Tree House interior

Among the gum trees

A treehouse is typically the stuff of child’s play, but this one in Melbourne’s Clifton Hill is a cut above in every way.

Photos: Ben Hosking

Author

Annie Reid

It’s not every day a project like this pops up; a creative owner with a whimsical wish to live in a house in the treetops. But for HIA member Hamish White, director of Sanctum Homes, it was the perfect stepping stone for his business and the chance to work for the first time with architect, Murray Barker.

‘I like things that are a little bit quirky, so this fitted in with the type of work I’m interested in,’ Hamish says. ‘Murray’s vision is awesome too, so there was mutual respect on both sides.’ 

The architect’s vision was to create a two-level family home nestled into its surroundings, but with one big caveat – to leave all existing trees untouched onsite. That included at least three tall gum trees and a large elm tree draped over the footpath, helping to inform the owner’s brief for a home among the gum trees. 

‘It feels like an oasis in the bush, but it’s only six kilometres from the centre of Melbourne,’ Hamish says. 

Tree House dark exterior
‘It feels like an oasis in the bush’
Photo: Ben Hosking
Tree House interior
Each element demanded the highest level of craftsmanship
Photo: Ben Hosking

With the drawings on the table, the project specified a huge amount of wood; from entire rooms lined in timber with steeply raked ceilings, to timber cladding and Stringybark flooring, as well as a timber staircase and deck.

With so much of this natural resource on display, each element demanded the highest level of craftmanship; all junctions, connections, lines and joinery required perfect consideration and execution. 

‘A lot of the structural work was also going to be on show, so there was no hiding anything,’ he laughs.

There are big and beautiful items, such as the 2.7-metre Red Ironbark timber post supporting structural floor beams in the lounge and dining room. Its custom brackets and bolts appear to hover above the ground as it takes the weight for the post. Hamish invited Murray and the owner to hand pick it from Outlast Timbers, in Melbourne’s Bayside.

‘I got there first and saw the log that we eventually selected, and it just felt right,’ Hamish recalls. ‘The bolts are seen [and] the timber is shown.’

Extensive joinery is also a highlight. In particular, floor-to-ceiling shelving follows up the staircase, showcasing the owner’s extensive collection of old books. A perfectly placed round window faces the treetops, while upstairs, the roof kinks to give a nearby tree breathing room. At the owner’s request, the house also contains a rain chain to manage the roof runoff.

There is subtle craftmanship too, including a 10mm gap that follows the staircase from top to bottom, requiring laser precision to create a seamless shadow line. New products are given a run too, such as Danpalon, a multi-cell polycarbonate roofing product, which was used on the deck balustrade to allow natural light into the living room downstairs.

Tree House round window
A perfectly placed round window faces the treetops
Photo: Ben Hosking
Tree House timber interior
Timber-clad reading room
Photo: Ben Hosking

The floor plan features a multi-use kitchen, lounge and dining downstairs, along with the laundry, main bathroom and a bedroom. Galvanised steel structure work is exposed to support the staircase, while the timber post brings the outdoors inside.

At the top of the staircase, a timber-clad reading room doubles as an office for the owner, opening to the main bedroom, ensuite and deck, which acts as the ground floor roof.
‘It’s right amongst the trees,’ Hamish says.

For such an unusual block smack bang in the middle of an inner urban area, access was a surprising non-issue, thanks to the site’s corner block and side laneway.

But it was not without construction challenges. The key concern was the footing design, requiring a solution to protect the site’s trees. Bored piers supported the ground beams, which meant minimal deep excavation for the slab edge and internal beams.

‘This satisfied the aborist’s concerns around damaging the tree roots,’ he says. ‘All trees survived, and nothing required excavation.’

With the project complete after 10 months, Hamish looks back fondly on the process. ‘I loved it. In all honesty, I still find myself driving past it and going to the coffee shop I visited during construction.’

Everyone else walked away positively too, a strong testament to the workmanship and relationships that ensued. ‘I knew it was going to be technical, but I also knew that the end product was going to be amazing,’ Hamish says.

Tree House dark exterior

The architect’s vision was to create a two-level family home nestled into its surroundings, but with one big caveat – to leave all existing trees untouched onsite
Photo: Ben Hosking 

It also offered a great opportunity to extend his passion as a sustainably-focused builder. 

‘Everyone learnt a lot, from the carpenters to the apprentices. For me personally, it’s given me the confidence to go into other projects I may not have considered.’ Hamish is particularly interested in building passive housing, and recently received Passive House certification from the Passive House Institute. 

‘I feel this is where the industry is going, and I’m trying to push my business to high performing business envelopes.’

This means sourcing materials as sustainably as possible, with the back story of each product as important as the material itself. For this project, Hamish sourced a lot of the materials from Radial Timber, in particular the Silvertop Ash shiplap cladding in the lounge and dining area.‘They grow and mill all their timbers, and you can’t get much more sustainable than that,’ he says. 

Hamish is now working on his second project with Murray Barker, and with four years of successful business under his belt, is excited about his company’s future.

‘We are growing, but it is considered growth. I believe in it and our main focus at the moment is to give our clients the best building experience possible.’

Tree House timber interior
‘A lot of the structural work was going to be on show, so there was no hiding anything’ 
Photo: Ben Hosking
Tree House bedroom
Timber cladding and Stringybark flooring
Photo: Ben Hosking
Tree House dark exterior

The Tree House at a glance

Builder: Sanctum Homes
Designer: Murray Barker
Location: Clifton Hill, Melbourne

Materials:

  • Corrugated sheeting: Colorbond in Zinc and Woodland Grey
  • Rendered blueboard
  • External cladding: natural edge weatherboard and shiplap in silvertop ash from Radial Timber
  • Deck balustrade: Danpalon
  • Joinery: Skyline Kitchens
  • Internal wall finishes: shiplap lining boards in Silvertop Ash from Radial Timber
  • Internal feature post: 2.7-metre Red Ironbark timber post from Outlast Timbers

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