Sixteen years after establishing his practice, architect Matt Elkan is rebranding the studio alongside long-time colleague and friend Daina Cunningham, reaffirming their ethos that architecture is fundamentally about serving people.
Tsubo Niwa (2021)
Image: Clinton Weaver
Google “Matt Elkan Architect” and you’ll uncover a treasure trove of inspiring work.
In the main, that work is beautiful residential projects, which respond to Australia’s unique climate and tropical conditions, and which speak both of minimal beachside living and Japanese aesthetics. These houses radiate tranquillity and calmness, and are quietly peppered across Sydney’s Northern Beaches and, increasingly, further afield – through regional New South Wales, the Northern Territory and Japan.
Matt Elkan started sole practice in Sydney’s Northern Beaches in 2006. As the work grew, so did his practice, and the team has since produced a suite of residential works, each one responding thoughtfully to their site and demonstrating exquisite detailing. The houses feature natural palettes of raw and robust materials, bespoke joinery, efficient layouts, and optimum environmental performance. They are all sensitively tuned to the ways their occupants wish to live. And all are the result of successful collaborations between the architect, client and builder.
The studio is founded on the belief in the profound value of collaboration in the practice of architecture, with successful built projects contingent on trusting relationships with consultants, craftspeople, trades, suppliers and designers. In recognition of that philosophy, the practice is currently rebranding as Incidental Architecture, with Matt and long-term collaborator Daina Cunningham as co-directors. Daina has been working with Matt for eight years, and the practice’s new name reflects a steadfast belief that architecture is fundamentally about the people who use and inhabit the finished product.
Practice directors Matt Elkan and Daina Cunningham.
Image: Clinton Weaver
As Matt says: “We love beautiful buildings, and elegant details, but the core belief of the practice is that buildings are at their greatest when they serve the lives of the people and communities that inhabit them. In this way, while the task of architecture is to design things, things should be incidental to life.”
The idea that a building is shaped by a collaborative process is evident in Ozone House a new family home in Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Occupying a battleaxe block in Freshwater, this is a relaxed home in which to enjoy a laidback lifestyle – despite its suburban locale, the owners likened their first night in their new house to a thrilling 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 mature angophoras and enjoying landscape views from every vantage point.
Ozone House (2013) occupies the same footprint of the cottage it replaced, preserving the existing landscape.
Image: Simon Whitbread
Strong collaborative partnerships with the builder and engineer were integral to the build and the finished outcome. “Good needs everyone,” Matt explains. A shared gentleness and thoughtfulness brought the clients and Matt together, and that resonance endures at Ozone House: Matt, Daina and their team are back on site, designing a bathhouse to complement their earlier work.
A deep respect for landscape, and the careful integration of buildings into their surrounding context, is a core consideration in every project. In 3 + 3 House (2014; see Houses: Kitchens and Bathrooms 10), the experience of landscape is internalized as courtyards within the suburban site. The design replans a dark and narrow 1920s cottage in Mosman as a rhythmic sequence of three built forms and three courtyards. The entire diagram is predicated on the integration of architecture and landscape, with the lightness and openness of the gardens providing the necessary relief for the modestly sized internal spaces to function.
In 3+3 House (2014), a long, narrow site is replanned as three built elements punctured by three outdoor spaces.
Image: Simon Whitbread
Few urban landscapes are more stunning than the bushland valley site occupied by Tree House (2020) in Bayview on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. The steep bush site offered enviable privacy, but it was also home to a diverse ecology of plant and animal life. Homeowners Byron and Sophie came to the practice cognizant of the challenges of the brief and eager to minimize their impact on the site and, more broadly, to mitigate the environmental cost of building a new home.
Here, the fundamentals of environmentally sensitive design – from optimum orientation and passive solar design to natural ventilation – are coupled with ethical material choices. Internal surfaces in birch and plywood are coated in plant-based oils and waxes, reducing the need for paint, while chrome is eliminated. A toughened skin of Corten and galvanized steel decks and walkways meets extreme-level bushfire codes, and is designed to withstand severe environmental events, made increasingly regular by climate change.
Tree House (2020) is partially elevated to minimize damage to the site’s thriving bushland setting.
Image: Clinton Weaver
Matt and Daina assert that building is a privilege, and one that should be done purposefully. The design process is a journey, one that provides a unique opportunity to create something of lasting value to both the occupants and the community that is involved in its creation. Contained within a former car workshop in Sydney’s Paddington, Smash Repair House (2020) is an anomaly on a street otherwise populated by Victorian terraces. It won acclaim for its environmental, design and heritage achievements – an outcome made possible by trusting and committed clients and collaborators who persisted in spite of the many obstacles of building in a tightly controlled heritage precinct. The solid brick facade sits prominently on its street corner, and yet steel screens, at once tough and delicate, toy with ideas of permeability. Beyond its respectful exterior form, an intricately detailed private realm of layered domestic spaces is discovered. The design draws on the Japanese concept of Oku, unfolding in layers to reveal a core of space around which all the rooms in the house are arranged – in this case, a central courtyard. The result is a materially and spatially rich home of distinct yet connected zones for companionship and retreat.
Smash Repair House (2020) reworks a residence inside a former car workshop in Sydney’s Paddington.
Image: Clinton Weaver
Matt and Daina’s focus on efficient, hardworking buildings is exemplified in Tsubo Niwa (2021), an addition to a heritage-listed cottage in a conservation area of inner Sydney. Construction is an inherently complex and expensive exercise, and their ambition has always been to “achieve the most with the least.” At Tsubo Niwa, this has translated into an intentionally small addition, with a compact plan and inhabitable edges. The modesty in scale has ensured the budget could be stretched for moments of elegant detailing. Most remarkable of these are the cocooning warmth of the timber-lined interior and the sliding screens of fine timber slats, which modulate light and garden connection. Matt and Daina credit Sam Horspool for his key role in the detailing and administration of this project.
Tsubo Niwa (2021) achieves big change at a small scale, adding composed new living spaces to an existing house.
Image: Clinton Weaver
Incidental Architecture is a member of Renew, a not-for-profit organization promoting sustainable technologies and solutions, and the team is active in promoting and pursuing sustainable and equitable building practice. In addition to expanding their portfolio of residential buildings, the practice is currently working on a house above the snow line in the Japanese mountains built to Passivhaus levels of airtightness, as well as a system of pre-designed, customizable houses, with the hope of making good quality, affordable architecture more attainable to a much broader suburban population. Social sustainability is also on the agenda, with Incidental Architecture recently completing a series of accommodation pavilions for a Darwin-based organization providing adult education for Indigenous Australians – expanding the reach of their architectural work to people who may not typically engage an architect.
Rather than glorifying the architectural object, Matt and Daina strive to design buildings that make life better for their occupants. This humble approach to designing “incidental things” is underpinned by conscientious messages of modesty, community and environmental sensitivity, and considers the broader impact of architecture in a world bracing for imminent environmental threats and expanding social inequity. This, surely, is an ethos that will be anything but incidental.

Published online: 12 Aug 2022
Words: Trisha Croaker
Images: Clinton Weaver, Simon Whitbread
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Tsubo Niwa (2021)
Tsubo Niwa (2021) achieves big change at a small scale, adding composed new living spaces to an existing house.
Tsubo Niwa addition is careful and minimal, respecting the scale and materiality of the existing house and its garden.
In 3+3 House (2014), a long, narrow site is replanned as three built elements punctured by three outdoor spaces.
At 3+3 House, outdoor spaces separate public and private zones.
Ozone House (2013) occupies the same footprint of the cottage it replaced, preserving the existing landscape.
Tree House (2020) is partially elevated to minimize damage to the site’s thriving bushland setting.
A tough exterior skin of Corten and galvanized steel was necessitated by extreme bushfire zoning at Tree House.
Smash Repair House (2020) reworks a residence inside a former car workshop in Sydney’s Paddington.
Beyond the solid brick facade of Smash Repair House, a warm and open home is organized around a central courtyard.
Layered spaces are gradually revealed at Smash Repair House, with bedrooms that feel protected by living areas.
Practice directors Matt Elkan and Daina Cunningham.
The Incidental Architecture team in 2022 (L–R): Daina Cunningham, Matt Elkan, Owen Kelly, Pearce Cohen, Gill Gan, Claudia Yang. Absent: Sam Horspool.
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