Balmain Houses

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Two main dwellings are augmented by a third studio space.

Two main dwellings are augmented by a third studio space. Image: Tom Ferguson

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House 1 living room.

House 1 living room. Image: Tom Ferguson

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A planted window in the living space of House 1 brings nature indoors. Artwork: Photograph by P. G. Martin [1968] (top); artist unknown (bottom).

A planted window in the living space of House 1 brings nature indoors. Artwork: Photograph by P. G. Martin [1968] (top); artist unknown (bottom). Image: Tom Ferguson

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House 1’s study space offers views of Sydney Harbour Bridge.

House 1’s study space offers views of Sydney Harbour Bridge. Image: Tom Ferguson

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The House 1 kitchen features a freestanding island bench for home cooks to work unimpeded.

The House 1 kitchen features a freestanding island bench for home cooks to work unimpeded. Image: Tom Ferguson

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A warm palette of timber and slate characterizes the kitchen in House 1.

A warm palette of timber and slate characterizes the kitchen in House 1. Image: Tom Ferguson

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Spaces in House 1 unfold as you move through.

Spaces in House 1 unfold as you move through. Image: Katherine Lu

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The stair in House 1 sweeps around the back of the living space and leads up to a library.

The stair in House 1 sweeps around the back of the living space and leads up to a library. Image: Katherine Lu

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House 1’s main living area opens to a private courtyard.

House 1’s main living area opens to a private courtyard. Image: Katherine Lu

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House 1 courtyard.

House 1 courtyard. Image: Tom Ferguson

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A series of opening “leaves” protect a small balcony off the main bedroom in House 2.

A series of opening “leaves” protect a small balcony off the main bedroom in House 2. Image: Katherine Lu

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Shutters and curtains in House 2’s main bedroom allow inhabitants to enjoy or shelter from the weather.

Shutters and curtains in House 2’s main bedroom allow inhabitants to enjoy or shelter from the weather. Image: Tom Ferguson

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House 2 features limed floorboards and birch plywood joinery, a shift from the warmer tones of House 1’s palette.

House 2 features limed floorboards and birch plywood joinery, a shift from the warmer tones of House 1’s palette. Image: Katherine Lu

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The stair landing in House 2.

The stair landing in House 2. Image: Katherine Lu

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The ply study in House 2.

The ply study in House 2. Image: Tom Ferguson

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Two semi-attached dwellings plus a studio by Benn and Penna Architects accommodate a range of scenarios for multi-generational living.

It goes without saying that how we live is intrinsically linked to who we live with. Where we live is also part of the equation. Keeping generations of a family close, but not too close, is a delicate relationship balance that can be hard to achieve.

The clients for the Balmain House, architect Andrew Benn’s mother Suzanne and her partner Andrew Martin, approached Benn and Penna Architects to create for them a flexible family home. With the kids all grown up and moved on, the couple was looking to downsize the way they lived. They had acquired a pair of single-storey semidetached terraces with the idea of establishing a home that would actively unify their diverse family. As a professor of sustainability, Suzanne was also particularly keen to ensure that an environmentally responsible solution was achieved.

Benn and Penna talked about the idea of semi-attached dwellings able to be adapted to a range of family scenarios. Located in Sydney’s Balmain, the entire site is around 250 square metres, well short of the average Australian house size. The need for the houses to accommodate a number of different scenarios was considered and the result was two main dwellings augmented by a third studio space that could be used as a living or work space. None of the three dwellings are directly connected, but they could easily be connected in the future if desired.

The key to configuring three separate spaces on such a small site is what Benn and Penna describe as a series of “subtle shifts.” Through the shifting, angling and sliding of elements of the plan, sectional and elevation, spaces are arranged to enable them to unfold as you move through the houses: a shift in the angle of the joinery allows a subtle glimpse down a hallway; a gentle curve of a corner alters the everyday process of leaving one room and going into another, creating a more ephemeral idea of spatial exchange as the different parts of the house unfold.

House 1’s study space offers views of Sydney Harbour Bridge. Image:  Tom Ferguson

Suzanne and Andrew’s home (House 1) takes up a corner position on the site. The lower level contains the kitchen, sleeping and main living areas, the latter of which opens onto a courtyard garden. A stair punctuates the compact plan and sweeps around the back of the living space, leading up to a library that contains a rare book collection. Walking up the stairs and across the library to the study space is not unlike walking through a ship and up to its bridge. As we stand at the workbench and take in the view towards Sydney Harbour Bridge, Andrew (client of House 1) reiterates this sentiment. The nautical analogy seems fitting for a number of reasons. The way the houses can be “trimmed” like a yacht to suit climatic circumstance by sliding screens, shutters or curtains enables the spaces to either make the most of, or protect against, the prevailing weather or time of day.

A series of opening “leaves” protect a small balcony off the main bedroom in House 2. Image:  Katherine Lu

The upper rear wall of the houses sees a Western red cedar batten screen crank and shift across the entire site, unifying the components of the rear elevation. A shift in the timber battens near the boundary signals the point where a protected window is placed, while also triggering a shift in direction of the entire wall. That wall then becomes a series of opening “leaves” that protect a balcony off the main bedroom of the second dwelling. The batten screen then stops short of the westernmost edge of the house, allowing the balcony behind to open out and let selected planting spill out to the sky.

The shifts across the site can also be seen in the palette of materials used in the houses. The warmth of recycled spotted gum, tallowwood and blackbutt timbers are used internally in Suzanne and Andrew’s home, while in the second house the palette hue moves ever so slightly; limed floorboards are augmented with birch plywood joinery upstairs, the latter peeking into the downstairs living space to suggest that there is more going on than it seems at first glance – another example of the idea of unfolding space for the user.

An important factor in how these houses came together is who made it happen. The spaces are the result of the very special commission of an architect designing a house for his mother. This is particularly evident in the care that can be seen in so much of this project, from the smallest of details to the larger, more expansive ideas of how the houses might work together. As an example of social, sustainable housing that can allow multi-generational living, this project is a worthwhile model; the care and skill that the architect has brought to every aspect of how these houses might be lived in makes them special.


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