Balmain Houses

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.

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.

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.

Products and materials

Lysaght Custom Orb in Colorbond ‘Windspray’; Polyair Ultra thermal blanket.
External walls
Recycled bricks (from site); Western red cedar battens in Cutek clear oil finish.
Internal walls
Recycled bricks (from site) and plasterboard, both painted in Dulux ‘Dieskau’.
Acacia Joinery cedar timber windows in Cutek clear oil finish.
Acacia Joinery cedar timber doors painted in Dulux ‘Dieskau’.
Recycled timber floor from Ironwood Australia in Synteko matt finish and limewash finish.
George Nelson Bubble lamp from Spence and Lyda; Kreon Diapason track lights from Dedece; Lucciola o Lanterna wall light from Viabizzuno.
Highland cooktops; Vola mixers; Bisanna Tiles splashbacks; Bisanna Tiles slate benchtop (House 1); stainless steel benchtop (House 2); polyurethane joinery, painted white (House 1); spotted gum joinery (House 2).
Royal Mosa Collection wall and ceiling tiles; Duravit Scola washbasins; Hikari sunken bath from The Japanese Bath Company.
Objekto Paulistano armchair from Hub; Modernica Grasshopper chair, Massproductions Sofa #1 and Tio chair, all from Spence and Lyda.


Benn and Penna Architects
Surry Hills, Sydney, NSW, Australia
Project Team
Andrew Benn, Alice Penna, Thomas Benn, Simon Apps
Builder Join Constructions
Engineer BG&E
Site Details
Location Sydney,  NSW,  Australia
Site type Suburban
Site area 260 m2
Building area 250 m2
Project Details
Status Built
Design, documentation 10 months
Construction 11 months
Category Residential
Type New houses



Published online: 28 Feb 2014
Words: David Welsh
Images: Katherine Lu, Tom Ferguson


Houses, December 2013

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