Grand Designs Australia 60’s style Brighton House benchmarked against the 10 forgotten lessons of mid century modern design

Alistair: Posted on Tuesday, 10 April 2012 5:52 PM

Many of Secret Design Studio’s clients mentioned about the upcoming episode of Grand Designs Australia 1960’s style home that was being built in Brighton, so we looked forward to viewing the episode.

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For those not familiar with Grand Designs Australia, it follows the same template as the original Grand Designs which is hosted by Kevin McCloud, who has become something of an institution with the success of his program.  Secret Design Studio is constantly amused and amazed by some of the British guests who seem to take on ambitious building projects on little more than wishful thinking, fairly flexible budgeting, little building experience, even less professional advice and a naïve hope that it will be all right in the end. Fortunately in most cases after lots of back breaking labour, and a few tears, it usually ends up with the naïve builders sharing a glass of wine and a chat with Kevin from the comfort of their finished (or almost finished) new home.

Grand Designs Australia is hosted by the affable Peter Maddison, an Australian architect who has just completed Series 1, with the Brighton 60’s house being the first episode of Series 2.  Secret Design Studio has seen some unwarranted criticsm of Peter Maddison, who seems like a nice enough bloke, with some unfair comments that he is no Kevin McCloud.  Possibly this is because Kevin has been in front of a TV camera since 1999 and has written and presented 11 series of Grand Designs and numerous other productions, whereas Peter Maddison’s experience is as an Australian architect, rather than a TV presenter.  For more information on the Kevin versus Peter debate go to this link: http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/we-dont-need-to-talk-about-kevin-20120328-1vx42.html

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Kevin does have the ability to ask the pointy questions about cost over-runs and time blow-outs, and Peter seems to want to be more likeable, and seems to shy away from putting the home builders on the spot.

Anyway Episode 1, Series 2 of Grand Designs Australia,  was promoted as a family building their Palm Springs 1960’s mid-century modern home for a cool $6million dollars in Melbourne’s ritziest bayside suburb of Brighton. After looking forward to the episode and seeing where the money went it seemed appropriate for Secret Design Studio to see how well they succeeded.

Unlike the British Grand Designs where the guests are generally without any practical building experience, and usually have more money than sense at the start of the episode, the stars of this episode were the McKimm family, the name behind the respected McKimm Builders who have a strong portfolio of upper end and opulent Brighton homes.  Some of these homes have been completed for clients, while others they have built themselves and sold for profit. This meant that they had the experience, and the contacts to make the job work without the tears, gnashing of teeth, and pulling out of hair that we are used to with their British counterparts.

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They also had the resources to purchase a large flat parcel of land in Brighton for $3m, with an existing, and unfortunate looking 1980’s house with a tennis court to the rear. They  originally budgeted $2m for the home, which reached closer to the $3m mark by the end of the episode.  So the television promotions for a $6m home included the $3m for the land.

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Many new homes in the Brighton area, could be described as a “Georgian Mausoleum” style, and McKimm’s have built plenty of these.  The “Georgian Mausoleum” style is the expensive version of the McMansion, often with a symmetrical façade with front facing windows bearing little relationship to the views, the environment or the functions of the rooms behind the windows.  With their grey render they are generally designed to impress from the street and to take up as much width of the lot as possible.  Internally they often have acres of light coloured polished stone floors and combined with their high ceilings that reverberate sound are impressive spaces to visit, but could never be described as comfortable or cosy to live in.

What Secret Design Studio found very interesting about the episode is that the family rented a beautiful 1960’s home during the construction of their new home, which meant that the McKimm family are true fans of mid-century modernism.  The rented home looked like it had a lot of original mid-century modern features, and the earlier interviews were conducted from this home, so it was a pity that the viewer did not see more of it.

How successful were the McKimm’s in achieving their dream of building a mid-century modern style home?  They had the financial resources, the knowledge,  the contacts, they had the passion, and at the end of the episode everybody was smiling.  But just how mid-century modern was their new mid-century modern style home, and what lessons can Secret Design Studio learn from them for our next $3m client?

For Secret Design Studio the finished house, while impressive read more as a contemporary 21 century home than a mid-century modern home.  No doubt the McKimms will be happy with their achievement, and it will be a great home to live the Brighton lifestyle, with three kids, a tennis court and a pool, but it did not have the warmth and feel of their rental home, so where did it not meet the expectations of this viewer?

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One of Secret Design Studio’s favourite benchmarks for a mid-century modern home is an interesting blog posting from am industrious Architecture company in Seattle called simply “Build”, which can be found at http://www.buildllc.com

One of the most popular blog postings from Build has been about the “10 forgotten lessons of mid-century modern design”, found here:
http://blog.buildllc.com/2011/09/10-forgotten-lessons-of-mid-century-modern-design/

Secret Design Studio thought that it would be an interesting exercise to benchmark the Grand Designs Australia 1960’s Brighton house by McKimms builders against the “10 forgotten lessons of mid-century modern design” to see how it stacks up.

“Build” introduce their  “10 forgotten lessons of mid-century modern design” with the following introduction: “The more mid-century modern homes we see and work on, the more surprised we are that so many good design ideas have been disregarded or forgotten over the last 60 years. These ideas aren’t just “features” or fashionable details; they’re significant concepts that allow people more opportunity in their lives and an extraordinary quality of life. The ideas we’re referring to aren’t just applicable to mid-century modernism either, they’re universal ideas about housing and they apply to most contemporary housing. Given how important these ideas are, we couldn’t help but make some notes and snap a few photos; today’s post boils down our thoughts to a quick-hit of 10 Forgotten Lessons of MCM Design (that should never have been forgotten in the first place). Here goes:”

  1. Modestly nestling the home into the site rather than building “on top of” the ground feels better.It keeps the proportions of the home to a more natural scale and creates a more comfortable setting. It’s also a considerate way to design that affords your neighbors more view and day light. Part of this strategy involves keeping much of the landscaping; this allows certain trees or plants to become view points from inside the home, or while you’re standing on the terrace, it gives you something to look at astutely while you sip your gin martini.

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Secret Design Studio Response: Well there is nothing “modest” about the way this home nestles into the site.  To be fair a house of similar size and width stood there, so there was no existing trees to view.  As the size of the tennis court eats up about 50% of the lot, and the site looks pretty flat the opportunities for modestly nesting into the site are practically non-existant.  The only way to recreate this mid-century modern trait would be to drop the tennis court, thin the house down and landscape the perimeter with established trees.  As the lots either side have tennis courts (yes three tennis courts in a row as it is Brighton) there was also no opportunity to view the neighbours trees.

  1. Keep it simple.It’s a consistent rule of thumb in MCM design. Roof planes tend to be simple shed roofs which offer plenty of daylight and view at the high side; the low profile on the opposite side maintains the privacy and low horizontal proportions. They’re straight-forward to frame, handsome visually, and cost-effective.

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Secret Design Studio Response: Perhaps the most mid-century modern aspect of this home was the beautiful horizontal roof planes that cantilevered out past the window walls and appeared to magically float.  However while simple in concept they were far from simple in execution due to their flatness – a 1 degree pitch is hard to build, their thinness, requiring clever engineering and detailing, and the amount of 21 century services squeezed into the roof plane. A 5 degree pitch, which would have not had the same wow factor, but would have been easier and more cost effective to build, may have been more suitable.  Secret Design Studio also wonders about hail load, as very heavy hail storms appear to becoming more commonplace in Melbourne with the changes to our weather patterns.  Secret Design Studio hopes that the beautiful roof planes have been engineered to support a hail load where hail builds up on a flat surface and imposes a substantial load on the roof plane.

  1. Good design creates a progression between privacy and transparency.Often, upon approaching a MCM home, the entryway is solid and private. Once you enter the home the interior becomes increasingly transparent, until you reach a common area like the living room where the interiors open up to the view and landscaping. This sequence of experiences accomplishes several things; it maintains the privacy of the home toward the street, it creates a pleasurable experience moving through the spaces, and it rewards the viewer with a delightful view at the end (be it of a mountain, a forest or simply a well manicured back yard).

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Secret Design Studio Response: The front of the home is relatively unassuming and modest by Brighton standards, and certainly there is no clue from the front porch to what is behind the handsome wide entry doors.  The internal courtyard, with its off-centre tree and planting helps separate the entry hall from the more open-plan parts of the house, however there are still visual clues through the courtyard to what is beyond.  The house succeeds in providing a progression between privacy at the front and transparency at the rear.

  1. Connecting the inside to the outside creates harmony with the site.One of the subtlest, albeit most pleasing, design moves in MCM design is the intentional move to extend the material of a wall from inside to outside (or vice versa). This could be an exterior brick wall that extends into an entry area or an interior cedar wall that continues out to frame a courtyard.

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Secret Design Studio Response: there is certainly some clever use of courtyards and vistas into these courtyards, however there is no extension of materials between the inside and outside.  This could have been achieved with stone, brick or timber, but has not been done at all, so is a lost opportunity.  The only continuation of materials from inside to outside is the ceiling to the kitchen which continues in the same plane to the spectacular outdoor dining/BBQ area with the sliding glazed roof.

5.   Old school passive design is highly sustainable. There are a lot of terms being thrown around these days; sustainability, passive house design, and the overly abused “green-design”. Whether these terms actually benefit the home or environment depends on the situation, but the classic examples of passive design are so sensible that they should be incorporated into every house (and without throwing around a bunch of marketing terms). One of the best examples of this occurs at the roof: well designed eaves are calibrated to keep the interiors shaded during the summer months but allow direct sunlight into the home during the chilly winters. Smart, cost-effective and sensible.

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Secret Design Response: There was no mention of the summer and winter sun angles, however the lot is the optimum north/south orientation to achieve this, and the house does have a good sized eave width to the rear.  From looking at the photos Secret Design Studio believes that the eave design would probably meet the old school passive design requirements.

  1. Small, efficient bedrooms are perfectly pleasant.Bedrooms don’t need to incorporate lounge areas and recreational space; that’s what lounges and rec-rooms are for. Often with the smaller bedrooms we see in MCM homes, the ergonomics are more deliberate and the view out the window is more appreciated. Smaller bedrooms also cause the family to spend more time together rather than secluding everyone in their own bedrooms all day playing X-Box.

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Secret Design Studio Response: Only two bedrooms were featured and the house probably has at least four.  The upstairs master bedroom looked oversize even by contemporary standards with its upstairs outlook over the pool and tennis court.  One of the children’s bedrooms downstairs looked large, and perhaps more of a mid-century modern master bedroom size with its double bed and built-in furniture.  It was certainly a generous size for a child’s bedroom by contemporary standards. It was good to see a built-in desk which is another common trait of mid-century modern children’s bedrooms.  Unlike the original builders and owners of many mid century modern homes there probably wasn’t the need to have small efficient bedrooms as they had a substantial budget.

  1. Outdoor rooms are just as important as indoor rooms.In a temperate climate, you can spend a great deal of time outside. Extending the home’s roof out further is a cost-effective way to keep the rain off your outdoor dinner party in addition to defining the space. With a few intentional design moves, a sense of place is created and the outdoor room quickly becomes one of the most treasured areas of a home.

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Secret Design Studio Response: Well no argument here – the outdoor room extending off the back of the kitchen was for Secret Design Studio one of the best features of the home. Although blandly furnished the circular opening roof was spectacular and gave the outdoor space lots of flexibility with Melbourne’s four seasons in one day weather.

  1. Screen walls offer privacy without cordoning off the interiors.Well designed houses are typically open and spacious (regardless of square footage); one of the best ways to maintain privacy, without jeopardizing the quality of the spaces inside, is by using architectural elements that don’t touch the ceiling. These could be screens, cabinets or panels that frame views and conceal other areas. Etch-matte glass panels make for great screens because they let light in; when backlit they also tend to glow. When depth allows, cabinets provide screening and additional storage. Simple panels also allow for new materials and textures to compliment the home. The same applies at the exterior; a strategically placed privacy screen can eliminate the temptation to encircle the entire yard with a 6 foot high fence, bleck!

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Secret Design Studio Response: Fail – looks like all walls are firmly attached to the ceiling, which is a pity as there would have been some good opportunities to flow some of the rooms together.

  1. Let nature do the work.MCM design is very clever about using the inherent characteristics of materials as finishes within the home. The MCM design philosophy is all about authenticity and once you put on your authenticity thinking cap, materials like CMU blocks, plywood, and car decking look beautiful; they look exactly like what they’re doing.  There are a couple of additional benefits here; it limits the “decoration” of a project and simplifies the decision making process, most of the materials also warm up the interiors, and lastly, it’s typically more cost-effective to leave materials just the way they are.

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Secret Design Studio Response: Fail – this was the most disappointing aspect of this home for Secret Design Studio.  Certainly the polished concrete floor and massive polished concrete island bench met with this mid century modern philosophy, however all other finishes appeared to be finishes applied over the structure on the same way that the Georgian Mausoleums of Brighton are built.

The pure white render coat over all external brickwork was the most disappointing of all of the finishes and makes the nicely proportioned elevation look bland with no natural texture or life.  With their budget some natural stone, teamed with carefully selected face brick, would have worked well and introduced some colour, texture and life to the exterior.  Unless carefully detailed the pristine wedding-cake exterior render will start to show staining from pollutants in the rain over the next few years, and there are plenty of examples of this in the Brighton and Toorak areas of houses that are only 10 years old.

  1. Quality of light is more important than the light fixture.Nothing bothers us more than lights that are overdesigned. While it’s appropriate to have a couple of special, well-designed lights within the home (often above the dining room table or at the kitchen island) for the most part we want the light without having to see the light fixture. MCM design is brilliant in this regard; lights are often tucked into soffits and softly wash light over a wall, or they’re hidden on top of a bank of cabinets to highlight an exposed wood ceiling.

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Secret Design Studio Response: Fail – Unfortunately the lighting in this home appears to show a serious lack of understanding of lighting design and the subtleties, warmth and character a well designed and sympathetic lighting plan can provide for a home.

The circular dining table on the blue rug is crying out for a beautiful mid century modern pendant to anchor the space and the table, and to give the event of dining a stronger sense of intimacy, instead of feeling like it is in a food court.  Unfortunately it looks like they have gone with the no-brainer builder option of putting halogen spotlights through-out the home, with all of their harshness, lack of subtlety and inefficient energy consumption.

There is a large pendant in the living room, however in Secret Design Studio’s opinion it doesn’t really work for the space.  The Arco-style lamp in the family seems to work with the mid-century modern goal, but has been let down by the heavy handed mustard couch, which needs to go on Weight Watchers and have little legs added.

Secret Design Studio hopes that we are wrong, and that after spending $3m on the home that the lighting is close to perfect.  Perhaps there are lots of well designed hidden fixtures that warmly wash the walls and ceiling with light at night, and as we haven’t seen any night-time shots we aren’t aware of them.  Perhaps the halogen lights are just there as task lights, and not general ambient lighting?

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So how does the Grand Design Australia Brighton 1960’s house stack up against the “Build” benchmark of “10 forgotten lessons of mid-century design”?  Secret Design Studio would rate it as a “pass”, but only just with room for improvement.

Secret Design Studio was so disappointed that the warmth, character and fun of the McKimm’s rental home was not carried through to their new home.  Instead it appears to be the love-child of a Georgian Mausoleum and a home by Mies van der Rohe.

This could be due to a number of factors working in combination together.

Secret Design Studio knows from experience that even with a large block of land that a tennis court takes up a lot of room, and minimizes the opportunities to landscape and soften the appearance of the house.  The photos and the Grand Design Australia episode was shot shortly after the house was completed and there would not have been a lot of opportunity for the garden to mature.  Secret Design Studio is so used to seeing mid-century modern homes with well established gardens that are 50 or 60 years old, so a new home always seems a bit stark.

The site coverage of the house, the court, the pool and the paving around the pool does not provide a lot of opportunity for vegetation, and the McKimms have done the most with the little undeveloped space leftover with the courtyards.  If it had been Secret Design Studio building the house we would have come to some arrangement with the neighbours in regards to the use of their tennis courts, and in return planted the perimeter of the land with trees which would improve everybody’s outlook, privacy and shade.  But then again Secret Design Studio is too busy helping our mid century modern clients to find the time to play a social game of tennis – so it is really a matter of individual priorities.

As successful Brighton builders McKimms know their market and from their experience know that rendered homes sell in Brighton.  Possible future resale, and their own experience with render, may have influenced their selection of external materials to a safe Brighton choice, which is perhaps understandable for a $6m investment. The internal colour choices were also very safe and Brighton. There are some wonderful opportunities to introduce a mid-century modern colour palette – just look at Secret Design Studio’s Pinterest mid-century modern colour palettes. http://pinterest.com/secretdesign/mid-century-modern-colours/

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There is so much great mid-century furniture available, whether it be the newly manufactured originals (add another million to the house), or good-quality reproductions, or pre-loved, or from suppliers like Angelucci, http://www.angelucci.net.au/, that it was very disappointing to see that most of what was being used didn’t follow the intended mid-century modern spirit of the home.  This may have been to do with the budget and timing.  Some compromises had to be made towards the end of the job as the costs got closer to the $3m mark, and perhaps the furniture we saw was from the McKimm’s previous house.  Most new home owners move in with their existing furniture and overtime replace what doesn’t work or look right. With the Grand Design film crew standing around trying to wrap up episode 1 perhaps there wasn’t time, or finances to get the right furniture for each room.

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At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what Secret Design Studio, or anybody else thinks about the success of the McKimm familiy’s 1960’s inspired home.  It didn’t turn out as promoted by Grand Designs Australia, but it is still an achievement for McKimm, especially with the thin, projecting roof planes, and the quality and attention to detail.  It is also great to see a change to the standard Georgian Mausoleum style of Brighton, and Secret Design Studio hopes that McKimm gets the opportunity to build lots more 60’s inspired homes in the Brighton area as a result of their Grand Designs Australia experience.

For images of authentic mid-century modern houses, furniture and colours go to:
http://pinterest.com/secretdesign/

For more information on this episode of Grand Designs Australia go to:
http://www.lifestyle.com.au/granddesigns/series-2/episode-1-brighton-sixties.aspx

For more information on Mckimm  go to:
http://www.mckimm.com.au/