Nestled Into Nature – Macmasters Beach House by Polly Harbison Design
A jewel of the New South Wales coastline, Macmasters Beach is a landscape defined by its natural vegetation and pristine seascape, deeply cared for by its local community. Here, Polly Harbison Design was tasked with creating a family retreat to function with a utilitarian efficiency without compromising the beauty of the coastal environment. Macmasters Beach House culminates in a celebration of the landscape with a gentle touch on the earth and the essence of what it means to live alongside the ocean.
“The poetry of the project comes from the site,” explains Polly Harbison, Director of the eponymous practice tasked with realising a seaside home for a large family. The site of the Macmasters Beach House project sits at the base of a small headland, a prominent position emphasised by its location on the sweeping corner of the access to the main beach. The road here creates a clear view to the local surf club, a hub for the beachside community. The poetry Polly alludes to is evident in the significant ecological context of the site; “it contains a precious pocket of bush,” she says, and “great care was taken to preserve it.”
When describing the design process for the project, it is apparent that the site and the building exist in a symbiotic relationship, each informed by the other. The strategy for the design of the beach house is defined by its subtle integration into the landscape; “the form and materials of the house respond directly to its setting,” says Polly, the purpose of which is to ensure the existing precious vegetation is not only retained but also enhanced by the occupation of the site. In pursuit of this ideal, the small footprint of the building is anchored into the hillside. Cradled within curved cuts in the earth, a discrete timber volume sits gently amid terraced landscaping.
In addition to an ecological ambition, the building design is shaped by a desire to mitigate visual prominence from all vantages. “The form of the house is elongated to present a narrow frontage to the street,” Polly explains; from the surf club, the building blends into the headland, and from the beach, only the timber-clad box of the upper floor can be seen.
When describing the design process for the project, it is apparent that the site and the building exist in a symbiotic relationship, each informed by the other.
Polly describes the design narrative of the building as one that “captures the essence of a beach house,” intentionally designed for simplicity and basic convenience intended to heighten the experience of living at the ocean’s edge. Carefully composed apertures, openings and eaves comprise the building form and craft viewshafts to the beach and bush from within the home. Neighbouring structures are deftly obscured by this form-making to give occupants of the beach house the sense of complete immersion within the landscape. With these key design gestures, the architecture creates the notion of a secluded family retreat capable of balancing the brilliance of the ocean with the beauty of the natural coastal flora.
If the sea creates a boundary to one side of the building, the hillside vegetation can be said to create the boundary to the other – Macmasters Beach House strikes a subtle line between the two. The landscaping for the site has manifested through a considered collaboration with landscape architect Michael Cooke. Michael’s planting strategy is structured around the homogenisation of architecture with landscape and a strict belief that the landscaping treatment must be able to exist harmoniously with the home. With a careful regeneration of the existing bush, a sensitive integration of new planting and the sympathetic weathering of architectural building materials, the beach house regresses and retreats from view. “As Michael’s garden continues to grow and the timber cladding ages, the house is slowly disappearing,” says Polly, explaining that climbing plants are supported on a privacy wall, concealing an external stairway, and a boundary wall along the street edge is designed as a backdrop for a collection of banksia trees.
“As Michael’s garden continues to grow and the timber cladding ages, the house is slowly disappearing.”
The impact of the abundant landscaping bleeds into the experience of living within Macmasters Beach House. “Barefoot luxury” is the term Polly uses to define the arrangement of space within the building “to accommodate a large family whilst retaining a humble, unpretentious character.” The occupation is split into three levels, dividing activities across the section of the building and, although abundant in space, is integrated discreetly into the hillside. The bottom level contains the kid’s area – designed for the chaos of family and friends coming and going. The top level of the building offers the quiet and serenity of private accommodation. The middle level brings everyone together and functions as the primary living level that opens up to a terraced perimeter. This meeting zone becomes an outdoor room when doors and windows are opened, creating a collection of varied spaces and microclimates, allowing occupants to enjoy gardens and oceans as well as adjusting activities to the movements of the sun and wind throughout the day.
As if to connect the soul of the home to the history of its own context, materials salvaged from an original 1940s shack on the site have been cleverly integrated in respectful consideration of the building’s environmental impact. Polly speaks with admiration for the contractor’s involvement in repurposing elements from the original building during the process of construction. “The builders were very mindful about limiting waste and re-using materials,” she says, explaining the use of salvaged timber for fabrication of door jambs and interior joinery and the creative re-use of construction materials such as concrete formwork, reclaimed, refinished, and installed to line ceilings.
The impact of the abundant landscaping bleeds into the experience of living within Macmasters Beach House.
Reclaimed materials and handcrafted finishings contribute to the success of Polly’s “barefoot luxury” narrative. The robust and pragmatic envelope is a palette of textured materials designed to weather in place and to do so with a sensitivity suitable to the beachfront context. The combination of timber, concrete and stone finishes work alongside the honest quality of salvaged elements from the original shack to imbue the building with a warmth and softness synonymous with the ideals of seaside living.
As a holiday home for a big family accommodating the frequent visits of friends, the success of Macmasters Beach House is perhaps – in its capacity to still feel like a beach shack, notwithstanding its scale – intimately connected to the landscape. With a carefully considered massing strategy, controlled view lines and the elegant integration of natural vegetation in abundance, every part of this coastal retreat exists as a reminder that it is delicately crafted for the uninhibited experience of living on the beach.