Pichelmann Custom Building Service house

Zen meets accessibility

With its serene Japanese styling, eco qualities and luxury inclusions, this specialised housing project changes our ideas about accessible and adaptable homes.


Gabrielle Chariton

All truly great homes grow from a seamless and respectful process of collaboration, in which the architect and builder take the time to understand what their client wants and needs from their new home; then work together to ensure the finished project encapsulates this vision, both aesthetically and functionally.

This Canberra home, designed by DNA Architects and built by Pichelmann Custom Building Services, (both long-term HIA members) is one such project. The client is very happy in his new home, and the home took out the award for the 2018 HIA Australian Specialised Housing project.

The owner, who suffers from a hereditary degenerative disease, spent eight years researching and planning a high-performance, energy-efficient ‘forever’ home – one that can support his health now, and will remain comfortable and fully accessible should he require a wheelchair at some stage in the future.

DNA Architects honed the owner’s ideas into a beautiful and highly flexible single-level layout. The home comprises a two-bedroom house and a fully self-contained two-bedroom unit, interconnected via an internal, two-way locking door. While currently set up as two separate dwellings, the unit can provide connected accommodation for a full-time carer in the future, or be integrated with the main house for resale. An indoor hydrotherapy pool is contained within a separate wing.

When the design was presented to Pichelmann Custom Building Services it came with an additional request.

Pichelmann Custom Building Service house
The home comprises a two-bedroom house and a fully self-contained two-bedroom unit
Pichelmann Custom Building Service house
The layout allows for wheelchair circulation

‘The client told us that he had been investigating Passivhaus technology and asked whether we could do that to the existing plans,’ explains director Parry Pichelmann. Despite never having built a Passivhaus home before, Parry says he ‘loved the idea’.

Passivhaus construction utilises a highly insulated, air-tight building envelope sealed with special membranes to maintain a steady internal temperature. It’s a highly technical way to build, and for the Pichelmann team, the challenge lay in getting a standard design to meet the stringent specifications.

‘We set about getting ourselves educated, working with [Passivhaus consultants] Laros Technologies … then we set about making the membranes work with the Australian building design. There was lots of thinking outside the box to get that to function.’

The interiors were thoughtfully crafted to adapt to the owner’s changing circumstances, without compromising the home’s considerable aesthetic value. In the kitchen and bathroom, sections of under-bench joinery can be easily removed to transform them into fully finished, yet wheelchair friendly, spaces. The layouts of the main bedroom, wardrobe and ensuite allow for wheelchair circulation; appliances are positioned at suitable heights; and plywood lining to all wet area walls will allow grabrails to be retro-fitted.

However, while accessibility is a large part of the home’s design, none of these features are immediately obvious. Instead, the Japanese-inspired styling and meticulous level of finish throughout take centre stage. For many of the HIA judges, it was the first time they’d observed a luxury home built with full accessibility in mind.

For many HIA judges, it was the first time they’d observed a luxury home built with full accessibility in mind

The décor is serene in its simplicity. The primary living spaces, grouped around the north-facing Japanese zen courtyard to optimise solar gain, feature crisp white walls paired with timber-look porcelain tiles, punctuated by recycled timber joinery and doors, plus triple-glazed timber windows.

Underpinning the architectural intent are the feature doors, custom-designed and crafted from locally-sourced recycled timber by the Pichelmann team, in collaboration with Canberra sawmill, joinery and recycled timber yard Thor’s Hammer. With elaborate gridwork accented by glazing and wrought iron, the aesthetic of the doors is quintessentially Japanese.

The sliding double doors that lead into the main bedroom, weighing in at 160kg apiece, hang from a rolling iron barn door track imported from the US, and required laser-precision in installation.

‘Even if they were 1.5mm out of level, the doors would either roll open or shut of their own accord because of their weight, so accuracy was pretty extreme.’

The most challenging aspect of the project was the hydrotherapy pool room. The walls and floor of this highly luxurious space are adorned with subtly-lit jade tiles, sourced from Indonesia by the owner. Composite timber planking around the edge of the pool evokes the rustic appeal of a traditional Japanese onsen.

The pool itself is a heated, stainless steel flat-pack sourced from the US and the in-ground installation and associated electrical work was quite complex. To prevent chlorine-contaminated air from circulating through the rest of the house, the room is fitted with its own air exchange system.

Pichelmann Custom Building Service house
The Japanese-inspired styling and meticulous level of finish throughout take centre stage
Pichelmann Custom Building Service house
Sliding double doors leading into the main bedroom hang from a rolling iron barn door track

While achieving the Passivhaus standard added to the total cost (which came in at about $1 million), the investment was worth it. ‘We achieved the highest pressure test rating that [Laros Technologies] have done to date,’ Parry says. Combined with solar passive design features; a 10,000-litre water tank; 9-kilowatt PV system and two banks of storage batteries, the home achieved an impressive 8.7-star energy rating.

The owner, who is thrilled with his new home, recorded stable internal temperatures of 22–25°C last summer – even when the mercury outside hit a steamy 41.

Parry describes the home as ‘very personalised’. ‘Nothing we did in there was flippant. It has thought behind it.’

And ultimately, this care and consideration evident in every aspect of the design and construction, is what set it apart from the competition in the national awards.

The win represents immense value for both DNA Architects and Pichelmann. ‘Winning the awards separates you from the pack when tendering,’ Parry says. ‘Plus the resulting media coverage as advertising and exposure means that you get bang for your buck. The cost of entering the awards is one of the best ways of spending on advertising that we have. You can't under-value that.’

At a glance

Award: 2018 HIA Australian Specialised Housing
Partnered by: Merlin
Builder: Pichelmann Custom Building Service
Architect: DNA Architects
Location: Campbell, ACT
Energy Rating: 8.7 stars
Inclusions: Triple-glazed windows with powder coat aluminium frame, integrated sink, spa and pool
Materials: Colorbond® steel roof sheeting, stone walls, bluestone pavers, timber front door, porcelain tiles, natural stone bathroom tiles, glass splashback with light green tinge, laminate laundry benchtop, timber flooring painted white.

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