Melbourne Design Awards - City Design Awards

Letterbox House

Melbourne Design Awards 2010 - Winner

Project Overview

It’s like a half space, half enclosed, half open. Neither in nor out -a new version of the good old Aussie veranda.

Its like a giant multi-sensory organ, the sun, the sky, the breeze and the sound and smell of the sea.

The wall is a wrapped deck, cliff, upturned boat, frozen wave, veranda and, internally, a depository of the bric-a-brac collected on beach holidays.

Unlike many houses, in this house, much rests on the success of the single gesture of the wall.

Project Team

Commissioner

Private Client
Heather Ryan

Creators

McBrideCharlesRyan
Robert McBride and Debbie Ryan (Principle Architects)

Matthew Borg
Fang Cheah
Adam Pustola
Meredith Dufour
Angela Woda
Michael McManus
Flynn Lewer

Project Brief

We like the buildings that make you smile (not laugh).It makes people smile, a building with the smallest façade on the peninsula – the building begins as the letterbox and unfurls to become this healthy scaled veranda, to some it is an upturned boat, to others it's a wave or a cliff. We like it being many things – people stop and ask us, we just say it is what it is to you.

Charles Street is located in a holiday suburb on the Mornington Peninsula, a stones throw from the Blairgowrie beach. Amid the modest beach houses are dotted the more elaborate retirement homes of cashed up baby boomers. The houses are set in a prosaic rectangular grid. There is however enough space between the structures for landscape to dominate. We wanted our intervention to be equally as modest. Perhaps perversely, we had the idea it could hide behind the letterbox, or at least surreptitiously emerge from it. Space could dominate and we could still have a building of significant intrigue that rewarded the inspection of the passerby.

The afternoon sun gives the wall a golden glow, echoed by the golden beer in your hand. The inside of this golden wall is vivid red; the support structure and the support shelves which in time will become deposits of beach memories, the photos, the bric-a-brac of beach holidays and markers of the quintessential Australian family life.

Project Innovation / Need

This building enhances the experience of the pedestrian. The building is both recessive and expressive in the public realm. It does not dominate the suburb but is an intriguing expression evocative of both the coastal location and the significant topography of the region.

There is a clear hierarchy in this house. Contrasting to the raked timber wall that stretches from the letterbox to become the westerly veranda, the remainder of the house appears as a simple modernist expression akin to many of the houses of the region. On approach, the raked timber wall appears to have morphed from out of the diminutive letterbox. Yet from other perspectives the house appears to have been carved away. The two techniques are conceptually contradictory.

The wall is a wrapped deck, cliff, upturned boat, frozen wave, veranda and, internally, a depository of the bric-a-brac collected on beach holidays - an essential medium for evoking family memories. The wall is an in-between zone, a powerful stage for enacting family life. It is to a place to watch the kids and the sunsets, to enhance the beach holiday and to ground memory. It will be a backdrop to family photos as years pass.

Design Challenge

The main challenge and ultimate goal for us in designing the Letterbox House was to show respect – the peninsula needs it, in keeping with the scale of modest beach suburban, our design response was to hide the house behind the letterbox, or at least have it surreptitiously emerge from it. Space could dominate and we could still have a building of significant intrigue that rewarded the inspection of the passerby.

As you walk along the deck the scale sneaks up on you – before you know it you're immersed and surrounded by the scale of the house – a bit like life really.

The structural engineer played a critical part in the development and detail of the ‘programmed’ wall through its primary structure of raked box beams, with the plan organized so as to allow the multiple members of a large family to occupy the house simultaneously.

Sustainability

The expense of an exceptional and elaborate timber wall-veranda is set off against simple construction. This was a thoroughly architectural concept, developing a play of the exceptional and the prosaic within the bounds of a solid economic strategy.

The building has a passive ventilation strategy designed to exploit the sea breezes for comfort and cooling. We have attempted to minimize the carbon footprint of the building through the specification of renewable resources. As it is a holiday house, thermal mass was minimised, an emphasis was placed on high insulation values to the walls, roof and glazing. Energy-saving and water-saving fittings have been used throughout. Rain water is harvested for use in the WCs and gardens.