Copacabana House by Polly Harbison Design

Words by Aaron Chapman
Photography by Pablo Veiga
Photography by Brett Boardman

Perched on a hill with views of Copacabana Beach, this project by Polly Harbison Design was conceived as a private sanctuary of simplicity and functionality, capturing the essence of coastal living by leaning into its natural context.

Polly Harbison Design’s portfolio of sophisticated spaces is dotted along the eastern seaboard of Australia. It is the team’s unique brand of barefoot luxury and their ability to design spaces that are not only aesthetically pleasing but which harmonise with the site’s opportunities and challenges that make the practice so highly regarded. “When you go big and monstrous, you lose that beach house feeling and that feeling of a more simple existence,” says Polly Harbison, the studio’s principal and director. Despite the option to go up and out to establish a greater sense of openness for a home on the New South Wales Central Coast, Polly encouraged the client to consider a smaller private sanctuary.

Occupying a long, narrow site above Copacabana Beach, the L-shaped building successfully screens the neighbours, directing attention to the lower bushland and framing a more subtle yet still generous view of the beach beyond.

Copacabana House is engulfed by density. The client accesses the weekender at the top of a shared driveway surrounded by neighbours with less considerate building footprints. A significant challenge for this project, and one that informed the conceptual framework, was how best to filter out that surrounding density. Now, the confinement one feels upon arrival is mitigated by the design’s embrace of the steep site and remnant bush.

Occupying a long, narrow site above Copacabana Beach, the L-shaped building successfully screens the neighbours, directing attention to the lower bushland and framing a more subtle yet still generous view of the beach beyond. Although the actual view of the beach only comprises roughly 10 per cent of the outlook from the back of the block, the building was designed almost like a periscope to focus on this particular perspective – the L-shaped plan frames and isolates this view. By being clipped and framed, the view is dramatically honed in on, cutting out the foreground and neighbouring density. “That really was the whole idea of the project,” says Polly. “The form of the building came from trying to frame the beach and to deal with the climatic patterns.”

The home employs a robust, simple palette of materials akin to any traditional beach shack.

The layout was designed to counter the site’s tricky orientation and position on top of the hill. Although the view back towards the beach is desired, late summer afternoons can make it impossible to enjoy because the sun comes in horizontally. The design team solved this problem by creating a microclimate, which includes a cool and shady northern courtyard. “There’s different spaces at different times of the day,” notes Polly, “and we were really able to control the climate in that sense.” The complete opposite occurs in winter, with the courtyard doubling as a sun trap and extending the living spaces outdoors in the afternoons.

The home employs a robust, simple palette of materials akin to any traditional beach shack. Timber cladding will age beautifully and soften the home into its hillside context which, as Polly says, is an important design consideration for any coastal building. “Because of the dark timber exterior, the house just disappears into the bush behind it. When you’re standing on Copacabana Beach and you look back up at the headland, it’s nice if your house just naturally disappears.”

Timber cladding will age beautifully and soften the home into its hillside context which, as Polly says, is an important design consideration for any coastal building.

The other main material is masonry blocks, which forms a wall to screen cars and also provides a barrier to the laneway. Initially, the client’s ambition was to use stone – an expensive material – but an underlying aspiration of the project was cost-effectiveness, so the concrete blocks were chosen in conjunction with vines that will inevitably grow and cover the majority of the wall.

Stone was incorporated elsewhere in a cost-effective solution by Polly’s team. “We made a big stone seating plinth in the northern courtyard out of solid sandstone blocks,” she says. “There’s actually quite a drop on that side of the site, so these stone Jenga-style blocks not only create an aesthetic edge to the courtyard but also do quite a lot of retaining.”

The internal material palette follows a similar tack of simplicity, with timber windows, floors and pockets of timber joinery providing warmth and contributing to an overall character of beachside calm.

The internal material palette follows a similar tack of simplicity, with timber windows, floors and pockets of timber joinery providing warmth and contributing to an overall character of beachside calm. This intentionally pared-back approach is a hallmark of Copacabana House, as it aims to prioritise efficiency, functionality and experience over lavish choices. “The house strips everything back to the essentials,” says Polly. “You have a beautiful outdoor shower, you’re connected to the bush and you can see the beach. The simple building provides a different sort of experiential luxury, and that’s something we’re always aiming for.”

As the house serves primarily as a weekend retreat, with occasional visits from family, it is designed to adapt to various occupancy levels. This multigenerational element influenced the split-level resolution. The top level – with the kitchen, living area and main bedroom – caters to everyday needs and opens to the courtyard to create a large indooroutdoor living area, while the lower level provides extra accommodation.

This intentionally pared-back approach is a hallmark of Copacabana House, as it aims to prioritise efficiency, functionality and experience over lavish choices.

Copacabana House’s meticulous consideration of perspectives emphasises the natural beauty of the surroundings and creates a sense of spaciousness within its modest footprint. The project combines simplicity, functionality and experiential luxury and achieves a high level of amenity on a limited budget. “This project was about creating a space that is comfortable and connected, both to its surroundings and to all the living zones,” says Polly. “It’s not just about aesthetics, it’s about how people can experience and live in a space.”

Architecture by Polly Harbison Design. Build and joinery by Zandt Building. Landscape by Michael Cooke Garden Design. Engineering by Eddy Consulting. Windows and doors by Bakers Joinery.