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“The House as a Backdrop for Living”: Habitus House of the Year Judge ...

“The House as a Backdrop for Living”: Habitus House of the Year Judge Howard Tanner on the Power of Good Design

Since day one, Habitus has championed the notion of “design as a way of life”. Howard Tanner, a judge of this year’s inaugural Habitus House of the Year program, couldn’t agree more.

For Howard Tanner, good design is not something that can simply be distilled into a single hero image. “A lot of people are committed to producing a beautiful photograph, and that’s a 2D experience,” he says, “The real experience is the experience of walking around or through a space.” The former National President of the Australian Institute of Architects and founder of Tanner Kibble Denton (TKD) Architects, Howard has long been an advocate of design that genuinely enriches the human experience.

In the seventies he founded Tanner Architects and quickly earned a reputation for considered, highly resolved design across the residential, commercial, and education sectors. Over the years the firm expanded significantly in response to Australia’s burgeoning design and construction sectors; in 2012, with new Principals Alex Kibble and Robert Denton, the firm became Tanner Kibble Denton Architects. Howard now works as an independent consultant. For Howard, grappling with all aspects of a brief and project is absolutely essential. “I think, in life, that “engaging” is a very good word, whether it applies to the architect or the building,” he explains, “It’s an important quality.”

His belief that architecture must engage directly with its environment and occupants is clearly evident in his opinions on contemporary residential design. “The house is a backdrop for living,” he says, noting that this does not necessarily mean receding into the background so much as applying a curatorial eye and responding thoughtfully to the client’s way of life, “In a way, it should be slightly understated so that the people look good in the house, the paintings look good in the house, the contents look good…” Howard posits that residential design should be an immersive, almost transportive experience, musing that, “One of the beautiful things in a well-designed property is that you’re unaware of the neighbours. You have your own world, as it were.”

Still, he clarifies that any evaluation of good design extends far beyond simply “looking good”, explaining that careful planning and a context-specific approach are also critical. “I’m very keen [on the idea] that architecture is visually pleasing, but underlain with absolute common sense,” he says. He then poses a barrage of questions – a suite of criteria for success honed over years of practice. “Does this make sense in principle? Where does the house face?” he asks, “Does it face north? How does the light come in? How do you achieve privacy?”

That Howard’s enthusiasm for beauty is tempered by pragmatic considerations is unsurprising, given his background in both residential and highly budget- and program-driven commercial design. Few understand better than him the importance – and difficulty – of striking a balance between practicality and aesthetics. As a judge of this year’s Habitus House of the Year program, this is the kind of balance that he’ll be looking for when selecting a winning project. He’ll also be on the lookout for logical, “fluid planning” that enables high quality indoor and outdoor living. “Increasingly, the hub of the house is a reasonably large space where you cook, eat, and sit,” Howard says, “For me, that opens to the outdoors in some way.”

Indeed, the outdoors and landscaping is another area of Howard’s expertise: in 2016, he curated the State Library of NSW’s Planting Dreams: Grand Garden Designs exhibition, a deep-dive into some of the nation’s most intriguing landscape projects. “[In our region] there’s a climate that really encourages outdoor living and a real connection with the environment,” Howard says, “When I’m looking for landscaping, I’m looking for fantastic plants and a really wonderful, inventive approach to planting and design. For me, that is the ultimate compliment to residential design.”

Undoubtedly, Howard’s keen eye and passion for both design and landscape setting will come to the fore when judging this year’s Habitus House of the Year, which will award top honours for the inaugural House of the Year in addition to commendations for Exemplary Integration of Environment and Outstanding Interior Architecture.

Read more about Habitus House of the Year here. For the latest updates on the program and shortlisted homes, pre-order your copy of Habitus issue 41 and subscribe to our newsletter today.


We would like to extend a special thanks to our Major Sponsors for their support in the inaugural year of the Habitus House of the Year initiative. Thank you to StylecraftHOME, Sub-Zero Wolf and ZIP Water.  

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