A Sloping, Japanese-Inspired Addition For A Classic Queenslander

Before even purchasing this 1900s Queenslander, owners Brad and Kristen Hopkins knew the house needed a renovation.

While little extra space was required, the Highgate Hill home had been untouched for almost 60 years, and the verandahs had all been boxed in and lined with asbestos.

‘This made the house very dark, and it was completely cut off visually from the street and the gardens outside. It also cut off all the breezes, making the house and especially the kitchen unbearably hot in the summer.’

Another shortcoming was the home’s position 2.5 metres off the ground, creating a disconnect between house and garden.

Brad and Kristen noticed a home on their street that made creative and efficient use of a small structure. They dropped the owners a note to ask who the architect was, introducing them to the owner and architect John Ellway.

‘We soon discovered he had designed it himself,’ says Kristen. ‘It was clear from our first meeting that John would be a good fit for us. He had a shared interest in Japan, we loved his aesthetics, and he was very practical and capable with project management.’

Kristen and Brad asked for a serene, low-impact home that preserved the best of its heritage and added a little more space, without sacrificing the backyard.

‘We wanted a home which would help us live comfortably in the Queensland climate, and connect with nature and our community, with some playful surprises thrown in,’ says Kristen. ‘We wanted to feel better connected to our neighbours and community.’

The brief also called for an additional bedroom; a living area that opens to the outdoors (instead of having a separate deck with a second outdoor dining space); protection from mosquitoes; solar and battery storage; and a pool. ‘We asked for a lot looking back,’ says Kristen. ‘I see that the brief we gave John was eight pages long!’

John managed to achieve all this by adding just 30 square metres to the home, rather than a large extension typical of the neighbourhood.

A 1950s addition was removed in the process, in favour of a protected central garden, followed by the kitchen and meals area at the rear.

The new addition slopes down to meet the garden via a series of steps — house to verandah to internal garden, concrete kitchen bench, meals, and through to the back garden.

The central garden was designed to be looked upon rather than sit within, like many Japanese garden spaces.

The name of the project, Niwa House (that comes from the Japanese word for ‘garden, courtyard, yard’) references this style, which is also inspired by the owners’ early adult lives spent in Japan. John is also heavily influenced by Japanese design, and visits the country biannually.

‘I think I am most fond of the way much of the traditional housing in Japan connects from the inside out to gardens. The movement between these two spaces is often very subtle, with multiple layers of sliding doors and stepping, creating a place to pause as you move in and out,’ John explains. ‘These transitions are something we can embrace climatically in Brisbane all year round.’

The central garden of Niwa House is protected by a delicate bronze mesh to mediate sun, diffuse rain, manage insects, and allow the family to leave doors and windows open securely for year-round natural ventilation.

A new eastern entrance provides access to the home directly into the courtyard, allowing the older part of the house to be left messy.

The rear garden remains a generous space for Brad, Kristen and their children to play, with the addition of a pool.

Aesthetically, the home draws on uncluttered traditional Japanese interiors featuring worn-smooth timber, tatami mats, plenty of practical built-in storage, and the flexibility of sliding walls and screens.

‘Sharing a similar aesthetic taste with John really reduced the amount of time we spent choosing finishes. He’d suggest a few options and we’d always love at least one of them,’ says Kristen.

‘We were also very lucky in our choice of builder. The Struss team were really easy to work with and very competent, and we enjoyed their company, which was important as we lived on site throughout the renovation.’

Changes to the floor plan have overall been minimal, but these small moves have totally reconfigured how Brad, Kristen, and their children live.

‘We spend a lot of time enjoying the pool and garden with our friends and their kids, and with better street connection, we’ve got to know so many people on the street,’ says Kristen.

‘We feel so lucky to have such a comfortable, stunning home and garden!’

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