Screening – without creating prisons

Mar 8, 2018 Architecture

As densities in both inner and middle distance suburbs increase, setting up screens or privacy devices rams up a notch or two. Simply using translucent glass across bedroom windows may still allow for natural light, but the effect can be prison-like.

“This screening issue has become far too restrictive. I often advise clients to keep the plan to ground level, rather than having a second storey that feels like you’re in a prison,” says architect Antony Martin, director of MRTN Architects. “And anyway, what’s wrong with looking into a neighbour’s back yard?” he adds.

Martin spent a few years living in New York. The back door of his apartment took in the views of at least 20 apartments. However, working in Melbourne, Martin is conscious of every window and door that’s put onto a plan. “This privacy issue is driven by town planners and their regulations, rather than looking at the quality of light and how it feels for the owners,” says Martin, who recalls how Victorian terraces were arranged in the late 20th century. “Neighbours looked into each others back yards, offering passive surveillance in the process,” he adds.

Photo credit: Tom Ross

Creative screening to comply with planning regulations

According to Martin, planning regulations generally encourage living areas at ground level and bedrooms on the first floor (with privacy screens). With regulations stipulating privacy screens to the height of 1.7 metres from floor level, there’s a sense of complete enclosure. To avoid a cell-like ambience, MRTN Architects uses a number of screening devices. For a two-storey house in Middle Park, Martin applied a vertical green wall/planter screen that extended across both levels. Featuring evergreen climbers, there’s a verdant outlook all year round, as well as creating privacy to neighbouring properties. Other techniques used by Martin for a 1970s house he renovated in Fairfield include deep window reveals (approximately 60 centimetres in depth) to create privacy, as well as diffusing the harsh afternoon western light. “If we use privacy screens, they need to feel integral to the architecture, rather than being as an afterthought,” he says.

 Photo credit: Lauren Bamford

MRTN’s award-winning house in Carlton referred to as ‘The Cloister’, features vertical timber fin-style windows across the window of the main bedroom. This fixed screen restricts side views but allow views directly ahead. “I think that standards need to be slightly more relaxed. What exactly is the problem for me to be standing in my home and seeing into a neighbour’s garden? It’s part of the experience of inner-city living,” adds Martin.

“Screening devices should feel quite natural”

Architect George Fortey, director of NTF Architecture, needs to be as equally mindful when considering privacy issues. “There are ways of creating privacy, while still allowing for natural light and making an outlook pleasurable,” says Fortey, who looks for sight lines that take one’s eye to a point in the distance, whether it’s a plant or the sky. For his own home in Cremorne, Fortey included oversized windows in the bedrooms on the first floor (2.4 metres in height) that start at 1.7 metres from floor level. These generous windows extend almost to the roofline, allowing a sense of generosity rather than feeling restricted.

Photo credit: Shannon McGrath

For a new group of townhouses in Malvern, NTF Architecture will be using a series of operable screens, some of which open 90 degrees to allow for cross ventilation. These screens also function to reduce the amount of sunlight penetrating bedrooms. Other devices used by Fortey include strategically placed blade or wing-style walls that create a ‘veil’ to neighbouring properties.

“The planning regulations make you think in a certain way when it comes to privacy. But at the end of the day, these screening devices should feel quite natural, rather than making you uneasy about being in a space,” adds Fortey.

Photo credit: Lauren Bamford

MRTN Architects can be contacted on 9329 4145
NTF Architecture can be contacted on 9429 3200

About the Author: Stephen Crafti

Stephen Crafti has been writing about design and architecture since the early 1990’s and is a regular contributor to DesignBUILD. Inspired by the architecture around him in Melbourne, Australia, he was keen to share the things he saw, whether buildings, furniture, fashion or other stunning pieces of contemporary design. After many years of writing about his favourite things, and with numerous books and articles behind him, Crafti still delights in discovering and promoting exhilarating design. He is a regular contributor to several Australian newspapers and local and international design magazines.

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