This beachside house in Sydney does not pretend to be a shipwreck, a wave or a jellyfish. It’s neither town house nor weekender, but something in between. “One of the clients is a keen surfer and wanted the relaxed feel of a beach house with the everyday utility of a family home,” explains architect Alex Popov of Popov Bass, a firm that’s been exploring the urban beach house typology in Sydney for several decades.
Coastal sites are always a challenge and this was no exception. Facing south-east to the surf, the block rises nine metres front to rear and has a public footpath on the east boundary. “The plan is dead simple, really,” says Alex. “The eastern wall is thickened with all the circulation areas and services (stairs and lift, bathrooms and laundry) to limit exposure on the east, while the western side is thinner to house joinery for the kitchen and study above. In between is open.”
The Popov Bass team pinched and stepped the building in off the boundaries to manage sight lines and sun from every angle. Although four storeys high, it looks slimmer than most of the neighbouring houses. Its exterior walls of black-stained recycled hardwood are a nod to the weatherboard vernacular, and are toughened with deep concrete balconies and titanic red steel rib cages, all gathered under a low-pitched copper roof. The red steel does more than just bracket the building. On the south-east corner, the two-storey entry cage allows the heavy oak front door to be kept wide open, pulling breezes into the building. On the western face, the steelwork defines the big light gesture that brightens the interior.
“Given that the site faces the wrong way in solar terms, the challenge for us was to bring light into the centre,” says project director Brian Bass. “We did this with what we call the gills – a set of giant steel screens off the dining room.” Pointing north and featuring articulating blades, the three screens shutter light from the north into a dramatic two-storey void space that cuts through the top two communal volumes.
On level three, the dining room sits under the void, between the beach-facing living area and garden-facing kitchen. On the fourth level the void separates the study from a second sitting room facing the ocean. Both communal levels are open eighteen metres front to back, but can easily be partitioned with concealed sliding doors beside the void.
Space is more structured on the first-floor sleeping level. The main bedroom and ensuite have the prime position – a deep balcony faces the ocean – while the bedrooms behind enjoy one of the hidden gems of the house, a private courtyard and light well cut from the rock shelf along the western edge.
White walls and limestone floors are the backdrop to the communal areas. Bedroom floors are American oak, as are the stairs, front door and selected pieces of custom joinery. Snippets of the exterior palette are replayed inside – black-stained jarrah, concrete and copper – enriching the vast interior, supported by details such as bands of copper down the kitchen doors and American oak balustrades, carved smooth to the cup of your hand. “The things that you touch are things that we embellish,” says Brian. “If it’s a wall you walk past, then leave it raw: that’s the way we think about a lot of our spaces.”
Included in the clients’ brief was a level garden with a lawn and pool, “where the children could play and be seen from the kitchen,” says Popov Bass’s Leigh Woodley, project architect for Sydney House. While the front garden has only a patch of hardy natives to face the whipping salty winds, the rear garden is now a tropical paradise. It was landscaped by Will Dangar, with mature frangipanis, bougainvillea, palms and ginger set around the lawn and blue-tiled swimming pool. The cabana – a cocooning timber room at the end of the garden – is the best spot from which to take in this picture. It’s almost impossible to fathom the tonnes of stone and clay removed to make this garden, but the project’s engineering goes well beyond tectonics.
“The clients wanted to do much more than required on the environmental side, which we supported,” says Brian. At 15,000 litres’ capacity, the rainwater tank under the driveway is well beyond the Building Sustainability Index (BASIX) minimum. The copper roof, kept low to preserve people’s views from behind, also supports a power plant of photovoltaic cells and rivers of tubing to heat all the water for the house and pool in winter, while its exaggerated eaves shelter the interior from heat in summer.
What defines this as an “urban beach house” is not a mannered sculptural form but a structured yet flexible layout using materials both robust and beautifully crafted, and a connection to both the garden and ocean outlook, which, Leigh says, is its magic. “[There’s] that sense of calm that everyone comments on, and particularly the openness of the main living level where the ends of the space dissolve with the beach at one end and the garden oasis at the other. It’s the best of both worlds.”