Real Home: Tropical Modern

Words by Kim Woods Rabbidge

It’s a treat to see a modish dwelling, constructed over ten years ago for tropical living, nestled so comfortably into the landscape. Although when you understand this was a collaborative project between an innovative architect and the homeowner, international award-winning landscape architect Andrew Prowse, whose designs include urban landscapes, plus gardens and pools for resorts and boutique hotels, it’s not such a surprising outcome.

The home, on a 740 square metre block in the Cairns beachside suburb of Holloways Beach, is one of two designed by David Langston-Jones, side by side at the end of a cul-de-sac. David, who’d previously worked for the English firm Foster & Partners, (renowned for their high tech steel and glass constructions) followed the ethos of the management manual for wet tropics, which guides appropriate design for the climate. He embraced sustainability, using low energy-use systems, especially convection cooling.

Andrew had previously collaborated with David on master plans for proposed visitor centres for two of Townsville’s botanic gardens: the Palmetum, and Anderson Park.“I knew his work and trusted him with aesthetics,” says Andrew, who is passionate about appropriate design for the tropics, and also ergonomics.

David utilised a cyclone-resistant steel portal superstructure and framing that allowed for under-floor and cross-room ventilation in the four-storey home.

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Rather than glass, in this contemporary interpretation of a traditional Queenslander, most windows are timber louvres that reduce the effect of direct sun while allowing in filtered light. Other windows have aluminium wind-out shutters, and a skylight is protected by mechanised aluminium louvres, which are adjusted for more light on overcast days in the wet season. Doors are glass and recessed 1 metre, providing protection from both rain and sun.

In this home, rooms are quiet retreats, and garden vignettes are framed through doorways.“I admire the work of Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawar. He’s considered the founding father of tropical modernism,” says Andrew who met Bawar in Sri Lanka. He integrated buildings with the landscape, fusing indoor and outdoor living. One Bawar-inspired element Andrew included is the use of light walls and cool, dark floors.

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“Having the home on four levels allows a smaller footprint, and room for a larger garden,” he explains. At ground level there are sheltered entry points to the home, a generous sized laundry and an undercroft that’s not only a carport – it’s perfect for drying clothes and assists with ventilation. A bedroom, study, and bathroom occupy the first floor, and the master bedroom and ensuite are on the fourth.

There’s no undercover verandah; instead the living room on the third floor converts to a light-filled space when glass panels are folded back against the wall revealing a view over an expanse of lawn – a peaceful counterbalance to lush borders. A ledge, which leads to stairs, supports an external timber bench.“It’s used just to rest – or when the dining table is pushed out slightly, we use it for seating along one side,” Andrew says.

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The compact kitchen has been designed for functionality.“It works well. Everything is only a pace or two away. It’s all about good space, not just floor space,” Andrew says. He’s had some experience with kitchens. His aunt, Barbara Lynch, presented a TV program, Switched on Living, for 21 years, and during the 1960s in their country homestead, his parents enjoyed Barbara’s previous stainless steel kitchen which she’d replaced in her inner-city demonstration space. Ideas aren’t the only things Andrew collected: on display are pieces of his aunt’s 1970s Arabia dinnerware.

Unusually, there’s no air-conditioning, so Andrew’s electricity bill is minimal. The key to temperature modification lies in airflow. The home’s lightweight construction means minimal thermal mass, allowing heat transfer and rapid cooling in the evening.The central staircase, beneath a ventilated ridge cap, is the core to circulation.Warm air entering through slotted eaves, and in the space between the outer walls and interior plasterboard, rises and cools by convection.



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“The house is pretty comfortable,” Andrew says.“It’s not the sort of place that stays the same temperature all year. For a couple of weeks it gets hot so you dress accordingly.” Then in July and August, when temperatures get down to 12 degrees, the gas fireplace adds warmth on chilly evenings. Nor are there any insect screens but the elevation, fans and mozzie coils in the summer, keep bugs at bay. Prowse-42

Some eclectic pieces Andrew’s brought back from travels include a bronze horse head from India, furniture from Sri Lanka, and fabrics from the Congo that he had transformed into covers and bedspreads by Sydney designer Gary Smith (now retired to Cairns). Bespoke furniture, designed by the architect, includes the dining table, study desk and beds. Coveted works by Mornington Island’s Sally Gabori and Joseph Watts are striking in the living room.


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While Andrew’s work takes him to various tropical and subtropical destinations both locally and overseas, his own verdant garden provides respite. It’s secret is a limited palette, and the plants have been carefully selected.“I wanted it fairly simple – to be read from the first floor level rather than within its geometric layout,” Andrew says.

Melaleucas were planted to accompany some already growing on the block and Timor Black bamboo adds to the vertical emphasis along the borders.This also contrasts with mottled banana leaves.“I like contrasts such as bamboos, heliconias and bromeliads – not so much for the flowers – but leaves,” says Andrew who has a love-hate relationship with broms.“Beneath trees they tend to catch too much leaf drop.”

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Gravel surrounds the home and covers pathways between the borders and central sward.“It’s used extensively in European gardens but also in places like Thailand and India. It’s a nice neutral backdrop and setting for a house; and it’s good for security as well,” Andrew says.

Clumps of deep green Rhaphis palms, and shrubs like Phyllanthus cuscutiflorous, with dainty pink pendulous flowers and new copper foliage, back smaller plants such as colourful crotons and rhoeo.“From the living room it looks like a stage set.The chorus girls are all lined up along the front,” says Andrew looking out.


Along one side, fan-shaped Travellers palms accompany Bauhinia blakeana whose orchid-like flowers appear each winter. Fragrant pan-tropicalTabernaemontana are favourite small trees adding an exotic air, and a collection of deliciously scented brugmansias flower repeatedly throughout the year.

Beneath sheltered borders, elegant medinellas are thriving, boldly leaved philodendrons are almost epiphytic, and old-fashioned ixoras provide colour for months. A collection of pots is easy care on the gravel and, cleverly, Andrew’s chosen several that complement the home including ceramic vessels in charcoal and purple with corrugations that mimic the walls.Water pots with red-stemmed Thalia are striking features.


Gardener Ross McIntyre helps a couple of days a month.“Now the garden’s mature we tend to do more editing, especially with such rapid tropical growth, but twice a year we add horse manure and sugar cane mulch – eighty bags and bales at a time. It’s good to bounce ideas with Ross,”Andrew says.“At work I think about other people’s gardens day in, day out, so in my own I don’t feel the need to have it too pristine. Just relaxing.”

Garden Photography by Kim Woods Rabbidge
House Photography by Sean Reason