Oct 14, 2010
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Photography by Christine Francis
  • Designer
  • Architect WSH Architects

Port Fairy is a four-hour drive from Melbourne, five if you take the Great Ocean Road. This is where architect Owen West’s parents decided to build their new home/beach house. “They plan to spend 30 percent of their time here, 70 percent in Melbourne,” explains West. So, a home that is more than a weekender, but less than a permanent residence. That is the first ambiguity. The second is its location – Port Fairy is famous for its beach views, and its historic Norfolk pine-lined streets. The Wests’ block has neither. Instead, it has a suburban context, without a view of water, hemmed in on three sides by houses. “We were building a beach house, but on a suburban block. That was a slight contradiction, and a starting point for design,” says West.

The firm WSH was named after its three directors: Owen West, Andrew Simpson and Steve Hatzellis. Before the global financial crisis caused the three directors to go their separate ways, WSH began every design project with a brain-storming session. “Before you draw, you start writing,” says West. “We called the resulting text a ‘position statement’.” Everyone in the office would contribute ideas. The position statement was an internal document, a design tool, not for presentation to the client. This is where they came up with the analogy of a ‘motorhome’. For WSH, the motor/home represented a hybrid, halfway between car and home, and a suitable analogy for the hybrid holiday/suburban home they were designing. It is also a reference to the Great Ocean Road’s appeal for Winnebago owners. “The position statement for this project led us to start thinking about houses that were on the move. The idea that an RV or Winnebago could park itself on a suburban block, take root and there’s your house.” They were seeking an appropriate expression for this beach/suburban house, without falling back on architectural stereotypes of either ‘beach’ or ‘suburban’ houses.

The house has a simple and compact layout. One open-planned living/kitchen/dining wing is located a few steps higher than a parallel bedroom wing that contains a row of bedrooms and a single communal bathroom. Entry to the house is up a stairway – the site slopes down from the back corner to the front. Simpson and West, the principal architects of the project, take full advantage of the slope, squeezing car parking under the elevated living area. Rather than a view of ocean, the prospect from the living room is a suburban roofscape, with the centre of town in the distance. You can just make out the rows of Norfolk pines.

With the motorhome position statement as their guide, Simpson and West have drawn on both literal material choices and allusions to temporary structures. The cladding of the bedroom pod is the same as you find on a caravan, creating an indoor/outdoor ambiguity in the feel of the corridor space between living and bedroom zones. This ‘caravan’ is enveloped by the structure of the living ‘annex’.

“The living wing is, then, an annex off a Winnebago or a caravan, an attachment that becomes the living area when you are on holiday,” explains West. The ceiling hovers above the caravan wall, allowing light to filter in to the bedrooms, and rakes up to reveal glimpses of structural ribs boxed in pale blue plasterboard. Viewed from the inside, the ceiling is a warped plane of white-painted plasterboard wrapping over the living area, and from the outside a dark grey polycarbonate wall is another warped plane, two skins that convey the impression of tension, without being literally ‘taut’.

The subtly twisting polycarbonate wall is a pure, unadulterated surface. It makes no concessions to its northern orientation with shading devices or an eaves overhang. The northerly aspect had no views, so the translucent polycarbonate lets in light, but blocks the view of the neighbour’s roof tiles. The twin skins of polycarbonate are intended to trap an insulating pocket of air, and heat gain is controlled by motorised internal blinds. When combined with openable windows in the east and west façades that draw in the cool coastal breezes, the five-star FirstRate design “works pretty well”, according to West.

The geometry of warped planes is constructed from straight structural elements and flat cladding sheets. “We were very interested in seeing what we could do with prefabricated trusses in terms of varying the section profile,” says West. Each roof truss is different, relying on the efficiency of computer-aided production processes to make them economical. The roof plane continues past the line of the house to become a shelter for the timber-decked barbeque area. The blue-painted ribs also continue outside, further blurring the distinction between ‘in’ and ‘out’. It is from the backyard that the twist in the shimmering grey polycarbonate cladding is best appreciated. Warped planes produced by straight sticks: the concept is beautifully illustrated in miniature by the island kitchen bench, which has a series of projecting fins that incrementally change angle.

“There is a recent trend of people building their own house in suburbia, and then transplanting that to a beach house setting,” says West. Simpson and West were determined to create a more appropriate model for a beach house in the suburbs – not just another suburban house on a suburban block, but not quite the opposite either. “Although it is a fairly polished, comfortable house, hopefully there is also a feeling of it being somewhat provisional,” says West. The resulting house is both temporary and permanent, both a holiday retreat and a suburban home: ambiguous.

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