat’ had the conventional slated roof but no walls save one, which was to be erected in the quarter of the prevailing wind; around the other sides were the inevitable tarpaulins loosely wound on rollers suspended from the gutters of the roof, the whole structure being surrounded by a diminutive moat or pit bearing some resemblance to military latrines.  In the light of present-day theories of housing and hygiene, there can be no doubt that de Selby was much mistaken in these ideas but in his own remote day more than one sick person lost his life in an ill-advised quest for health in these fantastic dwellings. (Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman, 1967, Dalkey Archive edition 1999).


His critique is in support of traditional Irish housing, and the threat of possible changes, expressed as De Selby’s dread of houses with ‘wall-less roofs’ or ‘roofless walls’. And what are these two abominations? Why, no more than verandas and courtyards; the very foundations of the transformation of the original imported Irish cottages into uniquely Australian Homes. This passage doesn’t sound like criticism to Australian ears; rather it’s a recipe for Australian residential architecture: one that meets our climate and lifestyle, two key ideas for sustainability.

One of Freeland’s key themes was the extent to which the veranda developed in extent and complexity to become a hallmark of Australian architecture, originally intended to keep the sun off the windows and the heavy rain off the poor-quality bricks, that morphed into passageways in enfilade plans, and eventually to rooms in their own right.

The ‘veranda’ was often appended to a ‘bungalow’, a house type familiar to the NSW Corps after their posting to India, from where these two key words enter our language: veranda comes from ‘baranda’, the Portuguese settler’s word for a balustrade needed on an elevated deck; and a ‘bungalow’ is a single-room deep house found in tropical Bangalore (now Bengaluru) from which the name derives.

The other ‘outdoor room’ is a courtyard, internally located but external; ‘open to the sky’ in the immortal words of Indian architect Charles Correa. The interior rooms open into this protected space, both in terms of privacy from the outside world, and as a defense against a harsh climate – either hot and dry or windy and cold. The former features a water feature or fountain, the latter a fire, perhaps in a pit. The four fundamentals: earth, air, fire and water.

This typology was not so obvious or immediate in its uptake in Australia, but its use was nevertheless widespread, particularly in the country. What is remarkable in Peter Freeman’s thoroughly researched 1982 book, The Homestead: A Riverina Anthology, is the degree to which in every site he investigated (and drew meticulously) the houses evolved around a courtyard. And mostly with external, covered circulation, veranda and courtyard combined.

Modern architecture in Australia took these forms to heart: the verandas in the seminal houses by Glenn Murcutt, and the SEQ houses by Rex Addison, the Clares, ‘tent-man’ extraordinaire Gabriel Poole or Darwin’s Troppo. For courtyards look no further than the doyens of Melbourne modernism’s own houses: Robin Boyd’s looping steel cabled canopy over the courtyard separating children and parents, and Roy Grounds’ circle inside a square.

There are two further interesting design issues for both types of outdoor rooms: their naming and their use as a driver of energy saving. 

A curiosity that I have not seen remarked elsewhere is that internal rooms are named for their use (living room, bedroom, bathroom, study, etc); whilst outdoor rooms, by contrast, are described by their form or typology (porch, loggia, veranda, balcony, terrace, deck, courtyard, arcade, stoop, etc). This seems true in English and the ‘Romance’ languages, deriving many of these words from ‘Vulgar Latin’.

The upshot is that outdoor rooms are seen as more flexible in their use than their quotidian internal counterparts. Which leads to the second point: sustainability.

The logic goes: if interior rooms are opened through doors to a veranda or courtyard it is likely that occupants will open them whenever the climate is pleasant, and with the doors open it is unlikely that occupants would try to condition the interiors, and they will adjust their clothing, lifestyle or expectations accordingly – a lower acceptable temperature in winter and vice versa in summer. The natural consequence is a lower energy demand for thermal comfort, all as a part of an ‘indoor-outdoor’ lifestyle.

An evocation of the multiple uses, and thermal comfort / low energy outcomes in outdoor rooms are eloquently captured in Johnno, David Malouf’s 1975 memoir of his early years in Brisbane after WWII, where he describes the dark interiors of his boyhood home:

Such rooms were used only after dark.  Daytime visitors were entertained on the front verandah among white cane chairs and potted ferns…. Here, on a cane lounge, my mother and other ladies took their afternoon nap, and here we were settled when we were sick, close enough to the street to the street to take an interest in the passing world of postmen, bakers, icemen and newspaper boys with their shrill whistles, but out of the sun.  Here too on warm evenings, with a coil burning to keep off the mosquitoes, we sat after tea, while my father watered the lawn…. On very hot nights, when the family had gone inside to play bridge, I was allowed to come and sleep out on the front verandah – though it scared me to be so close to the garden, with just the cast-iron and Venetians between me and the dark. (David Malouf, Johnno, UQ Press, 1975)

The question that we might now ask in our quest for more sustainability in home design is: can we capture this joy of life in a built form. What is the relationship between sustainability and lifestyle, that all-too-ridiculed word so closely linked to sustainability?

What are the lessons from the shaping of past outdoor rooms in developing greener houses for the future? What would happen if we were to extend the idea of outdoor rooms further and what new forms would they take?  Can we foresee possibilities of lower levels thermal comfort and greater enjoyment of the climate? Are the ‘al frescoes’ or ‘salas’ increasingly found in project homes a harbinger of real change, or just an advertising gimmick?

Critically it is the use of the space as much as its design. The form of the outdoor room may be of first importance to designers, but for residents it may have many uses, as David Malouf’s was, in the search for an enjoyable, non-air-conditioned, outdoor future.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. Some text here has appeared earlier in an article in AR Australasia, Volume 121, 2012.  The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]