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This Surfer Rules the Ocean from a Cliffside House

By Dwell @dwell
modern fairhaven beach house blackbutt eucalyptus facade trees This home in the village of Fairhaven gazes over the area’s longest beach and an open sea that stretches all the way to Antarctica. Project  Fairhaven Beach House Architect  John Wardle Architects

In the state of Victoria, Australia, the Great Ocean Road snakes along the Southern Ocean coast, skirting the edges of cliffs that drop sharply to the pounding surf. The village of Fairhaven gazes over the area’s longest beach and an open sea that stretches all the way to Antarctica.

A married couple knew they wanted a house somewhere along this iconic road. The ocean is a big part of their lives: The wife says her husband has "always been a surfer, and I absolutely love the beach; it’s something we both love together.”

When they first saw the lot that would become their home, there was a For Sale sign out front but no one around. “We walked through the vegetation, making a path to the edge of the cliff,” the husband says. “The first time we saw that view, we knew we had to live here,” he adds, gesturing toward the sweeping ocean as seen from the dining room window.

But that jaw-dropping perspective presented architect John Wardle with one of the project’s first challenges. “When architects see a panoramic view, they get so beholden to it, and the house becomes a big glass box,” he explains. “So, instead, we created moments—bits of view—and appreciation of the trees, not just the ocean. When you sit down on the living room couch, you are surrounded by the trees. But when you go into the dining room, it’s all about the sea.”

“It’s one of the great challenges of building on the Victorian coast,” he adds. “The views are to the south, but the sun is to the north.” So he designed the house “to bring in the northern sun and compress it.” To comply with local planning requirements, Wardle had to tug down the corners of rooms and compact parts of the roof to make sure the house didn’t break the ridgeline view from the road. But that constraint turned into a feature.

“Whatever strategy we used on the outside of the house, the same experience is converted to the inside,” Wardle says. “The interior and exterior profiling match exactly, every crimp and contortion—hence the experience of moments of compression and moments of release.” This effect is most dramatic in the corridor that leads from the front door to the main living area. The hall slants and curves, keeping visitors tightly bound, until it opens suddenly into the glass-fronted expanse of the wood-wrapped lounge room. Ceilings, floors, and walls throughout the living area and bedrooms are wrapped in blackbutt eucalyptus. The dining table, which seats ten, is Victorian ash, the dining chairs European oak. Wardle’s office designed the dining table as well as a coffee table and an end-grain butcher block in the kitchen. The wife likes to bring a stool up from the wine cellar and tuck it under the block so she can work on her laptop while her husband cooks.

modern fairhaven beach house blackbutt eucalyptus kitchen butcher block
Wardle’s firm designed the end-grain butcher’s block (left), which serves as an end-of-day gathering point where their kitchen meets the dining area. “We were happy to let John go free and see what he came up with,” the wife says. “He thought of things we would never have thought of, like the chopping board. He knew what we wanted.”

“We didn’t want any distractions, so that’s why there’s this one material,” Wardle says of the eucalyptus. “There’s no second thing happening, no bright colors. There are spots of color that refer to things found here—yellow and orange from fungi, blue from the sea—all in proportion to their appearance on the site.” The most striking example of this is the yellow couch in the lounge, designed by Patricia Urquiola, which presents a smear of brightness against the surrounding wood. Beside it is an open fireplace sheathed in sculpted, blackened steel. The fixture was originally meant to be built in, but the architect decided its form “was too beautiful not to have on show.”

Beyond the striking main living area, the house is full of little nooks—private places in the sun or sheltered from the Southern Ocean wind. The wife often sits on an upstairs patio near the master bedroom, or in the study. She uses the study for work but often finds herself stretched out on a cream-upholstered Bohemian chair, which Urquiola also designed, “like a lizard on a rock.” Her husband, meanwhile, can often be found on the bed, just looking out the window.

The couple were keen to maintain the property’s pristine vegetation and for the house to blend into the landscape. The trees had only recently recovered from a severe bushfire, and, as the wife explains, “around here, things take a hundred years to flourish. You want to keep as much of what already exists as you can because it’s so difficult to grow more.” So Wardle’s team designed the house to cover less than half the permitted building footprint. A cantilevered second floor means less vegetation had to be disturbed, and the native eucalyptus trees are reflected in the zinc cladding that covers the home’s exterior, matching the trees’ green-gray foliage. The wife says the house has proved to be brilliantly functional as well as beautiful.

“We weren’t very specific about what we wanted,” she says. “We asked for three bedrooms, a study, a big kitchen, and a view. We left the rest up to the experts. We’re pretty minimal anyway—really, we’re more concerned with what we’ve got in the fridge!”

They were blown away by the attention to detail that shined through in Wardle’s design, and the architect’s tuned-in decisions. A sliding window between the kitchen and the barbecue area has been especially useful, since the couple frequently cook outdoors during the summer. And the butcher block near the dining area answered a need the couple didn’t even know they had. “We always wind up there at the end of the day,” the husband says. “You crack open a bottle, you talk and eat, and people just stand around that block.”

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