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Downsizing a House to Expand the Garden: At Home with Landscape Architect William Dangar

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Downsizing a House to Expand the Garden: At Home with Landscape Architect William Dangar

January 8, 2021

Though he’s a landscape architect known for designing gardens to complement large houses, Australia-based William Dangar often gets to work with only a little land. Time and again, he says, “the structure takes up all the space and the landscaping becomes mere icing around the edges.”

When Dangar and his family built their own home near Sydney’s Bondi Beach, he got the chance to rectify the situation. They bought an unsalvageable California-style bungalow on a lot “shaped like a pizza slice,” tore it down, and started anew with a double-height house with a smaller footprint (to leave more land for the garden).

Dangar commissioned friend and architect Michelle Osazaczky to design the house in partnership with interior architect Romaine Alwill. It was to be simple and modern, inspired by photos of “modest little huts on the sides of glaciers in Greenland” taken by photographer Murray Fredericks, and imagery Dangar found of black barns in Queenstown, New Zealand.

For the generous backyard, Dangar was influenced by Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, “who was the master of mass plantings,” he says. “It is hard when you are your own client, but in the end I thought it best to challenge myself,” with a graphic scheme of new plant mixes such as “weeping mulberries, bamboos that originate from northern Asia, and Japanese blood grass which turns red in summer,” he says. “It’s my contemporary take on a Japanese native garden.”

Photography by Prue Ruscoe, courtesy of William Dangar.

A view of the backyard garden from the dining table. The property is about a third of a mile from Bondi Beach, says Dangar, which means that &#8\2\20;when Bondi is really busy, it is still quite peaceful at home.&#8\2\2\1;
Above: A view of the backyard garden from the dining table. The property is about a third of a mile from Bondi Beach, says Dangar, which means that “when Bondi is really busy, it is still quite peaceful at home.”
Dangar had railroad ties (called &#8\2\20;sleepers&#8\2\2\1; in Australia) installed along the perimeter of the backyard and parallel to the house. &#8\2\20;I use the sleepers to allow the garden to step in and out, to create differing depths,&#8\2\2\1; says Dangar. &#8\2\20;It&#8\2\17;s a subtle detail I use quite a lot in my gardens.&#8\2\2\1;
Above: Dangar had railroad ties (called “sleepers” in Australia) installed along the perimeter of the backyard and parallel to the house. “I use the sleepers to allow the garden to step in and out, to create differing depths,” says Dangar. “It’s a subtle detail I use quite a lot in my gardens.”
Dangar and his wife have two children, ages 8 and \10, who get frequent use of a trampoline set into the lawn toward the back of the garden.
Above: Dangar and his wife have two children, ages 8 and 10, who get frequent use of a trampoline set into the lawn toward the back of the garden.
The farthest edge of the garden comes to a rough &#8\2\20;V&#8\2\2\1; shape, where two modern outdoor chairs are perched (Dangar purchased them at auction and had them restored). Plantings here include camellia, sago palm, and Japanese bloodgrass.
Above: The farthest edge of the garden comes to a rough “V” shape, where two modern outdoor chairs are perched (Dangar purchased them at auction and had them restored). Plantings here include camellia, sago palm, and Japanese bloodgrass.
Two large white glass doors slide externally over the black back wall of the house. The house is clad in rough-sawn cedar boards installed in a shiplap pattern, stained with Woodsman oil from New Zealand company Resene, in color Pitch Black.
Above: Two large white glass doors slide externally over the black back wall of the house. The house is clad in rough-sawn cedar boards installed in a shiplap pattern, stained with Woodsman oil from New Zealand company Resene, in color Pitch Black.

The sliding doors open the northwest face of the house to the garden, “to allow for a genuine merging of inside and out.”

A narrow back deck serves as a step to the garden, and a perch for chairs when entertaining. It&#8\2\17;s made of New Guinea rosewood, which Dangar always uses for decks. An irregularly shaped, bubbling fish pond surrounds the far end of the deck; clumping bamboo grows along its edge. The pool &#8\2\20;slides under the deck and creates ambient noise to filter the street sounds,&#8\2\2\1; says the architect.
Above: A narrow back deck serves as a step to the garden, and a perch for chairs when entertaining. It’s made of New Guinea rosewood, which Dangar always uses for decks. An irregularly shaped, bubbling fish pond surrounds the far end of the deck; clumping bamboo grows along its edge. The pool “slides under the deck and creates ambient noise to filter the street sounds,” says the architect.
Next to the pond, a hammock hangs from a crape myrtle tree. It&#8\2\17;s fronted by a dense planting of Acorus gramineus, a bright green Asian native grass.
Above: Next to the pond, a hammock hangs from a crape myrtle tree. It’s fronted by a dense planting of Acorus gramineus, a bright green Asian native grass.
To the right of the sliding glass door is an outdoor kitchen area made of Corten steel and designed by the architect. It has a tandoor oven on one side and a grill on the other, and both pieces are available in Dangar&#8\2\17;s Robert Plumb outdoor range. The Ficus rubiginosa tree in the foreground is an Australia native; at its base red-tinged Japanese bloodgrass adds a fringe.
Above: To the right of the sliding glass door is an outdoor kitchen area made of Corten steel and designed by the architect. It has a tandoor oven on one side and a grill on the other, and both pieces are available in Dangar’s Robert Plumb outdoor range. The Ficus rubiginosa tree in the foreground is an Australia native; at its base red-tinged Japanese bloodgrass adds a fringe.
The mature jacaranda tree was the only plant that remained from the property&#8\2\17;s previous iteration; the rest were mature trees installed by crane.
Above: The mature jacaranda tree was the only plant that remained from the property’s previous iteration; the rest were mature trees installed by crane.
A large Fatsia paper plant, a Loropetalum purple shrub, and Dichondra serving as ground cover grow over the railroad ties on the left edge of the garden.
Above: A large Fatsia paper plant, a Loropetalum purple shrub, and Dichondra serving as ground cover grow over the railroad ties on the left edge of the garden.

See more ideas in Hardscaping 101: Ground Covers to Plant Between Pavers.

Part of the house, including a corner with an outdoor rinsing shower, is made of brick reclaimed from building demolitions throughout Australia.
Above: Part of the house, including a corner with an outdoor rinsing shower, is made of brick reclaimed from building demolitions throughout Australia.
Star jasmine frames a square peep-hole cut into the rough-sawn Australian hardwood fence at the front of property, which gives passersby a glimpse into the garden.
Above: Star jasmine frames a square peep-hole cut into the rough-sawn Australian hardwood fence at the front of property, which gives passersby a glimpse into the garden.
A large plumeria (a request of Dangar&#8\2\17;s wife, Julia) adds to the &#8\2\20;more subtropical&#8\2\2\1; mix of plantings in the front yard, alongside a tall crape myrtle that partially shields the house from the street. The front door is painted a bold red-orange—a custom mix developed by interior designer Briony Fitzgerald.
Above: A large plumeria (a request of Dangar’s wife, Julia) adds to the “more subtropical” mix of plantings in the front yard, alongside a tall crape myrtle that partially shields the house from the street. The front door is painted a bold red-orange—a custom mix developed by interior designer Briony Fitzgerald.
Dangar set the front fence back from the sidewalk by a few feet and planted Australian native grasses along it, to &#8\2\20;give something back to the suburb.&#8\2\2\1;
Above: Dangar set the front fence back from the sidewalk by a few feet and planted Australian native grasses along it, to “give something back to the suburb.”

Browse our Garden Design 101 guides for more planting ideas, including suggestions for Grasses, Ground Covers, and Tropical Plants. For more projects in Australia across our sites, see:

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