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Alchemy involves the distinct combinations of substances in pursuit of the perfect outcome. Alchemists experimented with various elements, minerals and compounds to create something new and –sometimes – extraordinary. They believed that combining different materials in precise ways could achieve physical transformations. 
HIA members DNA Architects and Preferred Builders could attest to this. Their process in formulating a complex residential project called The Nest was in many ways experimental. The two companies had worked together previously for the clients and were pleased to once more blend their vision and talents to craft a dwelling that transcended the ordinary.
Completed in August 2021, The Nest is perched on Canberra’s Red Hill with sweeping views from eastward reserves to Queanbeyan, the airport and Telstra Tower. The project is a perfect example of site-sensitive design, though that brought its own challenges.
Director Paul Kerr and Dean Hess from Preferred Builders explained that this project’s complexity was evident from the start. ‘The site featured three levels, each requiring excavation,’ Paul says. ‘It started with drilling seven-metre-deep piles anchored below the basement foundation. A sturdy concrete platform allowed 130-tonne cranes to access the site. The narrow street needed to handle multiple cranes and a steep ramp along one side to get the site ready and the foundations laid.’ 
According to AJ Bala from DNA Architects, as the design progressed, as the team had to find innovative solutions such as using the installed custom car lift to work around these obstacles. ‘We also had to navigate regulations,’ he says. ‘Remarkably, we secured an exempt approval and had the encroachments approved via a minor encroachment approval process.’ 
While ensuring the build met the brief, sustainable principles were not overlooked. AJ says the firm prioritises harmonising with the land and minimising environmental impact. ‘Sustainable excavation practices and minimal concrete transportation contributed to a lower carbon footprint,’ he says. ‘Concrete, despite its initial emissions, offers long-lasting value. Solar panels power the entire structure, achieving a large electrical offset.’
For the DNA Architects team, these green design elements are not an afterthought. Sustainability is ingrained in their process – a fundamental aspect of their architectural philosophy. 
So too is continually pursuing uniquely crafted designs, and this home delivers in a number of ways. While appearing as an unassuming single-level dwelling from the street, the residence cascades majestically towards the rear, featuring cantilevered roofs and structural steel. Visitors are first met with a towering 4.5-metre-high entrance door with precise custom-folded zinc cladding, which swings open to reveal the expansive interior, and impressive structural glazing. 
‘The entrance door became a focal point of the design,’ AJ explains. ‘We aimed for something distinctive that would blend with the surroundings. The nearby eucalypt reserve inspired the choice of zinc cladding and its reflective properties. It’s a doorway that welcomes and frames the breathtaking view beyond.’ 
Paul adds that the distinctive design required the building team to think on their feet. ‘Maintaining structural integrity without excessive deflection on the roof was paramount,’ he says. ‘The installation of 5.5-metre-high sliding glass doors also presented another challenge as these had to be recessed into the ceiling and floor structure. Swift engineering improvisations raised the steel structure and added reinforcements.’ 
The towering glass doors, while visually stunning, also demanded a 130-tonne crane to navigate their size and weight. Intricate coordination was necessary to get them into position through a glass atrium using specialist lifting equipment. Installing the glass panels took an entire month.
A biophilic design with an internal glass atrium adds to the sustainable elements and enhances air quality and natural lighting features. The atrium sits at the centre of the home, bridging the entertaining spaces to the four spacious bedrooms – each with an ensuite – a state-of-the-art home theatre, home office, and the main terrace and pool. A lift takes you up to the rooftop terrace and a secondary lift drops down to the basement garage to view the owners’ car collection.
As you move throughout the interconnected spaces of this incredible multi-level home, the combination of the black Japan ply ceiling, beautiful burnished concrete floor, and timber and brass accents provide abstract, refined details at every turn. Internally, each piece of flawlessly crafted joinery leaves no trace of construction, while the exterior Equitone cladding, placed at an angle, adds texture and interest. The result showcases the skilful craftsmanship and expertise of the building team.
‘Choosing the materials was a rigorous process. We wanted the design to stand out but remain within budget,’ AJ advises. ‘We aimed for more than just functional spaces; we strived to understand how the clients live and tailored the design to their lifestyle.’ This softer and often underrated skill of understanding the client is something both DNA Architects and Preferred Builders take pride in and dramatically influences their approach to design and construction.
Unsurprisingly, the project won the 2022 HIA-CSR ACT/Southern NSW Home of the Year Award and was a 2023 HIA-CSR Australian Home of the Year finalist. The judges were left speechless by the engineering, innovative materials and attention to detail, which pushed the team to new limits but produced outstanding results.
Collaboration played a crucial role in this project’s success. AJ recommends having a builder on board as early as possible, as it is crucial in aligning the project with the budget and setting expectations.
While challenges are part of the process, DNA Architects and Preferred Builders have found a formula of meticulous planning, agile problem-solving, and open communication that works for projects of this complexity. ‘This wasn’t our first collaboration with DNA Architects, and it won’t be the last. We enjoy a harmonious working relationship and close friendship,’ Paul says.
For the team, the project is more than a house; it’s a series of moments that inspire and evoke bold emotions. It reflects their dedication to understanding their clients, embracing challenges and pushing boundaries.
1. Site-sensitive practices to minimise environmental impact
2. Biophilic design to enhance air quality and external connection
3. Energy-efficient glazing
Structural engineer
First published on 27 November 2023
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