An Elevation of Material – Pearl Beach House by Polly Harbison Design
Issue 06 Video Feature
Pearl Beach, NSW, Australia

A small clearing in the bushland around Pearl Beach provides a reprieve from the density of the vegetation that obscures the sky above. Within this clearing, Polly Harbison Design has placed a building whose monumental qualities echo the scale of the surrounding forest and are representative of the recent marked shift in the relationship between architecture and such bushfire-prone environments.

Consider a house buried deep in the Australian bush and the likely image that comes to mind is of a relatively lightweight timber and tin construction. Open to the environment, either by design or simply by virtue of a general flimsiness, such houses with slight regional differentiations are virtually ubiquitous throughout the vast majority of the continent. Yet increasingly devastating bushfires in recent years have led to a re-evaluation of the methods of designing and building on these sites and, with it, a jarring re-calibration of the perception of our collective place within and relationship to the bush.

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“The challenge of this project was to create a whole different typology of building in the bush.”

The the outdoor living space recalls the experience of sitting in a sunny clearing in the forest.

It is a condition that Pearl Beach House has resolved through intrinsic means. Rather than looking to supplementary solutions, such as bushfire shutters or faux-timber products that are by and large intended to allow people to continue building houses that look like those to which they have become accustomed, Polly Harbison Design returned to first principles. “The challenge of this project was to create a whole different typology of building in the bush,” says Polly Harbison, Principal and Director of the studio. “Personally, I quite love timber pavilions in the bush, but unfortunately we just can’t build like that anymore. Rather than taking the old typology and wrapping it in new materials, we felt we needed to do better and think about intrinsically resolving this relationship between building and environment.”

The building resonates with its surrounds even as it stands as a defined object within the landscape.

Extensive use of blackbutt timber makes a statement throughout the kitchen and living space.

At one’s first encounter with Pearl Beach House, whether from the street or via the adjacent walking track through from the bush to the beach, two things are initially registered: the sculptural masonry form that rises out of the ridge, and the clearing among the trees in which the building is situated. The simultaneous perception of these two phenomena, one built, the other natural, speaks to the degree to which the house is informed by the site. The clearing and the sunlight it admits provide an intuitive pull – “you’re drawn to it in the same way you’re enticed to sit in the sun,” says Polly. The placement of the home in the clearing was driven by this observation and also by the idea that a degree of separation is necessary in order to gain a strong connection to and experience of the bush. Where full immersion tends to be the defining experience of the traditional timber pavilion typology, as the adage ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’ expresses, an element of separation can provide the necessary physical and psychological distance to fully appreciate and absorb the sights, sounds and smells of the forest.

The scale and materiality of the building immediately evoke a protective quality that signals how the design is informed by the threat of bushfire. Rather than attempting to disguise this reality, and so denying an important – if confronting – essence of place, Pearl Beach House acknowledges that it is as inherent as the other, more picturesque, qualities of the bush. Moreover, both the monumentality and the light dappled grey of the walls have a familiarity that recalls the silver-grey undertones of Australian vegetation and the vastness of old growth forests that dwarf human and animal alike. Similarly, the masonry is at once austere yet tactile, a tension that again alludes to the complicated relationship that must be resolved when building in such an environment. In these ways, the building resonates with its surrounds even as it stands as a defined object within the landscape.

The continuation of masonry and concrete throughout all spaces, both interior and exterior, blurs the distinction between the indoors and out.

A handmade basin by Lindsey Wherrett Ceramics exemplifies how the interior palette, developed in collaboration with Arent&Pyke, evokes the tones of the bush.

Against the solid masonry walls, which could otherwise convey a sense of impenetrability, over scaled punctured openings and a section of offset brickwork creating a permeable screen illustrate how the home carefully captures, frames and facilitates views and experiences of the bush. On the three sides of the building that face the forest, “we had to be really judicious with the glazing because it’s just eye-wateringly expensive to get glass rated for BAL Flame Zone,” Polly says. The most significant spaces, such as the kitchen, master bedroom, living space and sitting room, are set on the upper level, and this elevated position combined with the scale of the few key openings to the three sides facing the forest “really frames the bush and you feel like you’re sitting up in the treetops.” The largest stretch of glass was reserved for the eastern side, which faces the small township and thus has a slightly lower BAL 40 rating.

But of equal, if not greater, importance than glazing when it comes to creating the connection to the environment is the carving of outdoor spaces into the building envelope. Where traditional bush and beach houses created this connection through their lightweight construction and, often, large expanses of glass, Pearl Beach House is forced to work harder and, as a result, both embraces and disrupts conceptions of interiority. All the circulation is external, so that in moving between levels and spaces one continually returns outside, while the outdoor showers make bathing, too, a primal outdoor experience. The outdoor living space, set to the eastern side, is wrapped and protected by the bulk of the building. The primacy of this living space is reflected in the fact that it is slightly larger than the main internal living area and contains a hearth – the traditional focal point and symbol of the interior. This elevated outdoor space itself feels like a “sunny clearing” in the forest, one of several moments of compression and release that parallel the sense of relief found in stumbling upon a clearing when walking through bush.

The external shower makes bathing a primal, outdoor experience.

The continuation of masonry and concrete throughout all spaces, both interior and exterior, blurs the distinction between the indoors and out. The addition of blackbutt timber, ceramic tiles and brass fixtures to the interior palette, developed in collaboration with Arent&Pyke, offers sparing adornment. Yet, it is not so much a case of the interior being made to feel exterior through the prevailing use of raw materiality like concrete and blockwork. These materials heighten a sense of protection and enclosure in both indoor and outdoor spaces; they reinforce the contrast between building and natural environment in order to offer a stronger sense of both, much the way a clearing allows a heightened experience of the forest. “The heaviness, the weightiness, of the building feels amazing,” reflects Polly. After all, she explains, “you shelter for a reason. If it’s fantastic outdoors then you’re going to be outdoors, so you have to think ‘why are we sheltering?’ It’s because we want shade or shelter from the wind or warmth, and so there’s no need to be afraid of that shelter and make it so light that it’s ephemeral.”

In returning to fundamental questions about the nature of shelter and questioning the assumptions that have long underpinned designing and living in the bush, Pearl Beach House demonstrates the benefits a rational approach can bring to bear. Balancing both connection and protection, Polly Harbison Design has embraced the challenge of working with a new typology in response to a changing climate.

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