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Bathrooms That Benefit From A Connection To The Natural Environment

Bathrooms That Benefit From A Connection To The Natural Environment

Planchonella House by Jesse Bennett Studio

Connection to the outdoors is as highly desirable in the bathroom as it is in a residence’s living areas, where letting the outside in weighs positively on an individual’s wellbeing.

It’s safe to assume that most people presented with images of Jesse Bennett Studio’s Planchonella House for the first time would have a strong reaction to its breathtaking beauty. Queensland-based architect Jessie Bennett and his wife, interior designer and practice co-founder, Anne-Marie, designed and built the house themselves a few years ago and until recently lived there, too. It’s an incredible study in environmentally responsive architecture and one that blurs the boundary between inside and outside to the point where the house is as much embedded in its setting as the setting is embedded in the house. It really did establish a new Australian benchmark for what can be achieved using passive design, in this case the Venturi effect to create air flow.        

But then again what’s an architect to do with a site such as this one in remote tropical north Queensland, surrounded by heritage rainforest on all sides except south? To work against the climate and landscape would be to disrespect the natural environment and, after all, why build in a location like this if bringing the outside in isn’t high on your agenda? While the glass walls of the house’s undulating profile lend each room its most compelling design expression, it’s the bathroom that stands out for its strong connection to the outdoors. This is a clear interpretation of the bathroom as sanctuary; a quiet oasis where one can retreat and seemingly enter another world.

Of course, bathrooms with this type of connection need relative seclusion in order to work, otherwise privacy becomes an issue. A bathroom with glazed walls and timber-framed full-height operable windows would simply be misplaced in a high-density urban environment. Context is paramount and while incorporating the principles of biophilic design should be encouraged at all times, the connection with nature has to be logical otherwise the outcome appears forced, like it’s trying too hard.

Planchonella House by Jesse Bennett Studio. Photography by Sean Fennessey

New Zealand’s remote mountains, planes and beaches certainly lend themselves to bold residential designs that blur the boundary between inside and outside. And for a project like Kawakawa House in Piha by Herbst Architects, the brief specifically asked for a beach house that takes advantage of its coastal surrounds, so the clients can enjoy it at any time of the year. Situated at the base of a steep mountain slope, the site abuts a forest of mature Pohutukawa trees and the architects elevated all the living quarters to an upper level, ensuring the views of the ocean aren’t compromised.

“We also wanted to make the most of the view of the trees and mountain as well as let the light in from above,” says practice co-founder Lance Herbst. “So we installed a continuous clerestory window to the perimeter of the upper volume.” This is a singular, striking design solution that brings a sense of cohesion to the home. And in the bathroom, it allows filtered sunlight to dance atop the space’s green tiles and dark timber surfaces. In this instance, the outdoors isn’t so much a backdrop as it is an accent, whereby a finely tuned scheme uses natural light to warm the bathroom during the harsh winter months, made all the more striking for its mindful restraint.   

Kawakawa House is a fine argument for treating the bathroom in the same way as any other room in the house. Just because it’s not a social space or somewhere people gather, doesn’t mean its design approach has to be different from the living areas, where connection to the outdoors is highly desired and, in fact, becoming an increasingly popular request amongst clients. In many ways, the bathroom poses the biggest challenge because of space constraints and existing services, but all that means is that there’s greater room for innovation. Case in point, Austin Maynard Architects’ renovation of an Edwardian-era house in Melbourne’s North Fitzroy.

The clients, who also work from home, asked for a design solution that would treat the dwelling like a sanctuary; their own quiet haven in amongst a busy inner-city suburb. As founding director Andrew Maynard explains, “At Kiah House we were charged with the task of creating spaces, both private and shared, that spill out into the garden and yet are adaptable enough to create solitude and privacy when needed. The idea was to give the clients a light and airy house with a ‘strong and positive vibe’; somewhere they could entertain family and friends, but also relax and meditate.”

Weekend Villa by Kentaro Ishida Architects Studio. Photography by Norihito Yamauchi

Inspiration was drawn from traditional Japanese gardens and Buddhist retreats of Kyoto. As a result, the master bedroom has a dedicated Buddhist prayer space and opens up to the garden and ponds via sliding double-glazed panels. The bathroom is treated in the same way, with full-height glass doors opening up to a small private garden created in the gap between the new addition and the existing house. It’s the perfect context for the sunken brick bath, which takes its cue from the ancient Japanese onsen (natural hot springs), which were traditionally located outdoors.

In this instance, the architects have used red clay bricks salvaged and recycled from demolition sites around Victoria. It’s an aesthetic that deliberately evokes a sensual, earthy quality that makes anyone who uses the bath feel as though they’re bathing within the landscape. The singular use of brick throughout the bathroom also contributes to its immersive qualities, enhancing the outdoor connection.

This concept of being at one with nature during the most personal of everyday rituals is important for creating a calming, relaxed environment. And taking time for oneself, treating the bathing experience as a moment to retreat and recharge, can contribute to a greater sense of wellbeing. Japan’s emphasis on bathing, whether in a public context or the privacy of one’s own home, is deeply embedded in the culture because there’s an understanding of its wellness benefits. The bathtub may be experiencing renewed popularity within Western bathrooms, but in a Japanese bathroom it’s long been customary and in today’s residential bathrooms it’s not uncommon to see designs evoking the traditional outdoor onsen, space and setting permitting.

In Kentaro Ishida Architects Studio’s Weekend Villa in Karuizawa, the architects have created an open wet area that brings in the mountain area’s landscape. The villa itself comprises three interconnected volumes with roofs that resemble giant leaves and this biophilic expression is reiterated in the bathroom. While the space’s edges may be straight, the rich colour palette echoes the dense natural surrounds and the reflection of the trees within the bath water visually blurs the boundary between inside and outside beyond the full-height window’s glazing. Not everyone may want their bathroom to connect to the outdoors and certainly, that’s not even possible in all homes. Yet there is something to be said for the benefits this connection brings, from the visual appeal and appreciation a scheme can elicit to a number of personal benefits. And in this fast-paced world, feeling clear-headed, refreshed and relaxed is not to be underestimated.

Photography courtesy of the architects. 

Kiah House by Austin Maynard Architects

Kiah House by Austin Maynard Architects. Photography by Tess Kelly

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