Recipient of the prestigious John and Phyllis Murphy Award, from the Australian Institute of Architects (Victorian Chapter) in 2017, this beach house at Sorrento is a reminder of the simple beach vernacular that made the Aussie beach shack so ingrained in our psyche. Designed by Figureground Architecture, this beach house appears as a completely new home. However, it’s a clever reworking of a modest beach house from the 1980s.

“Many would have considered knocking it down and replacing it with a new house. But the ‘bones’ were strong and it was ideally perched on the top and flattest part of the site,” says architect Matt Rawlins, director of Figureground, who took out the coveted award in the category of ‘Alterations and Additions’. “Some commented that the original house resembled a toilet block,” he adds.

With a dramatic fall across the site of approximately four metres, the position of the house allows for views over Port Phillip Bay through to Mt Martha and Arthurs Seat. “Our clients weren’t ‘wedded’ to the original house, but they had become attached to the views, both of the water and the ti-tree surrounds,” says Rawlins.

However, there were a number of shortfalls with the original beach house, starting with its orientation and ending with the insufficient bedroom accommodation provided. “The family has grown, with the owners’ children and their grandchildren needing additional space, including both a play area and additional bedrooms,” says Rawlins.

Figureground Architecture retained the two bedrooms at ground level together with a bathroom, but added a rumpus/bunk room that can comfortably accommodate four children. A flexible space with access to the outdoors from both sides, this room allows for children to make as much noise as they like without disturbing the rest of the family. What was ‘half a garage’ (the previous arrangement only allowed half the car to be under shelter) has been turned into a lobby with a laundry and storage area concealed to one side. A new double-height void featuring timber walls also greets visitors upon arrival.

While the architects retained the home’s original concrete blocks, they cleverly extended the wing on the first floor, allowing the northern light to penetrate and views to be fully embraced. One long bench seat, framing an open fireplace, further articulates the open plan spaces. “We didn’t want to simply add one large bank of windows. We thought it was more appropriate to frame each view, whether you were in the kitchen, in the living area or on the deck,” says Rawlins, who extended the first floor footprint by only a couple of metres.

Constructed in smooth finished grey concrete blocks, as opposed to the original textured blocks used in the 1980s, there’s a subtle differentiation between past and present. Figureground Architecture also supported this increased floor space by incorporating V-shaped steel columns to the undercroft, not dissimilar to 1950s homes such as Chancellor & Patrick’s Butterfly house at Rosebud. “Those modest 1950s homes on the Mornington Peninsular, formed an important part of the Peninsula’s development in the post-war period. These homes are still heroic decades later,” he adds.

The previous arrangement also saw the main bedroom as almost an extension of the home’s open plan living areas. In the latest scenario, the main bedroom and ensuite (the latter also used as a guest powder room) is concealed behind a curvaceous wall, finished in silver top ash. “Having a beach house today doesn’t necessarily mean that every bedroom needs its own bathroom,” says Rawlins, who was also conscious of the budget he was given.

Silver top ash was also used for the kitchen joinery, both the central island unit and the joinery that conceals the appliances and the pantry. Recessive in the scheme, this allows the impressive views to come to the fore. “The kitchen functions as the social hub when the family comes together, but we wanted to keep the design as simple as possible rather than have it dominate the space,” says Rawlins. One of the other problems with the 1980s house was its outdoor space. As well as the timber balustrades being in a fragile condition, the northern sunlight could only be enjoyed from a very small pocket on the landing. So Figureground Architecture created a new semi-protected terrace to the north, complete with built-in seating and barbeque facilities.

Rawlins speaks modestly about the Sorrento beach house as a series of ‘interventions’. However, the renovation is considerably more than opening up a few spaces and adding the latest materials. It’s clearly a reminder of what can be achieved on a relatively small budget, with considerable thought as to how the coastal environment can be fully enjoyed. Rawlins refers to this project as simply ‘stitching’ things together, but in reality, it is providing a new chapter in the life of the home. And rather than underground parking for the owners’ cars, as well as for their family and friends, a few car spaces are simply delineated in the coastal scrub at the foot of the property. “This place is about leaving your car at the front gate, walking up the zig-zag path and leaving the city pad behind,” adds Rawlins.

Words by Stephen Crafti.


Figureground Architecture can be contacted on 9015 8631. Photcgraphy by Derek Swalwell.

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