Pedigree Charted

Pedigree Charted

By David Hay
With an extended family apt to drop by at a moment’s notice, lifelong modernist Hannah Ferguson has a new home that’s all about heritage.

Designing a beach house for three generations of the Ferguson family in rather traditional North Avoca, Australia (50 miles north of Sydney), architects Rachel Neeson and Nicholas Murcutt had big ambitions, staggering the three stories of their new commission up a rocky hillside to maximize views of the ocean. The challenge was proposed by design-savvy doctor Hannah Ferguson, who has been living with sleek modern architecture since she was a girl. Murcutt, son of legendary Aussie architect Glenn Murcutt, was only too happy to find a client with a design pedigree as burnished as his own. Ferguson gives us the tour.

Coastal, on a hill, and made from inexpensive materials, the Ferguson house is a catalog of moving surfaces and open rooms.

My parents emigrated here from Czechoslovakia after World War II and bought a beach cottage in North Avoca in the late 1960s. It had three tiny bedrooms, and, as teenagers, my kids loved to come up here with all their friends. But when my elderly mother was ill, she and I started talking about building a replacement. Much earlier, my parents commissioned another Czech émigré, the architect Henry Rossler, to design them a home in the modernist idiom in Castle Crag on the northwest side of Sydney Harbor. It’s a bushland suburb where many architects have experimented, starting in the 1920s with the American Walter Burley Griffin. Sadly, my mother died, and we had to sell that house, but her belief in architecture gave me the confidence to tear down the old beach shack and start afresh.

A painting by Aboriginal artist Yinarupa Gibson Nangala hangs in the kitchen, with a barstool from Danish designer Erik Buch in the foreground.

I began by making the rounds of the "exhibition villages" in far western Sydney, looking at ready-made homes. I found them a little depressing and not suited to a site with a rocky hillside behind it. So after seeing Rachel and Nick’s much-praised Box House in the Sydney Morning Herald, I telephoned and told them how all of us, including my sometimes-reluctant husband, James, wanted a bigger weekend house, one that would help us remember a woman who had strong ideas about the importance of design. Even before they drew up any plans, I made sure they went out to visit the Castle Crag house.

Hannah Ferguson relaxes in her living room. Her daughter Joanna prepares dinner in the open kitchen, behind and above the plywood banquette designed by the architects.

With my family expanding—–I have three young grandchildren—–we couldn’t come down from four bedrooms, but the architects didn’t seem to mind squeezing them into the second floor. The guest rooms are small, but by adding sliding doors that open to individual balconies, they expanded the sense of space and allowed for the breeze to come in. In our bedroom in the front, when I roll up the windows, it’s the same. Even on the hottest days, the entire house is cool. We have no need for a big air-conditioning unit like they have next door.

Thin skylights running atop the full length of the staircase illuminate the trip up the side of the house.

Because Rachel and Nick built up the hill, there are a lot of stairs lurking behind our front door. A thin, running skylight lights the stairwell, making the climb much more pleasurable. Still, when I get older, the stairs may be a challenge. Being a doctor I like to plan ahead, so we added a small bathroom to the downstairs flat, so I can stay there, too.

Joanna Ferguson stands on one of the balconies extending from the guest bedrooms.

The top floor reminds me so much of the Rossler house. Rachel and Nick placed the kitchen-dining area at the back with a few steps leading down into the living room. It opens up, thanks to the floor-to-ceiling sliding doors, to a big balcony just the way our living room did at Castle Crag. Its openness means we’re the last people on the street to turn on our lights.

Ferguson’s prized Voido rocking chair is positioned by a living-room window that affords views of the small town and its beach. Designed in 2002 by Ron Arad for Magis, the Voido is blow-molded entirely from polyethylene.

The high-backed plywood banquette along one side of the large dining table is true genius. It helps to separate the two floors, and both it and a similar banquette in the living room provide the type of lolling around feel ideal for a beach holiday.

Nick’s father, Glenn Murcutt, insists on banks of sliding windows, louvers, and fly screens to allow for both natural ventilation and wintertime heat retention. Here Neeson and Murcutt opted for something simpler: large custom-made windows by Windoor that push out from below. Operated by a simple hydraulic system, these windows have spotted-gum slats, which allow for privacy. To keep out mosquitoes, the architects used a thin metallic screen from Phoenix Fly Screens to sit flush against the window. Held in place by magnets, it’s easily pulled away for storage in the wintertime.

You’re always told to expect surprises of the monetary kind when you’re building a house. Ours came in the form of the spotted-gum siding, which pushed the total budget to nearly $545,000. But it was worth it to have the house feel as though it’s part of the original landscape. The spotted gum slats that cross the windows on the sides afford privacy but at the same time look like a continuation of the siding. As Nick often tells me, "Remember, they are not cutouts like most windows; rather they look more like a pocket on a shirt." I get to benefit from them—–not feeling like my neighbors are looking through my bathroom window—–but they’re also a smart idea. Like everything else in the house, they’re an expression of sensible, modern living in a place that’s rarely been treated to it. It would have made my mother proud.

Ever the energetic grandmother, Ferguson insisted the house be flexible. In the three guest bedrooms,twin beds are mounted atop a railing system. Pushed together, they form a double bed. When Ferguson wants to accommodate a raft of children, she pushes the twin beds apart, thanks to the rails, with the flick of a finger.

With serious water restrictions in drought-stricken Australia, Ferguson needed these tanks so that the new bush garden surrounding her house would flourish. Filled with rainwater draining off the roof and snugly set into the south side of the house, her two 1,300-gallon Bluescope tanks also service the toilets and outdoor shower.

The outdoor shower greets everyone returning from the beach. Ferguson, well versed in the behavior of teenagers, didn’t want them running inside with sandy feet, so a stop under the fresh rainwater shower from Enware is mandatory after a morning in the surf.


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