On the Waterfront

Review of house at Palm Beach by Workshop One, HOUSES Magazine, Vol.42, 2005

A chance meeting in someone else’s office led to Workshop One’s first project, the major overhaul of a waterfront house at Sydney’s exclusive Palm Beach. On the strength of this commission, the two architects, Lee and Ashley Dunn, from diverse backgrounds, formed their new architectural practice and they haven’t looked back yet. In fact it must be going well as they were recently married…to each other. Looking west over Pittwater at Palm Beach is top shelf real estate but the site had, in developer-talk, ‘potential’. It housed a solid though modest 1950s brick house that contained three flats, two where the house sits and one above the garage at the eastern end of the site. A classic worsthouse best-street scenario where the other houses have become maxedout ‘executive-style accommodation’ for Eastern Suburbs weekend escapees.

Originally the brief called for a knockdown and re-build, the ‘no brainer’ response. As the design process developed though, a more subtle idea evolved. The approach by the architects has been to leave the existing brick core in place, like a box, and manipulate from within whilst softening the edges with the addition of a new predominantly timber overlay. The timber layer comes in a number of forms but the main intervention has been to replace the aluminium windows with a suite of finely crafted timber windows in many varieties.

Timber framed bay windows have been prefabricated offsite and cranelifted in place. By fixing bay windows to the outside of the house, the new intervention can always be read clearly in a juxtaposition against the old house while also adding floor space and increasing the size of relatively small rooms. With the incorporation of seating and shelving the windows become pieces of furniture that serve the room. Prefabrication also allows a high level of precision, though it did require a good relationship with the joiner, Geoffrey Broadfield. Fortunately the architects had a good relationship with him, thanks in part to Lee’s former role working as a carpenter for Geoffrey. She had also previously worked with Rick le Plastrier, where she had learnt a great deal about timber detailing and technology.

The house has an almost Japanese feel which could be interpreted as a legacy of Rick’s influence. By contrast, Ashley’s background had been designing art galleries in London using an entirely different set of skills and materials and working with Australian hardwoods was a new experience.

Timber pervades throughout: the recycled Blackbutt floors, the Spotted Gum joinery. Doorframes are treated like boxes, slipped in to the existing openings, and separated from original walls with shadow lines that distinguish old from new. On the existing roof, copper sheeting has replaced the original tiles. Ashley and Lee describe the application process through council as relatively smooth; the practice makes a point of working closely with councils and their policies. Also the fact that they weren’t significantly increasing the floor plates made it easier. The main aspect of the house is west looking over the beachfront.

However the public nature of the beach as a popular walking route coupled with council’s restriction of the erection of fences, allows little opportunity for privacy at the ground floor living room and garden on this western side. Therefore the courtyard that is formed between the house and the garage structure to the east has been made as the main outdoor living space, secure and private, an outdoor lounge room. A huge water tank under the house feeds the turfed and landscaped areas with the landscaped pond also a part of the system. With the house opened up, cooling breezes can penetrate to the courtyard and with the plunge pool, create a comfortable microclimate, the perfect family sanctuary. Along the southern edge of the courtyard and extending from the eastern boundary, an open sided timber awning links the two pavilion style buildings. It provides privacy from neighbours and weather protection but more significantly it works as an armature that ground the buildings and transforms them from two brick boxes on a patch of dirt to sitting within a designed landscape.

The living area and kitchen are the focus of the ground floor on the northern side of the house with bedrooms on the south. The stainless steel kitchen leads through a custom made sliding door to the deck that connects to the courtyard. In a typically idiosyncratic detail, above the bench tops a recessed troffer in the plasterboard ceiling conceals inexpensive fluoro tubes thus allowing the ceiling to be visually uninterrupted. Consistent with the architectural approach of the timber overlay, a new stair has been grafted on to the exterior of northern side of the house. With its thermostat-controlled operable louvres that open upon reaching a certain temperature thus releasing hot air, it doubles as a thermal stack to assist in cooling the house. The top floor is the parent’s domain. In the main bedroom furniture has been used as space dividers and stops short of the ceiling so that the space can be read as one whole. The ceiling has been adapted to a cathedral ceiling with a bulkhead that conceals indirect fluorescent lighting. The window to the west incorporates bench seating outside the existing walls and consists of slatted timber with backrests. The original window on the northern wall, internalised by the new stair, has been altered to a display-shelving unit with opaque glass.

One of the few additions to the house footprint, a new room upstairs overlooks the internal courtyard. Corner windows are opened up and pulled back from the corner. The external textured ply cladding gives a warm earthy feel while internally the walls and ceiling are lined with hoop pine. Due to the necessity for the new skillion roof to tuck in under the existing roof at a relatively low height, rafters are exposed and the ends are separated with a clear polycarbonate piece at the eaves that allows the roof to extend visually and reflect light on to the ceiling. The existing flat above the garage has been refurbished also. New windows and louvres were installed while a sliding screen between the living and kitchen can readily transform the space.

Even after the transformation, the house still displays some of the awkward proportions of the original house. The punched-hole window openings and Post-war pitched roof, although now clothed in fine materials that have been well applied, are unmistakable. Externally the house works best on the elevations where the architects have used banded windows above textured plywood for the upper floor additions. It is in these parts, where the lightweight walling and timber windows projects and contrasts with the heavy brickwork. This is to the architects credit and suggests a bright future for this young practice.