Meeting in the middle
REFRESH*DESIGN (R*) is an award-winning architecture and interior design studio based in the West End of Brisbane. The studio was founded by architects Erhard Rathmayr and Monika Obrist with the goal of creating “finely-crafted contemporary architecture” that is both environmentally sustainable and economically viable. Since commencing almost a decade ago, they have delivered a diverse range of projects including houses and renovations, townhouses and apartments, and commercial and hospitality projects.
Over the years, R*’s versatility and collaborative approach has resulted in a lot of happy clients, repeat work, and industry acclaim. Most recently, the Australian Institute of Architects has awarded them with a 2019 Queensland State Award in the category of ‘Residential Architecture – Multiple Housing.’
The winning project was the ‘Longfellow Terraces,’ a series of three environmentally-sensitive terrace houses that show what the often-discussed “missing middle” – dwelling types between high-density towers and expensive standalone homes – could look like in Brisbane.
According to Erhard Rathmayr, meeting the objectives of that “missing middle” was one of the key goals of that project from its inception. In fact, since arriving in Australia in 2002, addressing that niche – by delivering a range of projects – has been one of his main goals as an architect.
Erhard began his career in the industry in his native Austria, where he ran a practice for almost 10 years with three partners. When he moved to Australia, he was very surprised by the urban sprawl that is so typical in Australian cities. Being interested in urban densification, he started pursuing mostly urban infill projects. Using “clever urban design” to increase densification in cities like Brisbane but without putting a strain on local infrastructure has always been a driver. Today, projects along those lines comprise the majority of R*’s work.
For the most of their projects, R* works with developers and homeowner clients. However, they have also designed and developed projects of their own – the Longfellow Terraces being the latest example. Erhard believes their experience of acting as developers themselves is what sets the studio apart.
“Investing your own money into a development gives you different credibility with other developers,” he explains. “They know if you’re willing to put your own money on the line then you have to have an understanding and appreciation of cost.”
“The typical stigma we have as architects is that we don’t have enough appreciation of construction budgets, and for that reason we’re often considered to be difficult to work with,” he adds. “But because of our experience as developers, we could overcome that stigma.”
“That filters through to homeowners’ projects as well,” he says. “They come to us and want us to do their houses because our designs are pleasing, but also because we have an idea of the cost of construction. That sets us apart from a lot of other architects who also know a lot about design, but not always so much about how to build within a particular price bracket.”
Because R* understands both design and buildability, they are able to achieve design outcomes that fully satisfy their clients. As a result of that satisfaction, they have formed some exceptionally strong client relationships. Erhard estimates that the studio has generated the majority of their work – at least 80 per cent, he says – from word of mouth and repeat business.
It also helps that many of the company’s projects have received industry attention and acclaim. The Longfellow Terraces, as mentioned before, would be the latest example. Erhard says that winning that kind of recognition from a body like the Australia Institute of Architects (AIA) is both personally gratifying and great for the company’s profile.
“Winning awards puts you in a better position,” he explains. “Potential clients look at your firm and there is a perception of ‘Well, these people get recognised by official bodies, so they must be doing something right.’”
“It gives you credibility,” he adds. “It shows you know what you’re doing.”
At the same time, Erhard says that while awards are appreciated, it’s more important that their projects are well-received by their clients and by the market. Fortunately, the response to Longfellow Terraces was definitively positive. All three terrace houses sold quickly, and Erhard says that one owner-occupier has since testified that “they wouldn’t change a thing.”
“As both an architect and a developer, that’s obviously fantastic to hear,” he says. “The awards are a nice extra.”
The story of Longfellow Terraces specifically begins with the builder, Bespoke Constructions, approaching R* with the idea to team up.
“They said they would like to collaborate with us on some three-bedroom houses,” Erhard recalls. “So we started talking about this development opportunity. We teamed up in a 50-50 joint venture, started looking for a site, and very soon found it.”
“The beauty of this process was that we actually had true collaboration between the builder and the architect,” he adds. “Too often, the moment you sign a contract with a builder, the builder will start to try to increase his profit by cutting corners. Bespoke Constructions didn’t do that. They put their best foot forward.”
“It was a win-win-win situation for everybody,” he says. “The client, because they got a better product, the builder, because they made a profit on construction and sale, and us architects, of course, because we also made a profit, and because we got to see our vision realised.”
In the case of Longfellow Terraces, their vision was to design homes that genuinely connect the entire living floor to the landscape, thus providing sheltered and unobstructed spaces that are truly in touch with nature.
With their design, Erhard and his team achieved that objective – and more importantly, they inserted additional dwellings into existing infrastructure rather than adding to the urban sprawl.
Also important, they provided a rare opportunity for owners to buy architecture and quality without having to pay for an expensive standalone home.
“Most of the townhouses on the market in Brisbane are fairly unsophisticated,” Erhard says candidly. “But these were designed and built in such a way that they are comparable to a small house. They are purpose designed. They are architectural, they are high quality. They are definitely not cookie cutter.”
Prior to the Longfellow Terraces project, R* also designed and developed several other sensitive and middle-niche-filling projects, including ‘Habitat on Terrace’ – which was another award-winning example of medium density housing on an inner city suburban block. There, they fit five townhouses on a 760 square metre site while achieving spaces that are very comfortable to live in.
Erhard partly credits their success at that to the experience they gained overseas:
“We come from Austria and have obviously worked in very compact spaces, so I like to think we have an advantage in figuring out how to make compact site like that work well,” he says.
“We have done a post occupancy evaluation and the people who live there are very happy,” he adds. “They really like living there. They don’t see the density as an issue.”
One couple, Russell and Trisha Shooter, even wrote a testimonial for the studio’s website. They said that the “whole design has been brilliantly thought through,” they praised “the wonderful way it maximises the use of space” and “the way it captures the elements to ensure you maximise ventilation and flow,” and they said “the build quality is second to none.”
“We have been delighted with the whole experience and look forward to spending many happy years enjoying this wonderful property,” they concluded.
Again, R* was able to achieve such a happy outcome for the client while still providing only 105 square metres of internal floor space per dwelling. That doesn’t sound like a lot of space, but Erhard says that the way their designs work, “we make 105 square metres feel like 150 square metres.” The client testimony would indicate that’s true.
The next step
The success of Longfellow Terraces and Habitat Terrace, among other similar projects, has earned R* the attention of the industry. According to Erhard, the studio has built an important reputation in their niche, and they have been approached by a number of developers to design increasingly larger multi-residential projects.
“We’re getting into small apartment complexes,” he says. “In Brisbane, we’re on the brink of apartments being accepted as main residences, rather than just investment vehicles. Most of the apartments here are typical cheap two-bed, two-bath units. We want to change that.”
With apartments, R* aims to do the same thing they have been doing with terrace houses – they want to provide a higher quality product to what the market is used to, and they are working to combat urban sprawl by providing appealing options for owner-occupiers.
“We want to introduce some three-bed units with ample storage and outdoor areas – again, similar to Europe,” Erhard adds. “We would like to give more people the opportunity to enjoy an inner-city lifestyle without having to pay for a super-expensive residence in the city, and without having to accept a standard cookie-cutter apartment. That’s our next step.”For more on Refresh Design and their vision, past projects, and awards – including more on the Longfellow Terraces and the Habitat on Terrace in particular – visit https://www.refreshdesign.com.au/