Grand Designs Australia
Issue 1.1/February 2012
An innovative and bold extension breathes new life into a striking structure.
Neil Wilmot’s beach shack is often referred to as The Lighthouse by locals. Sitting prominently on a hill, the three-storey residence is the tallest building on the island. “I got lucky,” Neil says. “After we finished building, the council put in a ruling against high buildings to protect the scenic coastline.”
Neil purchased the existing structure, dreaming of expanding on the original design and making it his own. “In 1995, the site was a vacant block of land without a single plant on it,” he explains. “That year, the main two-storey house was designed by Maddison Architects and constructed by Bob Matthews, and a few years later the house became available.”
Neil jumped at the opportunity to purchase the already stunning design and commenced landscaping. “I was the general manager at Country Road for 17 years,” he says, “Any general manager job is stressful, so I needed a weekender — a place where I could relax and use my landscape design skills.”
For a few years, Neil spent his weekends focused on the landscaping, which was a difficult process because the site is exposed to strong winds coming off Bass Strait and the soil is extremely infertile. After a few years he engaged Maddison Architects to design a structural addition to provide extra accommodation. “I wanted a space that would extend the building into the landscape and provide a secluded space where I could relax and unwind,” he says.
Knowing Peter Maddison personally, Neil returned to Maddison Architects for the job because the initial building worked extremely well in the harsh environment and intermittent Victorian weather conditions. “It made perfect sense to re-engage the company,” Neil explains. “I left the brief open but requested that the new building be separate from the main house — a long-held desire to follow what I had observed in the Hampton Beach house designs in America.”
Maddison Architects responded with a building that follows the geometry of the original building but is connected with a tall, protective, linking fence. “This separation of the building forms works well because I often have guests who stay,” Neil says. “It also spreads the house into the landscape, which was part of the brief: to leave as much of the planting I’ve worked long and hard to create.”
The main design consideration for both Neil and Peter was the outlook. The structural addition needed to respond to the views, and its orientation needed to take the prevailing winds into consideration. “It is very windy here. I envisioned having the house sitting into the environment comfortably,” Neil explains, “so the use of natural materials and soft colours to match the landscape interested me.” With his background in fashion, Neil was heavily involved in the interior design of the space. “I see interior design as an extension of fashion and was involved in the design aesthetic from day one.”
The original structure comprises one double bedroom and a bathroom/laundry area, both located on the ground level, while the first floor is home to a living room and the kitchen area. The observation deck on the roof in the existing structure is perhaps the most alluring spot, offering stunning views out to Bass Strait and beyond.
Peter decided the extension should be a standalone pavilion that would replicate the original dimensions of the house (6m x 6m) and the extension was built by the original builder, Robert Matthews. This means the addition doesn’t interfere with the original house.
The extension was originally designed for guests, but Neil loves the space so much he often sleeps there himself and the visitors use the original house. “In summer I am swamped with requests and try to get here every weekend. In winter I aim for every second weekend.”
Neil’s new sanctuary is constructed from painted concrete sheets to match the original structure and features a fresh and simple colour palette of white and charcoal. There’s no overuse of colour or furnishings and it’s this simplicity that emphasises both the extension’s spatial generosity and style. Though it’s a relatively small space, the design makes it feel much larger and two of the surrounding bedroom walls are windows, connecting Neil to the outside world and enhancing that feeling of space.
The open-plan bathroom features a freestanding bath, shower and toilet, while the louvered windows provide a constant breeze. Located just a step up from the bedroom, the bathroom is a sleek design that is both functional and chic. The kitchenette is hidden behind a cupboard near the entrance, so the extension is self-contained.
The extension and original building are linked by a walkway of translucent polycarbonate fencing (fixed with stainless-steel screws), which also acts as a windbreak. This fence has created an exquisite enclosed outdoor space. “To be honest, this wasn’t in the initial plan,” Neil laughs. “There was this void between the two structures so we implemented an enclosed outdoor area. It happened by default.”
The haven-like space is abundant in European- style trees, encapsulating a Mediterranean feel. The plantation featured was chosen for its tolerance to drought and harsh weather conditions so the plant life was able to grow and flourish without regular maintenance. Neil will often find himself relaxing in the enclosed space, which offers both shade and sunlight.
The extension has added character and warmth to the original building, and accentuates the link between the indoors and outdoors. The main body is angled away from the street and captures stunning views out to the distant rock formation, while the addition offers a secluded space. The whole house spreads out into the natural landscape. “That was part of the brief: to leave as much of the planting as possible because I worked long and hard to create it,” explains Neil.
Green living was also a key factor in the design and construction of the original house and, now, the new addition. Many of the timber beams are of a recycled variety from a demolished local hotel and natural materials have been used throughout the dwelling. Neil collects water using an external tank and uses it to water the garden and maintain the decorative pond.
The maintenance levels are low, which should always be a priority with a holiday house. Most of the timbers used have an oil-based stain, which is easy to reapply and helps preserve the timber. Verandahs and eaves are connected to all main doors and windows to help protect the openings from the rain and the low sun angles. These overhangs also help keep the building cool in summer. Furthermore, the house is kept temperate through a number of design elements employed, including high-level louvres that provide ventilation, ceiling fans in rooms, and floor-to-ceiling drapes that are able to be sealed in winter for ultimate insulation.
The result is a strikingly beautiful and comfortable building, confidently standing in its eye-catching position. “This building is in a very exposed marine environment, so the materials used had to be incredibly resilient,” Neil explains. “Therefore, great attention had to be paid to the fixings and ongoing maintenance issues.” Understanding the core issue, Maddison Architects chose to use recycled timbers where possible, and minimal painted finishes were used externally. Special seals were implemented on windows and doors and even the interior finishes were designed to be salt resistant.
It’s not just a holiday house, but a second home to Neil, who could not be more pleased with the result. The recent addition has lifted the character of the original building, adding to sleek design and enhancing what was already a bold and emotive space.