Make the most of your “Steep Site” Queenslander Renovation


– Hi, I’m Jan Hogarth from Placemate Architects, and today I’d like to talk about steep sites, how to design for them, and things that you should be thinking about as you are thinking about how to develop your steep site. Now people go, “Oh, steep site, such a nuisance. You can’t use a standard home on them.

This is gonna cost you more. Yes, why would you bother?” Well, this is a photo that we used from one of our jobs and you will have seen it before. This is why, because if you’re on a steep site, chances are you have got a great view, and you really want to make the most of it. If it’s on steep site, you’ve usually got views that can’t be built out. That is gold. Here’s a steep site property that we did. Now there’s two ways that a steep site can work. It can rise from the street, and it’s gonna fall from the street.

So we’re going to deal with both of those today.

\Here’s one that rises about 10 meters from the road here to the house up here. This is a family home. They want it to be their forever home, and they wanted places for the children to play in the yard. Well, let me tell you, when they got the house, there was no yard, it was just a hillside. So what we’ve done here is put the carport garage area down the bottom, the roof here has got a flat area on, it’s now got a trampoline on it. Now, you go up another half a level, that’s a family room and the bedrooms.

Up here is the living room’s, kitchen, dining room, going all the way through and connecting up to a backyard at the back, which we’ll come to. Now part of the problem with a steep site is how do you move through this site? You start at the bottom here, your living room’s up here, three and a half stories higher. How do you flow up there without feeling like it’s a chore, so that you don’t feel like you’re going through a rabbit warren or up and scaling mountain? So we have created this, these roofs here can be covered so that you could come up with your groceries into your house.

We did a version where you could put a lift in through here, but just, cost blew out, it was ridiculous. And we’ve also created another access down through here, which you can come down with a wheelbarrow so that there’s service access up there at the top too. This is how the house started out. There was this daggy carport in here, this roof was leaking, of course, underneath the house here was just dirt, this is an old Queenslander, and this is kind of halfway into the hill. So the whole thing was just a hillside, there was nowhere to play. Now here’s a drawing that we did. Now you’re allowed to be nine and a half meters.

We lifted up the house nine and a half meters above the ground. Here’s the natural ground line running down through here, and we’ve raised the house from about here to here, about 1.2 meters, so the back of the house connects up to the ground, and we put a bit of fill in here. So creates the illusion that the house is level. There’s another level up here. Then all of these living areas connect up to the view through here. There’s another room in underneath here.

There’s quite a bit of excavation under the back of the house. Now this is a trick. This is something you should be aware of if you are doing, building on a steep site, retaining walls, you always hear about this.

What happens is water is in the ground here, there’s always a lot of pressure from the water in the ground here, and you tempted to put maximum space here, put a concrete block retaining wall in here, and just put waterproofing in behind it. Chances are, long term that will leak. We don’t do that. We tend to put, this is a kind of earth bank, we’ve just put a garden type retaining wall in there that can leak in the long term, and the water comes through this wall and this bit here is a garden storage area. The water can flow around on a path down through here and down the hill. So when you get a really wet year, this part of the house is just standard construction, it’s separated from the ground. If you can achieve that, you’ll save yourself a lot of money and it gives you this kind of B-grade space that comes in extremely handy for storage and gardening. It’s actually under a deck. And you can see here that we’ve put a concrete floor over this garage here so that we get these various flat levels through the house. So here we are.

Here’s a shot from the front. You can see this is a stepped pergola that could have roofs over it. So you can come up here with your shopping bags. There’s that play area, it’s now got a trampoline on it. We haven’t got a handrail here, so this appears to flow down here. But you can actually walk down this way if you wanted to. This is the reverse view, so that if you came up from the street, you come up on these side steps, and it just, it feels lovely. Here’s the same house from the back, and you can see right through from the backyard through their meals area, through the kitchen and family dining room, living room and out straight through to the view. So you get this continuous flow on this steep site that’s rising from the street.


Now here’s one that falls from the street. From the street this looks like a two story house, again on the top of the hill with this fantastic view. Now we’ve gone down another whole floor, and turned and put cars in underneath here. This is the bedroom level. This is the living area. Cars underneath, it falls about another five meters down the hill from there. Now, we’ve got the reverse problem here. This is the site falling down here, here’s our nine and a half meters. We are trying to get as high as we can on this site. Now technically, in Brisbane you’re not allowed to have a three story house, but because the ground is like that, this is technically our basement. So we are allowed to do that. From the street level, the living area’s on the street, it just looks straight through. Same principle as the other house. Bedrooms are up the top here, we are getting very close to nine and a half meters here. And this is a good place to illustrate one of the other problems, when the house falls, land falls away from the street. Back in the day in Queenslander’s, the roof water would just go down downpipes, and fall down onto the ground. Or sometimes there was a pit in the backyard that the water ran down into the pit, and it gradually soaked into the ground. Now of course, they silt up and the water just causes a problem. But you’re not allowed to do that anymore, because it causes a problem to the people who live down the hill from you. You’re not allowed to discharge onto the ground. You can’t have a pit. If you have a pit, you have to pump it up to the street. So you have a couple of options. All the water can come down here, and then you can arrange with your neighbors to put a pipe through their yard down to the, there’s a house down here, down below, these guys ask their neighbors, could we put a pipe through their yard and all the water from their house runs down through the yard. Great. Problem solved. What happens if there’s a bunch of townhouses down the bottom? Or the neighbor says, no way. You have a problem, because this water that wants to fall down the hill has to get back to here. So this, that’s enough to make your life very difficult if you’re on a site that’s falling away from the street. Some people put in pits, and then they have to pump up to the street. I don’t think it’s a very good solution, because eventually that pump will break, or it won’t be needed when there’s a huge storm. It doesn’t help if you put your downpipes into a tank and the tanks overflow, council’s wise to that one as well. So that’s almost the first problem that you should address in one that falls away. This is what this house looks like from below, this big sandstone retaining wall, and there’s another one below that, are just holding up the driveway underneath the house. So you can see it’s a very steep site from behind, but from the street it just looks like a two story house. And you can see there’s the living room, behind here there’s a swimming pool. So they have a pool at the front on the street, and we’ve managed the privacy there. But you can look straight through to the city, and this fantastic view that they have. The other thing is, now we wanted to get this house as high as we could, and I’d just like to say this ceiling height is quite low. It’s only a bit over two meters, but because the window is so wide and open, you don’t even notice. So sometimes we get obsessed with having high ceilings, but in this case it hardly matters. So in summary, steep sites, they either rise from the street, or they fall from the street. The key issues that you’re dealing with are water, whether the water’s coming down the hill at you, or you’ve gotta get the roof water back. Always interesting. Cars on a steep site, always a challenge. How do you manage that, and the connection from the house to the cars, and entry needs to be managed really well. And how do you connect to the ground on a steep site, so there’s always flow. It’s challenging. It is a bit more expensive from a construction point of view, but it’s so worth it, because you can create this openness, and deal with those problems so that it just appears effortless. That’s what architects do. And if you have a steep sight, or you’re grappling with these issues, give Placemate a call, we’d be happy to help. Thank you.