Temple of calm

While others gave up on this challenging Mosman property, Antoinette and David took the project on, and created a true haven that embraces the sun, the sea breeze and spectacular views.

It all began with the site: a block of land in one of Sydney’s most coveted addresses, with an old house just begging to be knocked down and replaced with something that would take advantage of the location. There were, however, some caveats. The easterly slope promised afternoons sunk in shadow, a nearby apartment building promised privacy issues, and the position of surrounding homes promised plenty of objections to any development. “I think just about every developer on the North Shore had looked at it and decided that it was in the too-hard basket,” says Antoinette Richards, remembering how she came to the place. “A couple with great expectations had bought it and discovered that it was a very difficult project and they just didn’t have the skill set to pull it off. So I was able to negotiate.” She and husband David are no strangers to building and renovating, and knew that to make the most of the site they would need an innovative, visionary architect. Luckily, they secured the services of Stephen Lesiuk. As well as possessing a doctorate in the integration of buildings and landscape, Stephen has consulted for Greenpeace and was the brains behind the eco-makeover of Cate Blanchett’s Hunters Hill home.

Priority number one was to make the most of the light. To achieve this, Stephen drew inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Fallingwater house and designed a series of terraces or piazzas that step down the slope. An open courtyard on the north side of the main living area lets the sun in, while on the south side, a glass roof (with louvres for privacy from the nearby apartment building) admits even more light. This then floods through the building courtesy of the openplan layout and staircase. The elegant design offers natural lookouts for appreciating the views in almost all directions, and provides the ultimate in natural climate control. “When the breeze comes up from the south it’s cooled going across the pool then funnels up through the staircase and cools the bedrooms, the living room area and the top level,” Antoinette explains. “Except for maybe one or two occasions we’ve never turned the air conditioning on. The cross-ventilation works so well we don’t really require it.” Perhaps the real genius of the design, however, lies in its understated grandeur – the house leaves the panorama to speak for itself rather than shouting over the top of it. It looks so simple, but make no mistake, this is cutting-edge architecture, just without the attitude; luxury minus the braggadocio. “If at the end of the day everyone starts commenting on what a clever building it is, then I’ve done a bloody bad job,” Stephen says. “It’s a very understated house on the slopes of Balmoral, but that's also one of its charms. It’s not trying to be puffed out like some of the Tuscan mansions and villas, or too crisp and hard-edged like other buildings around.” Antoinette adds, “It was incredibly difficult to come up with a really great design and Stephen did. He turned negatives into positives and nailed it on every level.”

There’s a similar restraint apparent inside the house. Antoinette describes the style as “minimalist modern”; Stephen talks about its “simplicity”. While spaces like these run the risk of becoming cold and stark, warmth is provided by the underfloor heating, and imparted by the natural materials used throughout: New Guinea rosewood joinery, blue gum stairs, cedar louvres and shutters, travertine floors. The living area has the added delights of a pond in the adjoining sun court and a fireplace. “In winter you turn off the internal lights and put on the outside lights and the fireplace,” Antoinette says. “I can tell you, sitting there with a glass of wine, it’s just magical.” The technology in the house was also important. Smart wiring, the lighting and the sound system is integrated, not overt. ”There are speakers concealed within the gyprock, so you don’t actually see any openings,” Stephen notes. “It's always in the background, rather than being in your face and that adds to the calm of the building.” And calm is the keyword. David, especially, has an ultra-hectic job, so part of the brief was to create a home that was the antithesis of his work environment – a ‘temple of calm’.

The simple interior was partly inspired by Stephen’s love of Japanese aesthetics. The sliding doors throughout – Antoinette counts only one hinged door in the whole house – give the feeling of a traditional Japanese home. “The other aspect with regard to my love of things Japanese is the crafting,” Stephen adds. He points out the timber slats on the upper staircase and their yacht-like detail, then explains how the roof seems to float on a series of thin metal plates. At night it glows like a Japanese lantern. Again, what looks effortless was in fact devilishly difficult. For many of the jobs, she had to go to various tradesmen before she could find one willing to even give her a quote – such was the bespoke nature of the work. “It was fraught with a lot of tension,” she admits, “but to work with a creative architect and really good tradesmen and people who are artists is such a joy. So it’s been an extremely enjoyable process and I’ve created a beautiful house.” Indeed, sometimes it’s the toughest challenges that inspire the most beautiful results.


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