Bligh Graham Architects: How good design brings a house, a flat, and an office together without sacrificing privacy

Bligh Graham Architects

In a semi-rural block, just 20 minutes north-west of the Brisbane CBD sits a striking family home, unusual both in its aesthetics and functional design. 

Tropical blue and orange accentuate the curve of a spiral staircase and a lush garden hides the home from view, but even from the street, there is something definitely unique about this property.

The architects describe the highly adaptable building as a “village within a village”. One section of the house is a hub for remote work, while another area contains family bedrooms. What’s more, an entirely separate residence sits on a discreet section of the block. That’s a lot of rooms for one block – but you wouldn’t know it.

Think the concept wouldn’t fly? You’d be wrong. This set-up, aptly named ‘LiveWorkShare House’ by Bligh Graham Architects’, recently took home the Robin Dods Award for Residential Architecture – Houses (New) and the Harry Marks Award for Sustainable Architecture. 

Located in Samford Village, the building responds to new working arrangements and an increasingly pressurised housing market by combining a family home, an office and an additional smaller residence.

A case study in flexibility and adaptability of housing

Partners in work and in life, the designers are Chris Bligh and Sonia Graham, who lead a small design team from inside the building’s office space – and the couple live on the block, too. That’s alongside a self-contained rental flat where a mum lives with her kid. 

It’s designed as “a test case for the way in which flexible adaptable living and working could be achieved on a suburban block,” Chris says, and the judges of the recent awards commented that the building supports “sensitive densification of the suburbs” and “expands housing choice”.

The need for such housing types is pressing given the issues of housing affordability, need for more smaller homes given the reducing prevalence of the nuclear family, the shift to work from home, and the need to sustainably house a growing population.

“It’s a flexible space,” Chris tells The Green List. “We are exploring how to achieve flexibility and adaptability in housing on a suburban block.” All parts of the residences “operate independently… like an extended family.”

Each room in the house has openings on two sides to enable passive ventilation without compromising privacy. The flat has its own entryway with a garden and a spiral staircase, perfect for one or two residents. 

It was 20 years of experience brought to bear on the project, Sonia says. And since it’s her and Chris’ home, Sonya says the designers had a rare chance to be “more experimental, and explore things that are left-field.”

“In Australia, people are very conservative with their thinking of what a house is. We get shocked reactions when we tell people about the shared component. People say, ‘you really want someone else on your same property?’ – but we see it as an opportunity to build community and go back to that village concept,” Chris says. 

Sonya adds: “Our house was an opportunity to have a proper case study for these ideas of density and diversity”.

It’s a new typology for densifying suburbs in-between houses and apartments, sensitively and sustainably. 

Natural material elements and exposed wood interiors meet biophilia

There were a range of materials used in the design in order to achieve the goal of creating a sustainable building. The first thing that really stands out when you enter the house is the exposed wooden interiors. It’s dark, natural-looking and cozy, and creates a cave-like feeling “to shelter from the glare of the sun outside,” Chris says. 

The material is second-hand hardwood, sourced from a demolition yard, paired with plywood cladding from sustainable forestry, a reclaimed hub and low-carbon recycled concrete. 

“We were trying to create a sanctuary within this village… it’s a beautiful rich material, and each panel has a beautiful texture to it.” 

The windows don’t actually have any glass, Chris says. Because of the heat of the Queensland summer, the couple opted for experimental orange shutters to block the sun and provide privacy while still allowing for a cross-breeze. 

“All materials were as sustainable as possible… we wanted a tropical feeling nod to Asia and the part of the world we’re living in, the Asia Pacific.” 

This cross-breeze and orientation means that the home has a passive solar design, and the lush garden also lowers the temperature inside.

Across the road to the house is a nature reserve, so the pair wanted to bring that natural element into the internal space.

“We incorporated greenery throughout. Every living space is immersed with greenery and connection to the garden, so there’s a sense of nature and all the benefits it brings.”

They even thought of such nuances as having an extended internal roof terrace so that their kids could jump off the second storey and into the courtyard pool.

“Good design creates delight,” laughs Sonya.

The unusual design has added sustainability benefits in extending the life of the building: “Fit-for-purpose has a longer lifespan because of its flexibility and adapts to changing family structures and work arrangements. This means the embodied energy has a more enduring impact and [the design] doesn’t become irrelevant,” says Chris.

The idea for the home was borne out of the pandemic. The village concept and the flexible work/home spaces, became essential in a time when “local” came back into vogue. 

“Covid was an opportunity to slow down and connect with people, and realise that local is lovely, and go back to those older values,” Sonya says.

“People have become too busy…so slowing down our lifestyle really helped open up the mind.”

How clients can get more bang for their buck with sustainable design

When designing for clients, Chris says that the planning and ideas stage is the most important – especially for lowering cost. 

“You can do it a lot cheaper than us by doing plasterboard everywhere and choosing cheaper materials, and still maintain the ideas and functionality.” 

The design studio is working on a range of different projects. At the moment, it’s residential – but they also have some larger healthcare facility designs on the books, as well as social housing designs.

Chris says that design is trending towards sustainability as much as possible right now. 

“People don’t want big show homes,” they want “quality rather than quantity”.

Bligh Graham Architects

Architecture | Brisbane | Queensland