Between the City and the Ocean – Double Bay House by Gerry Rihs
Double Bay, NSW, Australia
Originally designed by Sydney architect Gerry Rihs, Double Bay House has been in the careful custodianship of three owners. Its most recent, Fiona and Jost Stollmann, oversaw the process of expanding the existing structure to extend and reinstate the original intent to a new brief.
The works were viewed as both an expansion of the existing house and an extension of the original design intention. A process grounded in listening, observation and acting through a lens of context was key to the maintaining the integrity of the design. Located on a private beach in Sydney’s Double Bay, the house, as it stands today, is the result of Gerry Rihs’s original architecture, local architect Robert Harwood’s design contribution and of the close cooperation between the builder, Vadim Jefremkov of Probuilt Projects, and the highly engaged owner.
The new brief was realised with surprising ease. Completed after a period of ten months, the careful assembly of the right team was essential. Fiona says, “in the end, it’s about respect for the original architectural integrity and about the people making it happen; it’s not about us. All we did was modernise and adapt the house to our needs.” The result is a house in which respect for the original design is evident in every element. After preparing the Development Application documentation, Robert Harwood left the project in the experienced hands of the owner and builder. Fiona was responsible for everything visible – finishes, joinery, fixtures, landscape, furniture – and Vadim for the base building and services. She says, “Vadim has a holistic approach and is very easy to work with,” and with his principle to only work on one project at a time (rare in the current construction climate) he was always present. Fiona adds, “Vadim’s positive attitude, deep knowledge of construction combined with his amazing people skills are exceptional.”
The works were viewed as both an expansion of the existing house and an extension of the original design intention.
Growing up in Paris, Fiona was exposed to both design and art from a young age, so it was only natural over the years to find herself drawn to design while also pursuing her professional career as a marketing executive. For a two-year circumnavigation project, visiting the most remote islands of the planet as a means to expand their five children’s view of the world, Fiona designed the family’s own sailing yacht. It was by happenstance that they should ultimately arrive and settle in Australia. After the yacht hit an undocumented reef in Fiji, they sailed to Brisbane for repairs and visited Sydney, where Fiona describes “it was love at first sight.” Fascinated by the Australian spirit, lifestyle and people, the Stollmanns decided to make Australia home.
Moving from a sailing yacht to a house on the waterfront in Double Bay, it seems almost like fate that the site had previously hosted a boat shed. For the family, Double Bay represents “the best of both worlds – the city and the ocean.” Fiona reflects, “Double Bay has a strong feeling of being a European village because of the way it is laid out, its shops and coffee places. It’s not your traditional ‘drive through’ suburb.” Once they found a house that spoke to them, it was important for the family to experience it for a couple of years, to understand how it engages with its context and how it works for them, before undertaking any alterations. Fiona explains that in deciding on the extension works it was paramount to “stay truthful to the house, it has a soul, and to try to preserve what makes it so special.”
“Vadim’s positive attitude, deep knowledge of construction combined with his amazing people skills are exceptional.”
Sitting on a narrow and light-restricted site, the house opens on the north to a small beach and to the south toward a small peaceful street. Architect Gerry Rihs had crafted a very distinct, modernist home that has the elongated, elegant form of a sailing boat. Built from reinforced concrete, steel and glass, with floors in a combination of New Zealand volcanic stone and timber, the home employs a great number of large pyramid skylights and three inner courtyards. Both skylights and courtyards welcome natural light into the home while generously letting the breeze flow throughout the rooms. Originally built in 1997, the house was in need of a renovation to benefit from new materials and fixtures and to accommodate the needs of a large family.
The narrowness of land and building envelope, the limited existing space and an open kitchen in the middle of the living area each posed a challenge. Working within these parameters, two new rooms were added, the kitchen was re-designed to ‘disappear’, the bathrooms were fully renovated, the windows and floors replaced, reverse cycle air-conditioning was introduced, and the passageway re-landscaped to an inviting European- style alley. A key focus was on increasing the energy efficiency through a solar power plant, maximum use of natural light, natural ventilation and use of fans during hot summer days.
“Double Bay has a strong feeling of being a European village because of the way it is laid out, its shops and coffee places. It’s not your traditional ‘drive through’ suburb.”
Opening the house towards the south increased the sense of lightness and transparency. In the evenings, very discreet accent lights illuminate the owners’ art collection and give to the house a sense of great peacefulness. Fiona describes, “what makes this house special is its proximity to the water, its feeling of seamlessness between indoors and outdoors. In a way it’s like being on a boat.” Much akin to the space efficiencies required in a boat, the house utilises hidden compartments and multi-use spaces within the kitchen and living areas to make the most of the narrow site.
Opening the house towards the south increased the sense of lightness and transparency.
Upon reflection, Fiona says, “there is nothing we would have done differently. There was not a moment of stress throughout the whole project. We had a house we loved, a clear vision and goals and the right team. We are delighted with the result.” She attributes three key elements to the project’s success. Firstly, Fiona says, “we were very lucky that we set up a good team. The architect perfectly understood our brief, the builder treated the project as if it were his own and we could engage some of the consultants of the original project.” Secondly, trust in the builder was imperative. “Find a builder you can trust, who understands you and your goals and clearly define from the beginning the terms of cooperation and the degree of your involvement,” she says. And lastly, Fiona explains that it is important to “listen to your neighbours, understand their perspective and try to address their concerns.”
But perhaps most importantly, if she were to give one single piece of advice it would be to “listen to your house, initially you buy it because you like it, so listen to it and observe it. An iconic house merits its DNA to be respected, and its architectural integrity preserved while evolving to meet new needs and benefit from new ideas, materials and technologies.”