The phenomena of the ‘tree change’ and ‘sea change’ lifestyle shift are transforming regional and coastal towns throughout Australia. Cashed-up, retiring baby boomers are being joined by Gen X-ers priced out of the inner suburbs, all heading to the country or down the coast in search of a different, lifestyle-focused existence. This is a fact documented by every second newspaper’s property lift-out, but what is rarely discussed is the impact, both positive and negative, that the influx is having on the previously seasonal, usually quiet towns. Former gold rush hamlets, fishing villages, farming towns, holiday spots and coastal idylls are being placed under immense pressure by the sheer volume of new population. Local infrastructure for water, power and sewage is overloaded, tiny regional hospitals and health facilities have to stretch shoestring budgets, emergency services and police have to be reinforced, and, perhaps most critically, the planning department of the local authority is inundated with development applications well beyond the capacity of its available resources. Overworked amateur country councillors are in a difficult situation – caught between a desire to grow in order to raise revenue to make services better, and the risk of over-development destroying the very reason everyone is there. From Daylesford to Katoomba, Apollo Bay to Shoalhaven Heads, Lakes Entrance to Goolwa, there is a significant war being quietly waged between local and ‘changer’ versus tourist and ‘weekender’.
Ironically, and perhaps appropriately, the struggle is particularly public in Barwon Heads, the Victorian coastal town that starred as the location of Seachange, the ABC television drama that started it all. The battle of Barwon Heads is focused around the usual concerns – how to develop the shopping strip, whether or not to allow three storey houses – and a particularly long running dispute over how to replace an old wooden bridge that once served as the primary traffic access to the town.
Jon Clements has watched all this unfold; he’s a local. His family has been coming to this town for 45 years and, when studying architecture at Deakin University in nearby Geelong, Clements lived in the family holiday house on the river for five years and worked in the local pub. Now, as a partner in Jackson Clements Burrows Architects (JCB), he is playing a part in the design of the future of Barwon Heads, with several projects completed and a few more in planning – and they are copping some flak. As Clements explains, the locals have a preference for the aesthetics of Diver Dan’s shack and resistance to JCB’s modest residential proposals has escalated to the point where they are being blamed for destroying the town.
‘The question as to what is an appropriate response to context is not so easy in Barwon Heads,’ says Clements. ‘In our opinion, it changes from street to street. The original weatherboard beach house might be appropriate in one street, but it may not in another because the predominant housing stock is from the seventies and made of brick. It’s just not possible to say “a Barwon Heads house should look like this”.’
JCB has recently won an AIA Architecture Award for a new house tucked behind the dunes that form the Barwon Heads golf course and it is definitely no faux weatherboard shack. In this context, the architects have used the landscape as the primary reference and have sought to embed the house into the indigenous rolls of ti-tree and grasses that cover the sands. ‘We saw the house as an opportunity to repair part of the landscape,’ explains Clements. ‘But also, there was a significant garden that previously occupied the site with a collection of remnant bluestone walls as part of its design. So the house is locked into the contours and located in response to the original stone walls.’
The striking form of the house begins with the cylindrical drum at its core. This emerges from a winged plan, which embraces an existing tree. The drum is clad with a veil of regularly spaced timber battens that create a compelling moiré effect as the veil unfolds across the site, taking the dwelling with it to become a permeable open screen at the boundary, in place of a fence.
The clients are true Gen X seachangers who made the choice to move their young family away from the city for a different life, but who still commute back to Melbourne several days a week for work. Arguably, the program of the house reflects this position, with vast open spaces that fall out onto the landscape and a pool. Lacking suburban angst, it feels like an over-scaled beach house, with a robust material palette (concrete floors, rich oiled timber) and generous walls of operable glass. The house is big, well detailed and has plenty of space around it.
The ground floor contains living spaces and bedrooms, with the master bedroom, home office and a quiet sitting room occupying the first floor of the drum. The geometry of the rooms shifts strategically in relation to the timber veil, with the battens maintaining their form and the enclosure of the house shifting behind this form to craft balconies, decks and (most effectively) an ‘outdoor room’, with a column of steel that contains a fireplace hanging next to the pool. In addition to its success as a formal device, the batten veil has also had a surprising effect on the thermal performance of the building, guiding breezes through it and providing shading and privacy without compromising the views to the coast.
‘There is a shift that is occurring,’ explains Clements. ‘When this building was going up there was hostile resistance to it, but gradually as the cladding went on, the new stone walls were built and the landscaping finished, the objectors came to understand what we were trying to do.’ The nature of the ‘shift’ is that with the arrival of new residents comes new ideas and substantial investment in good architecture. Arguably, land is cheaper out on the coast away from the major centres, so greater emphasis can be placed on better architecture and better quality materials. However, it isn’t just in improving the lifestyle of one family that this architecture has an impact. As the quantity and quality of new, good buildings gathers momentum, the ability of the community to make informed decisions about what is appropriate for their town will increase – and then everyone, locals and newcomers alike, might begin to appreciate the promise of a little change.
Martyn Hook is the Melbourne editor for Architectural Review Australia, associate professor of architecture at RMIT and a director of iredale pedersen hook architects.
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I find it surprising that Clements design achieves such poor northern orientation….the garage appears to be located in a prime north facing location with outlook to the POS.? I also find the location of the fireplace/joinery in the living area on the north wall a little odd to.
Am I missing something?
The vexed question of how a design “fits in” to the existing streetscape context is an interesting one, and which is often used by planners (and residents) to stop innovative design.
I’d be interested to know if this proposal required a planning permit and if so, was it given a tough time?
Straight from the horses mouth….
Northern orientation is about balance. This house has a 7.5 star energy rating due to careful orientation considerations and limiting the extent of glazing. Shading also contributes to the performance.
The location of the fire/joinery unit allows the living area to orientate toward views out to the garden to the north and east. Further it provides structural support for the cantilevered circular form which sits above.
The photos Included in this review do not show the swimming pool which is located on the south side of the house in a separate/secure courtyard garden space – during the summer months it receives full sun for more than 8 hours per day.
No disrespect but whilst solar orientation is important in all projects, solar gain and shading can be managed in a myriad of ways…….it’s not all about North.
On the subject of planning permits – a permit was required to vary the setback from the front boundary however a full permit (and associated advertising) was not required. Adjoining neighbors were notified.
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