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  • Stephen Crafti

Barefoot Buildings

An icon of the Australian summer, the beach house is also a chance for architects to loosen up, experimenting with rugged materials and freewheeling floorplans to create spaces as laidback as their setting. By Stephen Crafti

Office Mi-Ji’s AB House in Barwon Heads, Victoria, juxtaposes unflashy materials on the facade with elevated interior details. Photography by Ben Hosking.

The beach house remains the Australian ideal of escape as the year winds up or, more correctly, down, for a month or so. One’s shoulders sink in relief as thoughts of pressing pause on responsibility and fleeing to the coast take over. Whether a beach house is set on several hectares and is camouflaged from the road or perched on the edge of a cliff for all to see, it evokes intense anticipation in city dwellers preparing to decamp for summer.


For architects, the Australian beach house has always been a coveted project, with design briefs that typically call for a more informal approach and the challenge of using materials that can withstand a battering from the salty air. A great beach house requires the right clients: those who want a space that delivers a different experience to their main home in a more urban context. 

Office Mi-Ji’s AB House. Photography by Ben Hosking.

In the case of AB House at Barwon Heads on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula, the clients, a couple of empty-nesters, recognised the synergy in creating something uniquely appropriate for a beach house. The new property, subdivided from a larger plot, is located on a fairly busy thoroughfare. “It’s mainly foot traffic from locals as this route is the quickest way to connect with the Barwon River and Thirteenth Beach,” says architect Jimmy Carter, a director of Office Mi-Ji, who worked with co-director Millie Anderson on the project. 

Rather than creating a high front fence for privacy, as a number of other homes on the street have, the architect duo installed a series of polycarbonate panels across the facade of the two-storey house’s ground level. There are three doors to the front garden (designed by landscape architects Bush Projects), which can be opened or left closed depending on the level of foot traffic and the amount of privacy and airflow desired.

The flexibility built into AB House enables a constant ballet of light, privacy and airflow. Photography by Ben Hosking.

AB House. Photography by Ben Hosking.

While the predominantly steel and fibreglass facade is a little austere, the living areas are anything but, with barrel-vaulted plywood ceilings and a central staircase made from tallowwood. The architects continued the plywood theme on the first floor, which contains the principal bedroom, ensuite and study, the latter overlooking the street through operable perforated steel shutters. Other unexpected touches include a hand-buffed aluminium kitchen island bench framed by dark green two-pack joinery. 

“Our clients wanted a more temporal experience for their beach house, whether they were coming here on their own or with the extended family and friends,” says Carter. There’s a sense of rawness to this beach house even before one crosses the threshold. The architects chose galvanised steel for the exterior for its hardy, corrosion-resistant quality, notes Carter, who sees a strong connection to the many galvanised steel roofs of the 1950s shacks that once dotted this stretch of coastline. 

Auhaus Architecture’s timber-clad concrete beach house was built to endure serious punishment by the elements on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula. Photography by Derek Swalwell.

Auhaus Architecture’s beach house. Photography by Derek Swalwell.

Further along the Bellarine Peninsula is a beach house designed by Auhaus Architecture. This striking home has attracted widespread interest given its elevated position overlooking Ocean Grove’s beach. “There are views from Lorne through to Cape Schanck,” says architect Ben Stibbard, a director of Auhaus, who worked on this project with co-director Kate Fitzpatrick. Adds Fitzpatrick, “Even though this house is prominent and is known by most people, particularly the locals, we still wanted it to feel embedded in the coastal scrub.” Hence the architects worked hand-in-glove with the landscape architect Bethany Williamson.

The clients were a family who had been living on the site for 17 years; their original architect-designed steel house had become badly corroded. “The salt air had been particularly destructive,” says Fitzpatrick. “This time around they were looking for something that was ‘bullet proof’.” The result is an almost brutalist concrete house that flows over a series of levels. The secure timber-battened front gate opens to a small courtyard with a garden and outdoor shower. Past the glass front door await a number of subtle level changes.

Auhaus Architecture’s beach house. Photography by Derek Swalwell.

A half-level below the entrance is a guest bedroom, bathroom and art studio, the latter benefitting from views over Bass Strait. A half-level above the entry is the open-plan living, dining and kitchen area plus a study, all of which overlook the beach. At the rear of this level are two further bedrooms and a bathroom, together with a second living area for the children, all looking out over the swimming pool and a robust garden planted on the garage roof towards Point Lonsdale Lighthouse. Above, connected by a curvaceous staircase that spirals down to the entry, is a tranquil main bedroom suite. 

To soften the feel of the space amid all the concrete, the architects clad the entire top level in timber, installed timber floors in some of the bedrooms and living spaces and added timber-batten screens to diffuse light and create privacy where needed. An open fireplace becomes a gathering point for the family during the cooler months. While Cliff House, as it’s known, wasn’t inexpensive to build, it certainly doesn’t feel precious. “We wanted the house to feel informal,” says Stibbard. “It’s a beach house, after all.”

Haxstead Garden House, designed by Tobias Partners, is intentionally low-key in deference to its unspoiled coastal setting. Photography by Justin Alexander.

Considerably less visible is Haxstead Garden House, a low-slung home in Central Tilba on the New South Wales South Coast. Set on an expansive plot a short stroll from the beach, the pavilion-style house was designed by Tobias Partners to capitalise on its views of the ocean and the property’s mature garden. “We wanted to create a quiet backdrop for the views and this special site, rather than making things overly fussy or too complicated,” says Richard Peters, a principal at Tobias Partners.

Haxstead Garden House, designed by Tobias Partners. Photography by Justin Alexander.

The house was designed along an east-west axis, with a raked steel roof that allows the low northern sun to penetrate during the winter months. Automated louvres on the exterior mitigate the strong summer sun. Effectively only one room wide, the home has a sense of transparency, whether in the living areas or the bedrooms — doable given the property’s considerable distance from any public thoroughfare. “The house was designed for relaxation, for the family to come together and enjoy meals, both partaking and preparing,” says Peters, pointing out the wide island bench in the kitchen.

And should any beach sand be traipsed into the interior, sweeping it from the limestone floors takes just a few moments. Concludes Peters, “It’s a place that beckons you to remove your shoes on arrival.” 

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our tenth edition, Page 90 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Barefoot Buildings”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.  


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