An Easy Dialogue – M House by Rama Architects
Sitting at the edge of an endangered spotted gum forest in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, M House by Rama Architects is informed by Brazilian modernist design ideals in both form and function. The home balances an expressive brutalist quality with a welcome porosity, which is tempered for privacy through a deliberate bridging of landscape and structure.
Having resided in the area for some time already, the clients were eager to work with a local team to conceive a restful and private family home in close conversation with its surrounds. As such, Director of Rama Architects Thomas Martin was well placed to spearhead the project alongside his team based in Avalon Beach. He says the intent was to “create a home that receded into the landscape by using immersive planting from the rooftop, which cascades down and is visible from every room, as well as planting from the ground up.”
Thomas also cites the importance of honouring the existing bangalay trees “that stand proudly on the land and have so for generations.” One of these trees sits at the water’s edge; its mature branches and leafy canopy fan out to provide shelter and privacy from the home’s prominent, north-west facing aspect over Pittwater. The two other significant trees sit in the centre of the site, and they have heavily informed the two-storey structure’s layout and location on the flat parcel of land. “We not only sought to protect the trees by creating a lush courtyard around them but we also wanted to celebrate them and dwell in their presence from the centre of the home,” Thomas explains.
This internal courtyard epitomises the architects’ pursuit of moments that are simultaneously veiled and overt. Delineated by floor-to-ceiling glass doors, which retract completely, the house opens to this north-facing, indoor-outdoor area, leaning heavily into subtropical design principles and Brazilian modernist philosophies surrounding the prioritisation of natural light and ventilation. Further, the main living area, which is located at the front of the site, releases with ease to the water and western horizon beyond. The continuation between indoor and out is seamless, thanks to a consistent approach to the materiality both overhead and underfoot. Most notably, narrow timber battens run the length of the ceiling, blurring the threshold and guiding the eye outwards, and a sunken lounge allows for uninterrupted views to the water. The project’s builder, John Hampton of Hampton Constructions, was instrumental in executing this level of refinement across detailing and materiality.
“The concept of privacy is slightly contradictory when you consider Brazilian-style architecture with its generous openings, horizontality and lovely, free-flowing plans.” He adds, “to have that idea of openness juxtaposed with privacy was tricky, but the way we approached it was by harnessing the surrounding landscape.”
As Thomas notes, this dual pursuit for openness and privacy is some-what conflicting, and it demanded an instinctive and site-specific response. “The concept of privacy is slightly contradictory when you consider Brazilian-style architecture with its generous openings, horizontality and lovely, free-flowing plans.” He adds, “to have that idea of openness juxtaposed with privacy was tricky, but the way we approached it was by harnessing the surrounding landscape.” As well as the existing bangalay trees and dense neighbouring forest, there are planter boxes filled with lush greenery that wrap the building, disrupting sightlines and softening the linear nature of the form.
The restrained palette of materials also speaks back to a distinct modernist influence. Thomas explains that “concrete and timber were the main drivers, and after exploring a few different options in collaboration with our builder, John, we landed on tallowwood; it’s highly durable, and the grain is quite linear and minimal without many knots.” Used internally and externally but with different stains and batten widths for each application, there is a continuous narrative throughout the building. Inside, the unchanging battens create uniformity and order, whilst externally, the random battens result in an organic aesthetic “reflecting the surrounding tree canopy.” Alongside the concrete, grey sandstone quarried a few hours further north, which was “chipped and laid individually”, brings a welcome contrast to the otherwise warm tapestry of materials.
Fittingly, the modernist architectural influence plays an important role in this home’s environmentally sustainable principles. As Thomas says, “the climate of São Paulo – which is really where this style of architecture originated from – is very similar to that of Sydney,” so notions such as passive cooling and heating, cross-flow ventilation and deep eaves to block harsh summer sun are well suited to this environment. Rama Architects has also re-used and repurposed materials where possible; for instance, the driveway incorporates stone reclaimed from the site’s previous dwelling, and grey sandstone offcuts form the aggregate for the garden beds and green roof.
If these principles had not guided the architectural response so heavily, the prevailing essence of this home would be something else entirely. Upon spending time within M House’s walls after its completion, Thomas recalls experiencing the exact restfulness he and his team attempted to create. “I was sitting in the house with all the doors open, and there was a nice breeze coming through off the water. There were no lights or air conditioning on, so the building was effectively ‘off’, yet it was so comfort-able and calm, and I think that’s testament to this style of architecture, the materials and the environmental aspects we’ve implemented.”
Given M House’s desirable location, it is only fitting that its enduring identity is one of stillness and repose. The proximity to the water and to dense bushland is unequivocal in the appeal of this site; however, the building’s allure lies in Rama Architects’s interpretation of modernism and the easy dialogue that prevails between nature and built form.