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A Love For The Fundamentals Of Design

Shelley Penn | Habitus Living

Architect and design advocate Shelley Penn joins the 2019 Habitus House of the Year Jury and she’s not interested in bells and whistles. Rather, it’s working through fundamental design challenges and optimising the results.

Shelley Penn has been running her eponymous practice, Shelley Penn Architect since 1993. Her expertise and interest developed in the residential sphere and for a number of years this is where she focused her work. It wasn’t long, however, until Shelley began working with the government and over the past 20 years she has practised architecture; worked as an advocate, design reviewer, evaluator and strategic advisor to achieve excellent outcomes on public projects. And if that wasn’t enough, she has also reviewed large-scale developments in the private sector.

Shelley’s passion for designing houses hasn’t ever waned, and dotted in amongst the architecture advocacy, every few years is a residential project to keep her creative side satisfied. Given the rarity of these and the demands on her time from other sources, it follows that she’d need to be quite selective. Currently a sole practitioner, although in the past she’s had a team support her studio, a potential client can’t be in a hurry. Good communication between client and architect, as well as openness to ideas and trust are also defining factors when deciding to take on a job. Likewise, consistency between vision and budget is non negotiable – whichever end of the spectrum a client has in mind.

Speaking about future cities and the industry’s capacity – and responsibility – to positively impact the direction we take, it’s Shelley’s opinion that architecture needs to facilitate compact living, and houses and apartments that are “less lazy in their planning”. This is relevant for medium and high density builds as well as single residences and individual apartment renovations.

On the singular level, architecture has the ability to personalise and adapt a residence to the occupants’ unique way of living. While on a larger scale, the spatial planning of interiors in medium-large scale developments has opportunity to address changing behaviours for many at once and ease pressure on the demands of a city. Even though conceptually Shelley appreciates the value developments have to offer, she’s quick to add the caveat that they need to be responsive and respectful to the context in which they sit. They also need to be made with appropriately enduring materials. “People are afraid of developments for pretty good reason; there’s a lot of really awful development.” Ultimately, there needs to be a shift both in how the community views development and government policies that support design quality and integrity of a project. Hopefully one will encourage the other.

Clever spatial planning is certainly something Shelley will be looking for in the 20 houses that comprise the 2019 Habitus House of the Year selection. “I’m not at all prolific, but I do love exploring fundamental design challenges, how to really optimise and get the best out of everything you can in an efficient and elegant way,” she says. And while that’s something that excites her in her own practice, the prospect of seeing how other architects in and around Australia have approached this is perhaps even more exciting.

Shelley’s support and genuine interest in the architecture community, both established and emerging, is immediately apparent and it’s inspiring to hear. She loves to see young and emerging practices that have been working hard and doing great work begin to get some recognition, and is equally excited by the notion of architects and studios she might encounter, that she otherwise wouldn’t, through Habitus House of the Year.

“What I am looking forward to seeing is breadth and diversity of new work, including the new ideas coming through and more people doing good work. I always love it when I see a lovely project and it’s by an architect or designer that I’ve never heard of,” says Shelley. Being regionally spread she is also looking forward to seeing ideas come out of different places and the diversity in architecture and architectural response they will reflect. And certainly, the houses she’ll value the most are those that respond in a meaningful way to their particular circumstances, be they an existing building in an alterations and additions project or the surrounding landscape in a rural environment.

A profound respect for authenticity in architecture and the desire to promote and give a platform to local and emerging architects are two themes that our conversation weaves in and out of from beginning to end. It’s reassuring to see Habitus’ values mirrored in vibrant members of the industry.

Shelley Penn Architect


Habitus House of the Year wouldn’t exist without the support of our friends, colleagues and regular collaborators in the industry. We would like to extend our sincerest thanks to our Major Partners Gaggenau, StylecraftHOME and Zip and Supporting Partners Armadillo & Co and Earp Bros. Likewise we would like to recognise our Television Partners for joining us on our journey to a new medium.

Meet the full 2019 Habitus House of the Year jury here

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