Sunday Age

natural vibe

Author: Sue Peacock
Date: 24/07/2011
Words: 1070
Source: SAG
          Publication: The Sunday Age
Section: Supplement
Page: 6
Tree house or stereo cabinet? A Kew house references both, reports Sue Peacock.

FROM its extensive use of timber to its elevated rectangular form, supported at one end by angled steel legs, a house in Kew has drawn its inspiration from its natural surroundings and the stately stereo cabinets of the past.

The contemporary house, designed by Michael O'Sullivan of Hawthorn-based Vibe Design Group, is supposed to "grey off and blend in with the surrounding native vegetation" over time, in marked contrast to the Edwardian, Victorian and post-war houses along the rest of the street.

With a budget of $2 million, the house is a first foray into property development for owners David and Karine O'Donnell. They intend to live in it while they wait for council approval to demolish the neighbouring house.

"We have always liked the [US] homes of the Hollywood Hills and Palm Springs area, with their open-plan living and entertaining and abundance of natural light," Mr O'Donnell says.

The O'Donnells love the "natural" feel of the Kew house and its surrounds. "When you are inside it feels like you could be in the country," he says. "I think it is aided by the large natural timber component and the expansive use of glass. There is so much natural light, and the ability to open up the house or close it to the outside elements is also appealing. It is a great house for entertaining - something I have always wanted."

Michael O'Sullivan says creating an open and interactive street presence was important. Unlike its neighbours, this house doesn't have a front fence.

"We generally don't like having a high front fence on properties," Mr O'Sullivan says. "It's claustrophobic and means the house is shut away. We believe that with the right design you can address security and privacy issues without having to resort to a fence."

Inspiration for the front facade came from stereo cabinets of the late 1960s and early '70s, with the slatted timber covering the front entry and ensuite window reminiscent of cabinet speakers. The steel supports under the house on the low side of the block are similar to the splayed legs of old-style record players.

"I think there is a nice balance with the facade," he says. "There is a sense of movement. The box structure appears poised to interact with the entry on the right."

Because of its good-wood credentials, the house was featured on a television advertisement promoting the benefits of sustainably produced timber - silvertop ash cladding for internal reconstructed veneer walls, tallowwood floors and spotted gum decking.

"Timber is unique in its ability to have quite a cutting-edge shape but also soften the look and bring warmth to the form," Mr O'Sullivan says. "Over time, the silvertop ash will weather and grey off and blend in with the surrounding gum trees and other native vegetation."

The timber theme continues beyond the facade. A walnut veneer wall behind the large front window resembles the base of a large tree and anchors the dwelling on the high side of the block. The tree trunk is actually a series of hidden doors opening into a mud room, powder room and cellar and scullery.

"We have splayed the wall slightly as you come through into the kitchen and living area so that the space interacts right from the point of entry," Mr O'Sullivan says.

The back living room wall is also clad in walnut veneer and the timber batons are repeated around the windows in the living area.

An easy-to-maintain Exotec facade panel system has been used at the rear to contrast with the timber. "From the northern aspect, the timber is still evident but only on the third storey," he says. "We wanted that top box to be like a tree house, perched [at the top]. We selected another material as a contrast but used inlaid timber batons to link the front and back."

The cut-away window element on the middle level is designed to draw the eye down to the pool.

"It does have a slight similarity to a record-player stylus in the play position," Mr O'Sullivan says.

"Not only does the angle control your view lines, it also provides protection from the sun."

The pop-out box space at the front of the same level contains a large daybed, and a soft curtain separates it from the study. Here, a glass splashback over the desk ensures reflected views of the garden can be enjoyed while relaxing on the daybed.

The main bedroom and ensuite are also on this level, with sliding glass doors that can open the bedroom on two sides to the upper, semi-covered outdoor deck.

Stairs lead up to two bedrooms and a study area inside the tree house, with a shared shower dividing the bathroom. Each side has its own washbasin.

The lower storey opens to the pool area, which also has a built-in barbecue. Also located on this level is the garage, with a dumb waiter for shopping and heavy bags, plus laundry and fourth guest bedroom/movie room, and another multi-use area.

Apart from the extensive use of timber, the green features include a water tank, solar heating for the pool, and acoustic insulation between internal walls and floor levels. "The windows are double-glazed. [The house] has been built to the highest energy rating," Mr O'Sullivan says.


Vibe Design, 1800 188 056

A new direction

WITH a background in project management and building, Michael O'Sullivan is well placed to understand the practicalities of house design.

"I started on the Mornington Peninsula in the high-end residential marketplace. Six years ago I changed direction and set up the Vibe Design Group," he says. "We then moved up to the CBD and launched Vibe in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. We have since completed projects in every state - as far [north] as Rockhampton."

Vibe's small team in its Hawthorn office includes Mr O'Sullivan, fellow director Katie Rees, and Michael's daughter and junior designer Kathryn O'Sullivan. Vibe's focus is not confined to contemporary designs. "We've just done a farmhouse in Red Hill," he says, adding that the company is committed to adding to the built environment with energy and conservation-smart building practises. "True sustainability is in the use of materials," he says. "We seek clients who understand [this] and [also] want high-end design content. We do everything in-house."

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