Ballast Point House
New House Sydney, NSW
The Sydney harbourside suburb of Birchgrove is one of those places that has a kind of forced perspective about it. As you travel deeper into the peninsula, the streets get narrower and the houses feel like they start to lean towards you. Taken and occupied in the late 1700s, the area’s first few residences were moderated with civilized distances between them. However, the subsequent occupation, division and subdivision of land into smaller and smaller parcels, as industry established itself on valuable harbour land, saw space – particularly outdoor space – become a premium. Now, the industry is long gone and a lot of the harbourside land has been renewed as public parkland. The housing stock continues to evolve as houses that had once turned their backs on the industrial infrastructure are modified to reconnect with their locale.
There has been a house on this site, perched on a ridge overlooking Mort Bay, since the late 1800s. The original cottage had undergone three significant renovations (1920s, 1970s and 1990s) that had completely changed the footprint, glazing and external facade. Architect Emili Fox, director at Sydney-based practice Fox Johnston, and her husband Reiner, lived with their young family in the house for six years before they began the process of transforming it into a contemporary home that responded effectively and poetically to its context.
During the family’s six-year purgatory
– living with black mould, possums and the tenants of a one-bedroom flat slung below the main house
– they began to formulate a strategy for a new house based around a walled garden courtyard concept.
Emili talks of an “idea that the house could be opened up from front to back, allowing the view to extend from the north-east walled garden through the central courtyard to the Mort Bay garden view.” They were also keen to utilize the double-fronted site to create space for a garage to store Reiner’s camera equipment, and a separate one-bedroom/studio apartment, which could be used by Emili’s parents or be rented out to obtain an income. The apartment needed separate access away from the entry to the main house, something the dual-fronted site enabled.
Perched up on the sandstone ridge, Ballast Point House is not just a courtyard house. Its main courtyard, off the primary street frontage, acts as both an entry vestibule and an outdoor parlour – a place to sit and talk, and to shelter when the wind picks up from
the south. The main living spaces flow from the courtyard, set across two levels of a folded concrete floor. The concrete ceiling above slides through at a constant so that, as you walk through the house from north to south, the ceiling height effectively rises as the floor level drops down three steps past an internal courtyard, through the dining and kitchen areas and out to the balcony overlooking the water.
Overall, the house is set across four levels, like a series of cliff ledges or outcrops. Above the main living spaces are the private bedroom spaces, protected by a shifting shroud of bleached western red cedar battens that serves as both rainscreen and heat shield. The gentle folds of the upper level facades pull the built form away just a little from the neighbours, ensuring the top floor doesn’t feel like it’s crammed up against the side boundary. The form also shifts out and over the front door to provide shelter, while up on top, the roof is covered in photovoltaic cells that service 92 percent of the household’s electricity needs. That figure will increase once battery storage is installed in the near future.
The shifting geometry of the house’s form lends it a vaguely geological feel. Elements and levels are laid down over each other, shifting as required to generate calibrated spatial arrangements through the house. Windows, doors and joinery in Accoya wood are set to a particular datum that meanders from door-head height to ceiling height. Where the walls extend up past the datum, the walls, and sometimes also the ceiling, are painted in a darker colour that nods to the colours of the harbour and the trees that lie just to the south.
On the same floor as the discrete one-bedroom apartment, there is an additional living area that can easily be converted into guest space if required, further adding to the home’s functional flexibility. Nested on the bottom floor, the garage – containing water storage and a workshop space – is yet another facet to the consonance of this home.
Borne from a house once referred to by Emili and Reiner as “the tip,” this flexible and multigenerational family home has been created on a site of less than 260 square metres. It is an inspiring demonstration of how a house can be sustainable without compromising on space and creativity.
Roofing: Lysaght Klip-lok decking External walls: Insulated cavity bricks, recycled and new with spackle finish; western red cedar boards in Cutek ‘Grey Mist’; V-groove lining boards
Internal walls: Birch ply veneer panelling in white wash; insulated cavity brick, bagged and painted; V-groove lining boards; plasterboard
Windows and doors: Accoya timber batten sliding screens and frames in Woca exterior oil; low-e glazing; ADH Studio brass door hardware
Flooring: Australian Sustainable Hardwoods Victorian ash boards; concrete (light grind/polish) Lighting: Rakumba Highline pendant; Marset Aura light, wall lights, recessed lights and external lights from Est Lighting Kitchen: Hermes marble island benchtop from Euro Marble; Corian benchtop and integrated sink in white; birch plywood joinery in white wash; Made Measure handles; Astra Walker tapware; Miele fridge, freezer, dishwasher and microwave; Pitt cooktop; Ilve oven
Bathroom: Artedomus Elba stone; Astra Walker tapware and fittings Heating and cooling: Big Ass Fans fans; hydronic heating
External elements: White sandstone and recycled brick Other: Window seat and outdoor seat upholstery by Atelier Furniture; entry door handle and street number by Simon Bethune
+61 2 9211 2700 email@example.com foxjohnston.com.au
Project team Conrad Johnston, Emili Fox Builder SQ Projects Engineer SDA Structures Landscape design Dangar Barin Smith