Plant lover’s dream: Brisbane cottage converted into ‘Terrarium House’

Sitting halfway up the ridge of inner-city Brisbane suburb of Highgate Hill is the ‘Terrarium House,’ a north-facing cottage with a wall of flourishing plant life instead of a veranda. A lush growth of ferns and hanging leaves crowds the exterior of the cottage, announcing it as a wholly original addition to the urban streetscape.

terrarium house
[Image: Toby Scott]
Timber worker’s cottages abound in Brisbane, providing fertile ground for architectural invention through their plain and dynamic foundations. Architect and homeowner John Ellway bought the gabled cottage when it had fallen into a state of disrepair, taking a pragmatic approach to the structure in order to transform it into an unorthodox but delightful home that entwined his best childhood memories, his inspiration on his travels and the surrounding suburban landscape.

terrarium house
[Image: Toby Scott]
In the process of conversion, Ellway had to manage a number of existing on-site challenges, such as the overland flow of storm-water, planning rules and the backyard jungle encroaching on the cottage. Ellway used the overgrowth to his advantage, weaving nature into his design to create a unique home-sized green capsule.

terrarium house
[Image: Toby Scott]
The Terrarium House is retained on the front boundary, falling around 2.5m from footpath to yard, with the change in level meaning the former one-bedroom cottage could grow by inhabiting the open under-croft below. This move ensures that the cottage doesn’t have to be raised to be expanded, retaining its relationship with its twin neighbours and street-level access.

Like something out of a fairytale, the house can entered from a footpath that takes visitors past the vine-covered screen into a private universe, with the former front verandah now containing protected external stairs. The interior space is managed by a bridge that leads to the cottage rooms and a welded steel staircase that leads to the levels below, where Ellway and his wife Amber host guests in an intimate space.

terrarium house
[Image: Toby Scott]
“Once you step through the gate, people can come directly downstairs and upstairs stays private,” stated Ellway. “It was all about using every ounce of space possible.”

The lower levels are designed to be shadowy and cool, a respite from the harsh Queensland sun. Frosted glass filters in gentle daylight while giving a painterly glimpse into the gardens outside. The polished concrete floor and open spaces gives the space a sense of freshness and freedom that pulls visitors out of the encasing fernery void.

terrarium house
Upstairs are the private rooms of the cottage, with large floor-to-ceiling sliding panels and a bespoke cabinet that can serve as a wardrobe, shelving or an extendable bed frame. This adaptable and multi-faceted use of space was inspired by Ellway’s experience of foreign architecture.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in Japan, and also a bit in Malaysia, and these are influences you might read into the design of the house,” says John. The flexible features upstairs were designed to “[create] a series of bedroom spaces that could adapt over time.”

The house, with its bountiful greenery and nooks for trinkets and treasures, was inspired by the layered memories of a cherished childhood home.

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