The first impression of House at Flat Rock is not a house at all, but rather a densely planted meadow-like garden that spills out to the street. To the fore of the site, on the east, stands a group of mature olive trees and behind, to the west, the presence of Conjola National Park looms large. Linking the two, a narrow stone-paved path traverses the northern edge of the meadow. This arrangement defines the most immediate and prescient qualities of the context whereby the building – a discreet series of volumes strung along three edges of the site – is experienced. It is an abiding humility that informs each considered gesture and remarkable detail of a home whose appointed purpose is to create a complete immersion in nature.
Billy Maynard describes the sleepy beachside town of Bendalong, on the New South Wales South Coast, as a very unpretentious place. It is the kind of hamlet where the encircling bush might be conceived as a protective armature, sheltering against the outside world and so, over the years, maintaining a laid-back pace of life. Such an environment is marked by the threat of bushfire though, and in 2020 – when House at Flat Rock was still under construction – fire devastated the region. Miraculously, the 40-odd homes in Bendalong were spared, though the inferno came within metres. The fire was a dramatic reminder of the condition – wilderness on one side and small rural township on the other – that the architecture was designed to mediate. The site is a mere 600 square metres, with tall neighbouring houses and a high Bushfire Attack Level rating to the rear, where the boundary meets the national park. These were the limiting factors at play, and the challenge lay in creating a sense of profound openness to the landscape and a sense of intimacy within this – qualities more typically found in buildings on picturesque tracts of land than those on small suburban lots.
In the process of designing the project, “I had the privilege of spending a significant amount of time on the site,” Billy says. Coming to know the land, its challenges and opportunities, he was compelled to push the public spaces of the home far to the back of the site whilst stretching the private spaces along one edge, creating an L-shaped plan. On the opposite side, a pair of smaller volumes contain storage and utilities. Inverting the notion of the suburban house – entrance at the front and yard at the rear – the garden was thought of as a still centre around which the house orbits. “The intention was to minimise floor area and maximise the garden, as a garden is more fascinating than a building,” explains Billy. It is an intent that informs not only the plan and discreet massing on site, but the restrained material palette of brick, Corten steel and timber. Analogous to the tones and texture of the bush, it recedes into the mature trees while “in daylight hours, the building form is defined by infinitely variable shadows on the woven brick surface, a veil of masonry,” Billy says.
A drawn out, controlled entry sequence traverses the three-sided internal courtyard, channelling Aldo van Eyck’s idea that ‘architecture is built homecoming’. This sense of arrival is deliberately heightened, Billy explains. “The promenade is always important – you park the car close to the street, walking down the path alongside the meadow-like courtyard and beneath a paper-thin steel awning, before arriving at the front door and passing into a dark, compressed vestibule.” It is perhaps only here that the full import and nuance of the building becomes apparent. So carefully inconspicuous is the house from the street that only hints, such as the unique roof of plate steel, give any initial indication as to the exceptional level of detail and craft that has been applied. Arriving at the front door, the hand grasps a cast bronze leather wrapped handle, a collaborative custom design made for the project by Scott Fellows of Studio Henry Wilson. Stepping over the threshold, one experiences a moment of concentrated interiority. The ceiling is lowered, and the door detail elongates the movement of its closure to admit an extra sliver of light as it draws shut. Once it is closed, the only light comes via a narrow window – a reference, Billy tells, to painter Colin McCahon’s work. “He repeatedly includes the letter I in white paint against a black canvas. We honoured this iconography with a full-height slit window, enhancing the delirium of light in a monochromic space.”
Inverting the notion of the suburban house – entrance at the front and yard at the rear – the garden was thought of as a still centre around which the house orbits.
From this darkened, enclosed vestibule, the journey culminates in a sense of release on moving into the grand public room. The manipulation of light is a preoccupation of the design that becomes evident in this sequence as one moves, intuitively, from darkness into the light. It is an unfolding choreography that serves to heighten the sense of anticipation before reaching the main living space, conceived as the theatre of social life. In the vestibule, light is channelled into painterly signature, but in the main room it has a profoundly formative role. The space is “emphatically shaped by light, with substantial structural elements animated and dematerialised by light,” Billy says. This lofty room, with its double- height ceiling, expansive openings to both sides and improbably thin rafters overhead, offers a dramatic experience of decompression as one emerges – as though through a portal – into a place awash with light and views of the landscape.
Here, set between the courtyard meadow and the bush, an immersion in nature is keenly felt. Fenestration of cinematic proportion situates the occupant between bush on one side and garden on the other, an arrangement that “responds to a Roman notion of a cultivated inner world and an uncultivated, wild one beyond,” Billy says. He describes how, from within, this experience takes place through “an immensely deep address to the garden and then a more ephemeral address to the bush.” The pronounced threshold on the east accommodates a day bed that places the sitter within the wall, a liminal condition at once pushed out into the garden and entirely cosseted by the exceptionally thick masonry structure and encasing timber. Meanwhile, the expanse of operable glazing that opens to the bush on the west gestures to a more pavilion-like approach that is affirmed at other moments throughout the building. These openings, Billy explains, are the work of “the utter masters, three generations of the same family, at Acacia Joinery in Wollongong,” who number among the expert collaborators who worked to achieve the project’s many experimental details.
While the house is born of a singular architectural vision, Billy emphasises it is equally the work of many hands.
While the house is born of a singular architectural vision, Billy emphasises it is equally the work of many hands. Every inch of the building is bespoke and represents an extreme commitment to attaining complete simplicity, achieved by drawing on the expertise of numerous collaborators. The rafters underscore this conceptual approach that sought to make each component, even the most complex, appear utterly effortless. “At 28 millimetres thick and 400 millimetres high, the rafters are in no small part due to the amazing work of engineer Professor Max Irvine,” he says. A threaded rod detail ensures no fixings are visible and maintains the rafters’ rigidity, allowing them to seem as though delicate slices of timber have been inserted through the clerestory glazing, creating an effect akin to thin sunbeams.
The joinery by Chris Nicholson of Forest Furniture is similarly precise. The raised, stage-like kitchen is detailed to maintain visual integrity even when viewed from the living space below. This joinery conceals the majority of its functions, some expected and others surprising. Exemplifying this play on concealing and revealing is a hidden door that, when pushed, discloses a monolith of Port Fairy bluestone. The stone was carved by Pieter Boer to create a cellar that maintains a constant temperature, mitigating the need for a wine fridge. Billy describes how “there’s a performance to the reveal, a drama to sliding it open and seeing this amazing piece of stone, which was inspired by Amin Taha’s Clerkenwell project.”
The kitchen holds another secret – the door to the master bedroom is concealed behind a timber panel. It is a transition from the kitchen into sleeping quarters that Billy describes as a “seduction”, drawing one through the building and into its private spaces. The master bedroom is entered via this intimate connection with the kitchen, but the remaining bedrooms and bathrooms are accessed from what could be called a single-loaded corridor, were it not for the fact that this circulation space is actually an external deck. This deck is, as Billy notes, a veritable “magic carpet”. Carefully crafted from fine slices of tallow wood laid perpendicular to the edge of the house, it floats above the ground in a manner that ensures the entire building – despite its robust brick and concrete construction – touches the earth lightly. Requiring the inhabitant, or more likely visitor, to step outside to reach their bed or return to the living area is a bold move – but a deliberate one. “It’s like an adventure being in this house,” Billy says. “Walking room to room allows one to experience the quality of nature at all times of day.”
It is an idea that is fundamental to the essence of the project. “It’s about being surrounded by this omnipresent nature,” he reflects. “The clients and I really wanted to create somewhere that was not about replicating a 22-degree air-conditioned environment, but a place in which you are barefoot walking outside, or bathing in the sunken concrete bath, the corner window retracted right back so you’re out in the garden, even though there’s actually a neighbour less than a metre away.” As such, there is an incisive quality to the building – while it is intrinsically detailed, no detail is gratuitous. So too form, materiality and scale stem from a reverence for craft and for landscape, lending an enduring purity from which the architecture flows, seemingly effortlessly.