Bon Vivant Boathouse
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Bon Vivant Boathouse

Interior Designer:
Sarah Davison Interior Design
Michael Wee

When the owners purchased a contemporary house on a very steep slope in Sydney’s North Shore, they were acutely aware that it needed an intelligent makeover, despite its relative youth.

Turning to Sydney-based interior designer Sarah Davison for her ability to add a quiet elegance to any interior, it wasn’t long before the subject of what should be done with the ramshackle boatshed arose.

The old boatshed was a small, slightly leaning affair with a sagging tiled roof that dated from the 1950’s. Located some 200 steps down from street level, it had been neglected for many years but its simple appeal remained.

Davison approached architect John Bohane to oversee the project, and he in turn brought in Dynamics specialist, Johnathan Temple Architect and Builder Jeffrey Broadfield.

Deciding that the new version should be contained within the original building envelope, the owners were drawn to the idea of something bijoux but basic. Avid campers for many years of their lives when they travelled around the outback of Australia, the owners were keen to have a more direct connection to the harbor.

“The appeal of the boathouse is its separation from the main house. It’s like an escape from modern living,” said the owners. “We have purposefully kept the boathouse extremely simple and a little bit old-fashioned. It is a bit of a throwback to the way we once lived.”

With the outer form being retained, it was decided that the quality of work and integrity of materials should be the buildings defining element. It was to be a highly refined version of a humble shed – something Broadfield, who built Casey Brown Architecture’s award-winning Permanent Camping building in a remote part of NSW – was perfectly in tune with.

“The access to the site was dreadful – either we had to take on the huge number of steps or bring things in or out by barge. It certainly encourages a minimal approached and teaches you to never to go up or down the steps empty-handed,” says Broadfield.

Starting by stripping the old shed back to its skeleton, Broadfield and his team were able to re-use almost all of the framing timbers and a large amount of the external cladding. Where, this wasn’t possible they recreated the original ‘double log’ profile and painted it a sophisticated style of grey. The owners had a particular affinity for copper and as the material is perfectly suited for use near water, the roof was redone in a corrugated form with Broadfield creating custom copper guttering in the shape of rowing sculls. Internally the original vertical studs were left exposed and simply filled with insulation and short lengths of cypress boards in a shiplap profile. Raw timber, particularly the cypress pine used, has a wonderfully comforting scent and the ultimate goal was to leave all the internal woodwork in its natural state. Bohane designed an outdoor barbecue to complement a simple compact kitchen with a concealed dishwasher and fridge drawer, and a copper sink and small cooktop set into with the cabinetry executed in formply, an inexpensive material normally used for forming concrete. He incorporated a small bathroom – also built in formply – and an outdoor shower installed facing the garden.  

“When you’re in the boathouse it is like having a rainforest on one side and the water on the other – it’s quite magical,” say the owners.

One major change came in the form of a giant wind-up door made in lightweight balsa with a hardwood outer casting. Opening up much of the western wall via a series of cables and a manual winding mechanism located inside, the door was conceived by Bohane and designed by Temple. Chiefly incorporated to provide better airflow and open the space to late afternoon sun in winter, it allows large gatherings to spill out onto the adjacent lawn when required.

Once the renovation of the structure was complete it was up to Sarah Davison to bring some softer elements into play to temper the highly functional interior. Two vintage Spanish Armchairs by Borge Mogensen were sourced, and built in banquettes and daybeds designed to provide a compact yet casual environment. Upholstered in pale linen, this seating provides comfortable vantage points for viewing of the garden and the harbor through large timber framed windows. The addition of roll up blinds in heavy linen, long haired and Icelandic sheepskins and a collection of cushions and throws in indigo, changed the atmosphere from woody austerity to a much more inviting living space. A cast iron wood-burning stove was installed to extend use of the boathouse right through winter. While undeniably Spartan the interior relies, as does the rest of the building, on quality materials.

Looking back at the boathouse from the water, it appears perfectly timeless. What is patently obvious is that the archetypal house shape brings with it an instant character and a certain degree of nostalgia. The relentless re-development of the city’s shoreline appears briefly halted and life feels a little less complicated because of it. All this from a structure just under 30 square meters in size. The old adage “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’ might be true but you can certainly turn a dilapidated old shed into something approaching perfection if you choose sympathetic materials and the right people to do it.

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