Expressing Views

Review of house at Clontarf by Molnar Freeman Architects, HOUSES Magazine, Vol.35, 2003.

The sun was shining, the harbour was sparkling and this was the sort of place that puts your faith back in Sydney living. If Sydney is all about the harbour then this new home by Molnar Freeman Architects is a great place to take advantage of it. They have created a new family home on a steeply sloping site in one of Sydney’s Middle Harbour suburbs. It is a house that responds both to solar orientation and to views, no mean feat when they are in opposite directions.

The challenge for the architects here was to take advantage of the spectacular bush and harbour views that are to the south as well as provide good solar orientation to the north.  The obvious solution would have been to ignore the northern aspect and simply plonk an outdoor deck on the southern side that captures the view’s money shot.   There are many examples around that have done just that, big dumb rendered boxes with big dumb decks stuck on the outside. Katie Molnar and Tony Freeman have created a house that surpasses the expected and ingeniously turned a design challenge into an architectural solution.  They have designed a plan that encompasses a series of outdoor spaces on
both the north and south, on both levels, of the house. What’s more, they are visually linked together.

The owners had lived in the house for two years before building anew.  The previous house was typical Sydney School, a big mono-pitched tiled roof following the grade of the site. The kitchen was at the back of the house with the other service areas in the traditional manner. It was not set up for contemporary living. The owners had had a lot of renovating experience and they knew what the wanted. They wanted it gone.  The architect’s initial brief was for a lesser intervention but it became apparent that the way to make the most of the site was to really maximise a new house within the council constraints.  These dictated that a new roof could not extend higher than the previous ridge. A curiously arbitrary control designed to maintain neighbours view corridors.  On a steep sloping site, much of the challenge is to keep the height of the house to a minimum above natural ground level, and indeed the east elevation stands particularly tall above grade, a matter that required careful detail design of its articulation.

The existing house was demolished right down to the garage and footings. These were kept which enabled the earthworks to be kept to a minimum, a bonus on a sloping site. The new house maximises the plot ratio on the site but the covered outdoor spaces, which are not included in these controls, adds so much more useable floor area, albeit not enclosed.

The path to the entry door leads under and into the belly of the house before sliding through a big red pivot door and up into its heart. A double height space over the split-level stairs leads north through large bi-fold doors towards the first of the outdoor spaces. It is actually an outdoor room. The entry hall and study wrap around it and timber flooring flows through. It is protected from overlooking neighbours up the hill to the north by the first floor that covers it fully. Yet to the east, the site drops away and expansive bush vistas open up. The timber decking is built around a couple of established gums.  On the western side, the study can afford to be fully glazed on its eastern side as it is protected from the sun by the floor above. Its northern wall encompasses a built-in day bed that is an ideal sun-catcher for winter reading.

Heading south, the entry and stair space folds up via a wide set of stairs to the main living space. This is a large combined living kitchen and dining and is the only room that spans the full width of the house. Standing in this room and looking south to the harbour and north to the outdoor room, the ingenuity of the plan becomes evident. The outdoor space cutting into the body of the house has alleviated an otherwise deep plan.  All aspects of the site can be experienced at once, as can the breeze brushing through the house.

The element that ties the spaces together is the flat ceiling that starts in the living space and continues over the stair and the outdoor space as an extra high soffit.  By keeping the same plane and material, the space is tied together and reads as one.  Bringing glass up to this same height softens the division between inside and out. Southern and northern have been connected yet separate options are retained. In winter the owners use the northern space where the low angle sun penetrates and in summer the southern terrace opens up to the harbour.

Upstairs are the bedrooms and another two outdoor rooms. The southern deck comes off the parent’s bedroom looking south to the views. The northern deck comes off the children’s bedrooms creating a safe outdoor play area. This becomes the most useable play area for the house, as, due to the sloping nature of the site, it is difficult to use the garden.

A palette of materials has been used in order to articulate the form of the exterior and reduce its visual bulk. Both floors of the north and the upper floor of south elevations have been divided into two bays, which express the uses behind. The lower floor of the south elevation is retained as a single form to reflect the large living space beyond. Rendered brickwork at ground floor is combined with rough sawn plywood cladding to the upper floor.  The plywood is either painted to match the render or treated with a redwood stain to give a contrasting warmer effect.  Clear stained cedar battens applied horizontally to planters and balustrades lighten and reduce the scale.  In the living area, limestone pavers stretch across the floor and joinery is dressed with walnut veneers giving a luxurious feel.

Katie and Tony concede that the house is typical of their growing body of work only in that there is no signature stamp that identifies it.  They do not adhere to any particular style or look.  Instead, they work with their client’s requirements and the opportunities and constraints of the site.  Their clients here were very involved with the design process and the selection of fittings, fixtures and finishes.  This led to a smooth passage and no surprises when things turned up on site.

Covered outdoor spaces are often ignored in housing design.  This house demonstrates the amenity these spaces can provide to the occupants of a dwelling, especially in Sydney’s temperate climate.  For a relatively small site, this house provides a variety of outdoor living options that suit modern living.  Just sit back and enjoy the view.