AB House by Office Mi
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AB House by Office Mi

May 25, 2023

This new house on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula is designed for many or few, accommodating the ebb and flow of visitors and withstanding the weathering of its coastal locale.

Skylights along the home’s eastern and western edges admit light while avoiding looking into neighbours’ houses.

Image: Benjamin Hosking

As someone who spent much of their childhood in an English seaside town, my recollections of the beach are as much of bracing sea winds and dishearteningly consistent rain as they are of sun-warmed skin and a refreshing ocean swim. One constant was a contemplative beach walk, fossicking for stones and glimpses of the pearlescent linings hiding beneath the tough and impervious seashell. Regardless of the lamentable British weather, the beach was synonymous with a less hurried pace.

The beachside town of Barwon Heads, on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula, likewise fosters a leisurely pace. It is a place that the owners of AB House have long had an attachment to. After searching for a house in the area for some time, they purchased a property near the golf course. They planned to subdivide the land and build a new home for themselves.

he house’s upper volume appears to hover above the ground floor.

Image: Benjamin Hosking

The owners engaged Office Mi–Ji, a young Melbourne architecture practice run by their daughter, Millie Anderson, and Jimmy Carter. Their brief was for a house that would suit them as a second home, with guest accommodation for occasional use. However, early in the planning process, changes in regulations posed a significant obstacle: the council had re-zoned the land for flood risk, requiring new work to be built above the flood overlay.

Millie and Jimmy turned this constraint into opportunity and designed the house to sit one metre above the ground, elevated by a series of steel columns. “The restrictions gave us a starting point and led us to design a house that seems to almost float,” Millie says. To the street, the house offers an exterior skin of corrugated galvanized steel and corrugated fibreglass, tough enough to withstand the corrosive sea air. It also provides requisite security, ensuring the house can be readily closed up when not in use. Three large pivot doors concealed in the street elevation enable the owners to open up the house to engage with the steady stream of passers-by or to welcome a cooling sea breeze in summer.

A steel frame elevates the house in response to the flood overlay.

Image: Benjamin Hosking

Steel columns trace the perimeter of the permitted building envelope: long and linear, it sits politely away from the side and rear boundaries, with a 10-metre setback from the street. Office Mi–Ji has responded to this footprint with both civility and irreverence, at once highlighting and subverting the conventions of suburban planning mechanisms. At the front of the house, the columns contain the building, but at the rear, they feel almost provisional, sitting apart from the building and thereby showing where a twist in the plan allows the house to deviate from the defined envelope.

This torsion is fully understood inside the house, where the plan has been arranged as three distinct components within a whole. The front portion functions as a one-bedroom home for the owners, with living spaces on the ground floor and a bedroom, bathroom and study on the first floor. Guest accommodation at the rear comprises two additional bedrooms and bathrooms and secondary sitting room. Joining the two is a bridge, which twists and offsets the alignment of the two wings. Next to the bridge are two cylindrical forms containing a laundry and powder room – follies that contrast with the two square plans. “They look unusual in plan, but they are a point of repose,” Millie says. Jimmy adds, “They’re distinguishing points, idiosyncratic entities that signal the change in section.”

A timber shutter in the main bedroom enables acoustic connection to living spaces when desired.

Image: Benjamin Hosking

The main volume works efficiently and delightfully as a self-contained residence for two. Living spaces are arranged around a central core, containing the kitchen and stair. Spaces are distinct yet connected: it is possible to call down the stairs from the mezzanine study, or to hear someone in the kitchen while in the living room. An operable timber panel in the first-floor bedroom enables one snoozing partner to hear the familiar sounds of the other making a morning pot of tea. Office Mi–Ji’s strategy was to create a gentler separation between zones in place of the absolutes of opening and closing doors. “It comes from knowing the occupants, of course, but it divides space in a much more interesting way,” Millie says.

Where the exterior is materially pragmatic – sheet metal and fibreglass panels, visible fixings and grate flooring – the interior is a warm cocoon, with tallowwood linings, cork flooring and kitchen joinery in a deep emerald green. The glass in the skylights at the eastern and western edges is obscured by the dropped bulkhead of the first floor, admitting a light that is soft and subdued. The first-floor volume shades the western skylight, while automated blinds on the eastern skylight mediate the heat of the summer sun.

In this seaside town, on a street of otherwise conventional homes, AB House is a hidden surprise awaiting discovery. If you chance a walk by, you might just catch a glimpse through the open door of the polished refuge concealed within the house’s hardy exoskeleton.

Published online: 20 Jan 2023 Words: Alexa Kempton Images: Benjamin Hosking, Office Mi–Ji

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