Spectacular views across Sydney Harbour combine with a modern, clean and innovative design to turn an old gunpowder store into a stunning architectural artwork
Brian Zulaikha, a principal at Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects and national president of the Australian Institute of Architects, has lived on the same cobblestone street for more than 30 years. “I’ve slowly moved from house to house down the hill,” he laughs, “and have now participated in the design of four buildings in this unique location, preserving one of Sydney’s significant heritage laneways.”
When a dilapidated building located on that same street came up for sale in 2003, Brian and his partner, talented artist Janet Laurence, snapped it up. Twenty years ago the former gunpowder store was converted into a small house featuring an extra room at the same level and 2.5 bedrooms and a bathroom on the upper level — and Brian and Janet bought it with a view to transform the space into their dream home.
Grasping the opportunity to make over the structure in a location that Brian already called home, the couple set about putting a plan together to build a contemporary home that would encapsulate their lifestyle. It went on to win the 2007 RAIA National Award for Residential Architecture — Houses, and the 2007 RAIA NSW Residential Alterations and Additions Award.
During the two-year construction period, the greatest challenge was access. The site is located at the end of a steep dead-end lane, so the delivery trucks could only come as close as 50 metres, which meant all building materials were carried in by hand. This hindrance not only affected the building materials that Brian and Janet chose to use, but also slowed down the entire process. “It was quite complex and we did require a lot of labour,” Brian, who collaborated with builder and project architect Drew Heath, explains. “When the piece of marble that we used for the kitchen came into the house I was terrified it was going to break because we had to carry it over the rough cobblestones of the street and then up a ladder,” he remembers. “We managed it, but with a lot of effort; it took about six people to get it into the house.”
This time constraint, however, did not stop the couple building the home of their dreams, with Brian citing time itself being their biggest expense. “One needs to be careful of budget and build to budget,” he explains. “I think our biggest splurge was allowing sufficient time to ensure a quality outcome.”
Though it took two years to build, the house that Brian designed is a stunning architectural work that reveals its features through the innovative design concepts employed. Mesmerising views of Sydney Harbour and the city skyline across the water are revealed from various locations in the house. The integrated verandah on the upper level offers particularly spectacular views.
Brian designed the space, facilitating a close connection between the interior and exterior spaces as well as the view. “The detailing was driven by connectivity,” he explains. “I wanted the interior and exterior to be equal to accentuate their connectivity.”
The upper-level verandah is only separated from the outdoors by sliding windows and from the internal living space by glass sliding doors, highlighting the seamless link.
The first floor of the interior space features the grand entrance, kitchen and dining area. Upstairs, Brian initially planned for three bedrooms, but changed his concept to include one large bedroom that takes advantage of the expansive views as well as a living room, ensuite bathroom and the long verandah that connects the spaces. “The project was to design a house for my partner and myself,” he explains. “So I designed a one-bedroom house by renovating the existing structure and adding a large weather-enclosed verandah.” The couple have no children and only occasional visitors who are able to stay downstairs in the garden room, so Brian designed this home with their lifestyles and needs in mind.
The renovated construction keeps the original masonry house, replacing the balcony and roof to create a residence that is responsive to its context. The exterior of the structure boasts quality in every aspect; the clever arrangement of glass sliding screens opens the rooms to expansive views of Sydney Harbour. These same screens protect the dwelling from harsh weather conditions. “I wanted to create a comfortable dwelling that could be made liveable in all weather conditions,” Brian explains. The lightweight timber-framed living spaces designed around the old concrete core are well protected from winds or the cooler weather through the use of these retractable glass panels.
Inside, a feeling of balance and harmony is captured through the free-flowing design featuring large rooms with outsized doors, each linked seamlessly to the next — the constant is the polished concrete and recycled spotted gum flooring.
The dining room is stunning in its simplicity and features lighting that is recessed into neat ceiling slots, accentuating a clean, minimalistic look. The bespoke staircase, with bookcases and a built-in daybed alongside, is among a number of furniture items designed by Brian. In fact, an array of furniture and furnishing items are bespoke designs by Brian, making for a smooth, interconnected home. Brian and Janet wanted to create a space that was their own and through the implementation of several custom-designed pieces they were able to accomplish that special ambience.
In the lounge area, spatial generosity is achieved through balanced proportions and a fresh and simple colour palette, with the large artworks featured prominently on an adjacent wall injecting a sense of fun into the relaxation area.
The kitchen was designed in conjunction with interior designer Libby Metcalfe and features another bespoke design by Brian and Libby: the marble-topped island bench. This hub of the home activates the use of space through the convenience and functionality of innovative design, providing Brian and Janet with an efficient and pleasurable area in which to cook. On the lower level there’s also an exquisite garden room over the entrance area (which can double as a guest bedroom). For Brian, it’s an inviting space where he often relaxes with a good book.
Perhaps the most alluring room downstairs is the bathhouse, which projects out into the rear entrance of the home. Featuring a heated floor so the room is warm even during the colder months, it’s a luxurious sanctuary for the owners. Janet worked closely with Brian on the design of this room, pushing for a space that blends the interior and exterior. The result is a space that has a direct relationship with the terrace, garden and view of the harbour. “The aim was to create a bathhouse inspired by our many trips to Japan,” Brian explains. “This room was to be ‘in the garden’, so to speak. The majority of the bathroom is concrete (the walls, floor, ceiling) yet it undoubtedly has a feeling of luxury.” The only non-concrete features in the bathhouse are the Starfire glass rear wall and the Calacatta marble bath, while lighting is cleverly concealed to add a touch of romance. Floating wooden stairs take us up to the top floor, which houses the massive master bedroom (including a bed and a system of wardrobes that trundle backwards and forwards, both of which were designed by Brian). The room is hit thanks to an abundance of natural light, which is carried through to the luxurious ensuite.
“We wanted the materiality and warmth of the adjacent spaces to continue into the room,” Brian explains. “Hence the spotted gum timber floor enters the space and the Starfire glass continues the similar finish used on the built- in furniture outside the ensuite.” Full-height mirrors behind the vanity units are an efficient and eye-catching feature, while strategically placed glass doors conceal a laundry.
The master bedroom directly connects to the elongated balcony, separated only by glass doors that are often left open to take advantage of fresh air. The upstairs living area also seamlessly connects to this exterior space and both rooms offer superior views out to Sydney Harbour.
Wherever Brian or Janet find themselves in their home they are met with sleek design and high efficiency (and fantastic views in most spaces). For Janet, the garden is favourite spot, which she planted and maintains today. Here, the lush greenery laps into the house, softening the exterior outline and accentuating the interactivity between the indoors and outdoors.
The relationship between the interior and exterior spaces is exactly what Brian wanted to achieve. Rooms and outdoor areas flow smoothly from one to the other, each area encapsulating the essence of what can only be referred to as optimum design.