Google “Matt Elkan Architect” and you will discover a treasure trove of inspirational work.
Predominant in this work are beautiful residential projects that respond to Australia’s unique climate and tropical conditions, speaking of both minimal beach life and Japanese aesthetics. Exuding calm and serenity, these homes are situated on Sydney’s Northern Beaches and progressively further afield – through regional New South Wales, the Northern Territory and Japan.
Matt Elkan started in 2006 as a solo office on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. As the work grew, so did his practice, and the team have since produced a range of residential works, each carefully responsive to its location and displaying exquisite detail. The homes feature natural palettes of raw and sturdy materials, bespoke joinery, efficient floor plans and optimal environmental performance. They are all sensitively tailored to the living needs of their residents. And all are the result of successful collaboration between architect, builder and client.
The studio is based on a belief in the deep value of collaboration in architectural practice, where successful built projects depend on trusting relationships with consultants, craftsmen, craftsmen, suppliers and designers. In recognition of this philosophy, the practice is currently being rebranded as Incidental Architecture, with Matt and his longtime collaborator Daina Cunningham as co-directors. Daina has worked with Matt for eight years, and the firm’s new name reflects an unwavering belief that architecture is fundamentally about the people who use and inhabit the finished product.
As Matt says, “We love beautiful buildings and elegant details, but the practice’s core belief is that buildings are at their best when they serve the lives of the people and communities that inhabit them. While the job of architecture is to design things, this is the way things should be part of life.”
The idea of a building being shaped through a collaborative process is evident in Ozone House, a new family home in Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Located on a battleaxe block in Freshwater, this is a laid-back home where you can enjoy a laid-back lifestyle – despite its suburban location, the owners likened their first night in their new home to an exciting camping experience. The brief was to preserve the existing landscape, and so the compact two-storey house is intentionally small, stepping around the gnarled trunks of adult angophores and enjoying views of the landscape from every vantage point.
Strong collaborative partnerships with the client and engineer were an integral part of the construction and the end result. “Good needs everyone,” explains Matt. A shared gentleness and thoughtfulness brought the clients and Matt together and that resonance continues at Ozone House: Matt, Daina and their team are back on site designing a bathhouse to complement their previous work.
A deep respect for the landscape and careful integration of buildings into their surrounding context is a core consideration in any project. In 3 + 3 House (2014; cf Houses: kitchens and bathrooms 10) the experience of landscape is internalized as courtyards within the suburban terrain. The design envisions a dark and cramped 1920s Mosman cottage as a rhythmic progression of three built forms and three courtyards. The entire diagram is based on the integration of architecture and landscape, with the lightness and openness of the gardens providing the necessary relief for the modest interior spaces to function.
Few urban landscapes are more breathtaking than the bushland valley occupied by Tree House (2020) in Bayview on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. The steep bush terrain offered enviable privacy but was also home to a diverse ecology of plant and animal life. Homeowners Byron and Sophie came to the practice aware of the challenges of the job and keen to minimize their impact on the site and, more broadly, mitigate the environmental costs of building a new home.
Here, the fundamentals of eco-conscious design – from optimal alignment and passive solar design to natural ventilation – are coupled with ethical material selection. Birch and plywood interior surfaces are coated with vegetable oils and waxes, reducing the need for paint while eliminating chrome. A hardened skin of Corten and galvanized steel decks and walkways meet extremely stringent bushfire regulations and are designed to withstand severe environmental events, which are becoming increasingly common as a result of climate change.
Matt and Daina claim that building is a privilege and that it should be done with purpose. The design process is a journey that offers a unique opportunity to create something of lasting value for both residents and the community involved in its creation. Located in a former car repair shop in Paddington, Sydney, Smash Repair House (2020) is an anomaly on a street otherwise populated by Victorian terraces. It was lauded for its environmental, design and heritage achievements – a result made possible by trusting and committed clients and staff who persevered despite the many obstacles of building in a tightly controlled heritage area. The solid brick façade stands prominently on the street corner, and yet steel gratings, which are both robust and delicate at the same time, play with notions of permeability. Beyond its respectful exterior form, an intricately detailed private realm of layered living spaces is discovered. The design takes Oku’s Japanese concept and unfolds in layers to reveal a spatial core around which all the rooms of the house are arranged – in this case a central courtyard. The result is a materially and spatially rich home with distinct but interconnected social and retreat zones.
Matt and Daina’s focus on efficient, hard-working buildings is exemplified in Tsubo Niwa (2021), an extension to a heritage cottage in a nature reserve in downtown Sydney. By its very nature, building is a complex and expensive endeavor, and their goal has always been “doing the best with the least”. At Tsubo Niwa, this has translated into an intentionally small extension with a compact floor plan and livable edges. The modesty of scale has ensured that the budget could be stretched for moments of elegant detail. Most notable are the cozy warmth of the wood-paneled interior and the sliding partitions made of fine wooden slats that modulate light and garden connection. Matt and Daina credit Sam Horspool with his key role in detailing and managing this project.
Incidental Architecture is a member of Renew, a non-profit organization that promotes sustainable technologies and solutions, and the team is actively involved in promoting and pursuing sustainable and equitable building practices. In addition to expanding the portfolio of residential buildings, the practice is currently working on a house above the snow line in the Japanese mountains, built to passive house airtightness standards, as well as on a system of prefabricated, adaptable houses, with the hope of high-quality, affordable architecture for a to make it more accessible to a much broader suburban population. Social sustainability is also on the agenda, with Incidental Architecture recently completing a series of residential pavilions for a Darwin-based organization that provides adult education for Indigenous Australians – extending the reach of their architectural work to people who do not typically commission an architect.
Rather than glorifying the architectural object, Matt and Daina strive to design buildings that enhance the lives of their residents. This humble approach to designing “random things” is underpinned by conscientious messages of humility, community and environmental awareness, and considers architecture’s broader influence in a world preparing for impending environmental threats and rising social injustice. This is certainly an ethos that will be anything but random.