Beach House 2

December 21, 2011

Located on a not-quite-waterfront site in Victoria’s Port Fairy, this house by Sydney-based practice Farnan Findlay is a careful curation of the experience of living by the sea.

First established as a whaling outpost in 1835, Port Fairy, on Victoria’s west coast, is a picturesque township straddling the Moyne River, home to one of the state’s largest fishing fleets. Once known as ‘Belfast’, it was originally populated by Irish immigrants and their residual influence is everywhere. Aside from the river’s Celtic name, the historic town centre is filled with Georgian architecture that wouldn’t look out of place in Belfast itself, except it has been built in Victorian bluestone.

Since the first European settlers, successive waves of migration have further altered Port Fairy’s cultural dynamic. More recently, a new wave of ‘sea-changers’ and retirees have arrived, drawn in by Port Fairy’s beautiful beaches and the postcard romance of its working port. Farnan Findlay’s clients for Beach House 2 are the latter variety. A couple who have spent most of their professional lives in landlocked country Victoria, the two decided they would like to prepare themselves for a retirement spent not in the country but on the coast by the sea, duly purchasing an empty parcel of land on a new subdivision.

The house sits comfortably in its coastal location.


Although a Sydney-based practice, Farnan Findlay has a long association with the area. Joel Farnan and Michelle Findlay studied architecture at Victoria’s Deakin University, and their first projects were built here. In fact, their very first complete build, Beach House, can be found just a few doors away from Beach House 2. Both sit within a subdivision on the river’s southern side, among sand dunes separating the river from the sea, not too far from where the early whaling station would have been. No sign remains of this past occupancy, and essentially the subdivision offered a largely blank slate – they would literally be building on a sand dune. Despite the sandy conditions, and its close proximity to the beach, its defining condition was perhaps more suburban than littoral, the waterfront sites of the subdivision having already been built upon.

Farnan Findlay were confronted with a challenge: their clients paid a premium to live by the sea, but effectively were living by the carports of their waterfront neighbours. In response, the architects have deployed a series of formal and material strategies to infuse the domestic experience of the house with some of the qualities of coastal life.

The house sits on a podium of sand and volcanic rock.


As a practice, Farnan Findlay is interested in the experiential aspects of architecture and puts sustainable, passive design principles at the core of its work, although its approach to the implementation of these principles is pragmatic. Here, this results in an assertive, orthogonal volume clad in spotted gum, sitting comfortably in its coastal locale without resorting to seaside clichés. Cresting the sand dune, with a good aspect across the river to the port and town centre, the house sits within a regenerated landscape of tea trees and other indigenous plantings, all contained by walls of volcanic rock, abundant in the surrounding countryside. The landscaping and walls form a kind of podium for the house’s two-storey volume, and while the rock was trucked in, the combination of this coarsely textured material with the weathering spotted gum resonates beautifully with the more elemental qualities of the site: the dunes, the windswept tea trees, the foamy turbulence of nearby Bass Strait.

Farnan Findlay were lucky to have the involvement of two master craftsmen: the garden walls were built by a specialist in dry stone walling, well into his seventies, while their builder was a highly skilled carpenter. As Farnan recalls, ‘‘Our builder really relished the timber detailing and working with the material. Skill is still really important to me – rather than industrialisation and the proprietary methods that we tend to emphasise nowadays.’’ This proved especially important in the interiors, with a substantial amount of bespoke timber joinery in the kitchen, and timber floors and cladding in the primary circulation spaces.

Spotted gum cladding has been applied liberally, outside and in.


The circulation strategy is unusual, partly due to the need to reconcile an awkward site with a desire for sea views, but perhaps, most unusually, a requirement from the client that an internal lift be incorporated for an elderly family member. In a project of this scale it is undeniably problematic as the lift core absorbs a substantial proportion of the floor plates, with living areas squeezing in around it.

The architects have designed the building as two distinct volumes, divided by a central circulation spine on both floors that the lift disgorges into, with the only other vertical circulation provided by external stairs on the northeastern side of the building. The southwestern volume is strictly orthogonal in plan, although an outdoor area has been carved from it on the ground floor to provide a sheltered suntrap. Sitting slightly proud of its southwestern companion, the northeastern volume seems to have begun life with a similar rectangular floor plate, but this has been twisted to address views of the ocean.

The house’s ‘official’ entry sits between these two volumes on the ground floor, with access by a set of external stairs from the garage. Given the lift ascends directly from the sunken garage, the architects don’t expect much use to be made of this, given that the ground floor will, hopefully, eventually serve as a semi-separate living unit for the family’s elderly member. Internally, the difference between the two volumes has been expressed by continuing the external cladding of each through into the circulation zones – for both floors, vertical spotted gum battens form the walls of one side of the hallway, and horizontal spotted gum boards the other.

A variation in cladding defines the house's two volumes.


Internally, the heavy application of dark timber could be a little overwhelming, and certainly the internal spaces both, in terms of plan and finish, are the least successful aspects of the project, despite their refined craftsmanship. A lot has been demanded of this building, and its real strength lies at its edges. Decks and balconies on the fringes of the building, screened from the neighbours where necessary, ensure that the occupants always have an outdoor space for both sun and shelter. Fenestration has been carefully handled, as the clients were adamant that despite its once-removed location from the water’s edge, the house would still enjoy ocean views. The building uses its prominent spot atop the sand dunes to stretch up, peeking across the rooftops of its neighbours, although the architects have resisted the default option of glass balustrading, instead employing the building’s mass to provide privacy from nearby houses, while also framing views to the ocean. Occasionally, it even boasts views of the whales that were once hunted to exhaustion here.

Views to ocean and sky are literally 'framed' by the balcony.


As we leave the house, Farnan points out the external stairway’s unusual balustrade, which, he says, could almost be read as a kind of decorative folly. Extruding up from the ground across the full height of the first storey, it is in fact as much wall as balustrade. For Farnan, the spatial experience of the stairway recalls an early memory of a local surfing trip, where he was forced to clamber down a gully between steep cliffs to reach the water – a formative experience of compression and release on the threshold between land and sea. That this deeply personal recollection is somehow manifest in an architectural element is undoubtedly romantic, but in keeping with Farnan Findlay’s approach, its application is reflective of a kind of pragmatism. The wall screens views to the neighbouring property, while opening out at the summit of the stairs to views of the ocean.

Far from being a folly, in the stair we find the essence of this project’s success. Despite the site’s more suburban qualities, this careful curation of experience tells a story about life by the sea.

Maitiú Ward is associate publisher for Niche Media’s Architectural Division.


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