On the dunes

Nestled in the sand dunes, this copper-roofed house on Sydney’s northern peninsula is anchored by solid buttresses, making it sympathetic with its environment.

Photos: Michael Anderson

Author

Ian Bushnell

Some builders may have been intimidated. Everything about Sydney architect Peter Stutchbury’s mindbending design for a beach house on the Mona Vale dunes screamed risk.

But for Capital Construction & Refurbishing owner Michael Shortis, building has always been about the challenges and this project, from the copper-clad curved roof down to the screw piles, provided plenty.

In 2017, the firm had just finished a project with the architect, who asked Michael if he was interested in pricing his new design for a beach house.

‘It’s rare in your career to do something like that,’ Michael says. ‘As a builder that’s what you look forward to. You’ve got to keep your grey matter turning over. Anyone can do your standard square house; that’s pretty easy. This was not as easy.’

Operating on a lump sum which included some provisional sums, Capital took a little over two years to complete the project, coming in on budget, and the finished building standing testament to the skill and accuracy of all the trades who worked on the project.

‘The site is amazing, right on the beach,’ Michael says. But it is sand. The solution from the architect’s engineer was to use screw piles, going down three metres.

 

Most builders want as much tolerance in a project as possible, Michael says, but with this one, there was little margin for error, whether it was the concrete pours, the steel frame, the ply panels, the copper sheeting, the extensive timber cladding and joinery, or the large windows and sliding doors that allow the building to be saturated with light. 

The Basin Beach house’s steel frame sits millimetre perfect on concrete buttresses, something Michael’s team got right first-time round.

‘With off-form concrete, you can’t go and add more concrete if you make a mistake, and it has to be right. The only alternative is to pull it and do it again. We weren’t going to do that,’ Michael says.

The plates of the structural steel also had to line up with the plates of the columns on both sides.

Making it even more difficult was the off-centre roof design, with the ridge off to one side.

The strategy was for McConnell Steel & Fabrication to first erect the frame in its Berry warehouse, so the team could check the measurements, then dismantle it for transportation to the site where it could be reassembled.

That required a 90-tonne crane, a smaller crane and finally a scissor hoist to install secondary pieces of steel that go over the top of the main frame and tie it all together. ‘It took a couple of long days to get it in place but we knew it would go together okay because we had it all erected down at Berry [in South Coast, NSW],’ Michael says.

 

The signature curved roof has a high bend at the front flattening to the rear, and involved timber frames on either side, with 6mm ply sheeting used to achieve the desired flexibility.

Again, there was no margin for error. ‘All those brackets had to go onto the steel to support the timber frame on the top and bottom. We had to get it right before we started erecting the steel,’ Michael says.

The copper sheeting from the The Copper and Zinc Roofing Company in Mona Vale was laid on two layers of ply in individual pieces cut to size, with no one piece the same, as one side of the roof has a steeper slope than the other.

On the inside all the light fixings had to be in place, the underside insulated and two layers of birch ply individually cut and fixed in the final location prior to the ceiling linings being installed.

It was labour intensive work, and at that height, it required extra attention to safety.

Blackbutt timber features heavily inside the home. Capital Construction’s own carpenters installed the internal walls, mezzanine floor and ceiling cladding, while Bakers Joinery from Kempsey crafted the joinery and window and door frames.

‘Pick a joint in one of those walls, and go up that joint and across the ceiling and down the joint on the other side. That’s a continuous joint all the way along, a continuous butt of two pieces of timber. They’re not out of alignment at all,’ Michael says.

 

The joinery and windows were installed with the same precision because timber, with its susceptibility to the elements, wants to move around, not offering much tolerance.

The sloping windows on the northern and southern sides line up at the same angles of the buttresses. Michael says that when installed, they were only a millimetre out from one end to the other.

Capital Construction also formed and poured all the concrete benches and vanity tops on site. ‘Unless you’ve done it you don’t realise how difficult it is to get right,’ Michael says.
The key is getting the right mix and the right vibration on the mix so there aren’t any air pockets and it’s all solid concrete.

Michael’s 40 years’ building experience, 34 years running his own company, proved crucial to the project’s success. It may be one thing to be open to a challenge – it’s another to execute it well.

Planning, accurate cost and time estimation, a clear procurement program and good communication with both architect and client are vital, he explains. ‘Your program’s got to be right,’ he says. ‘You’ve got to look far enough ahead so on this day here, we’re going to need this; it’s going to take this amount of time to organise. I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and it takes a while to understand all those sorts of requirements.’

The client and project architect attended site meetings every fortnight, and while he admits to some creative tensions along the way, any issues were ironed out. 

According to Michael, this project could not have been completed to the high standard it was without the contribution made by his team – the carpenters, apprentices, the foreman and project manager – whose experience, patience and knowledge made this project the home that it is.

For the two apprentices, it must have been a huge learning experience. ‘It was a good learning experience for everyone,’ Michael says, laughing.

 

Basin Beach House at a glance

Builder: Capital Construction & Refurbishing

Location: Sydney

Materials:

  • Garage walls: solid sandstone logs; dry-stacked without mortar and reinforcing bars 
  • Walls: off-form concrete; structural ply; Blackbutt T&G boards
  • Roof: pre-finished birch plywood; 0.7mm copper trim; integrated steel brackets for gutters
  • Floor: Low shrinkage 40 MPa concrete; with a salt-and-pepper grind and seal
  • Windows and doors: Blackbutt with low-E glass
  • Steel frame: Galvanised steel frame sitting on T-shaped stainless 316 structural columns
  • Internal joinery: solid blackbutt hardwood; MOSO bamboo faced panels; mill brass sheeting.
 

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