Architecture

Zac’s House

August 5, 2010

Compact but refined, this award-winning project from Neeson Murcutt offers a compelling strategy for suburban densification.

The Mornington Peninsula has long been established as a seaside holiday destination for the greater metropolis of Melbourne. Sorrento and nearby settlements are historically home to some of the Peninsula’s grandest properties, but among architects the area is also known as a type of laboratory for the city – where the relatively relaxed program of a beach house affords the flexibility to refine a range of ideas which subsequently have had influence on mainstream architectural production. Over recent decades, driven by rising land values and real estate fashion, the peninsula’s many beach houses have tended to become larger and more luxurious.

On the southwest side of Sorrento, soft dirt roads and a thick cover of ti-trees provide a remarkably rural and hidden character, even though the land subdivision here is of quite suburban quarter-acre block density. Houses are largely single-storey and hidden from view with deep setbacks, and vegetation extends well into the road reserve leaving only a narrow space without footpaths for passage shared by vehicles and pedestrians. The dense cover of landscape at eye-level provides a much greater sense of privacy and mystery than would normally be expected from the allotment plan.

Approaching the narrow corner of Arnott Street one is met by meticulously spherical pruned native shrubs, signalling something other is at work among the haphazard melaleuca understorey. Here, a garden design by Fiona Brockhoff extends over the site boundaries, blurring the distinct line of property ownership and any sense of what is natural and what is not. This landscape joins together a small enclave or ‘compound’ of three adjoining sites owned by the one family and without internal fences. Natural undulations of the sandy ground plane have been amplified and planting skillfully manipulated to induce a series of picturesque vistas without a clear sense of edge. Within this unusual setting, right up the back and in the corner, Neeson Murcutt has added a compact and disciplined single-storey rectilinear house.

The house is set hard up to the rear and side boundaries of its site and behind a pre-existing tennis court that occupies the entire front two-thirds of the allotment. The shared nature of this court across three sites sets up an interesting prototype for distributing suburban amenity, and its presence reduces the available site area for the house and garden from 1200sqm to approximately 450sqm (160sqm of which is required for the subsurface dispersal field from the septic tank). It also provides a useful visual buffer from the street and allows the new dwelling to ‘borrow’ the open space created above its surface. Such a give-and-take relationship within and between sites is critical to the siting strategy in Sorrento. It also is the key to considering the broader application of this strategy in more normal suburban locations, as suggested by Neeson Murcutt through its suburban density diagrams showing the hypothetical application of this plan type in a broader context.

Putting forward a prototype for everyday living and land-use as an architectural response to a highly rarefied and exclusive setting may seem like a paradox, but it is precisely this move that sets the project apart from others of its type. The building envelope follows the natural slope of the land and fits within the ‘deemed to comply’ provisions of the local planning scheme, considerably increasing the feasibility of this strategy as a repeatable model. It is testament to the architects’ nuanced skill and compositional economy that the building is plausible in this way while also highly responsive to its actual context. It capitalises on and extends the borrowing/sharing ethos of the three-house enclave, while its expression, mood and colour fit in seamlessly with the collection of charmingly retro mid-century furniture, banana lounges and other paraphernalia artfully scattered around.

What is not immediately apparent from outside is that the internal spaces of the house step down with the landscape, following the single pitch of the roof and providing a series of internal platforms of varying ceiling height. This reinforces the zoning of private and public spaces in an east-west direction while the subtraction of a narrow kitchen courtyard creates a strong north-south alignment of transparency and cross-ventilation, allowing the house to breathe. These two simple ideas taken together produce the form of the house. The plan is highly efficient and direct, providing a large single living space, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, study and laundry within a footprint of approximately 160sqm. Daylight, ventilation, privacy and outlook have all been carefully considered. The singularity of the central living space gives a communal feeling to the whole and connects back to its beach-house roots. Level changes in section work against the axial symmetry of the plan to create a sense of vista and surprise within.

Materiality is tactile and robust: concrete floors, face block walls bagged internally and left unpainted, and exposed oiled LVL rafters. Where a change to the base system is required, it is done in a way which heightens the properties of the different materials; such as the brick-proportion ceramic tiles laid directly over block walls in bathrooms, and the exposure of steel beams supporting roof structure across the large living room opening. The high internal thermal mass and overall solidity combined with split-levels have echoes of the Sydney School work of the late 60s, but with a clear contemporary suburban agenda.

As I was leaving I stopped a while in front of the west elevation, which is blank and severe, but somehow engaging – with a formal entrance through what is actually a side boundary wall. I then noticed that all the blockwork mortar is raked on the horizontal courses with flush vertical joints: a subtle but important detail also found in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House of 1910. Indeed, the half-height concrete blocks used here approximate the elongated Roman bricks of the Robie House. But perhaps one of Wright’s more relevant legacies is the series of Usonian houses designed from the 1930s to 1950s as compact and relatively affordable architecture aimed at the middle class, with an eye to transforming the city through improving the quality of daily suburban life. These were small but delightful single-storey dwellings of masonry and timber, with concrete floors connecting directly to external spaces, emphasising the importance of the plan and an economy of means. Neeson Murcutt’s project is a Usonian house of our place and time.

Nigel Bertram is a director of NMBW Architecture Studio and a Senior Lecturer in architecture at RMIT University.

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