Chi” (ener­gy) flows through the house, not trapped in corners.

Until the time of this com­mis­sion, Ed Lippmann’s work was syn­ony­mous with steel framed rec­ti­lin­ear archi­tec­ture. This house, daubed the But­ter­fly House’, chal­lenged Lipp­mann to explore more organ­ic cur­va­ceous forms in a lan­guage of con­crete and mason­ry. The adven­tur­ous scheme, now a land­mark in Sydney’s east­ern sub­urbs, ruf­fled the local council’s feathers.

The local build­ing inspec­tor felt that it didn’t fit in with the neigh­bour­hood which I took as a com­ple­ment,” says Lipp­mann, point­ing out the pro­lif­er­a­tion of red brick inter­war bun­ga­lows in Dover Heights at that time. Lippmann’s dia­met­ri­cal­ly oppos­ing view of the appro­pri­ate­ness of the design with­in the local con­text led to a court chal­lenge, avert­ed at the 11th hour with a sub­tle adjust­ment to the posi­tion of the house on the site. The icon­ic land­mark was air born.

The start­ing point for the project came from an eccen­tric Malaysian prop­er­ty devel­op­er with one over­rid­ing require­ment a curved house con­form­ing with Feng Shui prin­ci­ples, ensur­ing that ener­gy or chi” would flow through the house freely and not be trapped by square cor­ners.” When Lipp­mann enquired as to the bud­get, the answer was suc­cinct: there isn’t one”.

Locat­ed on a cor­ner site with a fall from east to west, the elon­gat­ed block with its broad north­ern frontage sug­gest­ed a fig­ure 8‑shaped house with a split lev­el respond­ing to the terrain.

This would pro­vide two lev­els of bed­rooms fac­ing the morn­ing sun to the east, with liv­ing areas over two lev­els fac­ing west, enjoy­ing the panoram­ic har­bour views and city sky­line. The stair con­nect­ing the split lev­el wings” was locat­ed at the inter­sec­tion of the fig­ure 8.

The client loved the ini­tial sketch. His only com­ment was how long will it take to build?”” says Lipp­mann, who was still get­ting his head around the free form, organ­ic shape, its struc­tur­al ratio­nale and mate­ri­al­i­ty. Con­crete and mason­ry were not part of his stan­dard reper­toire. The free form curved glass walls and doors also pre­sent­ed prob­lems because the Aus­tralian build­ing indus­try was inca­pable of meet­ing this unique spec­i­fi­ca­tion. The prospect of import­ing the glass from Cana­da or the Nether­lands was pos­si­ble but high risk. For­tu­nate­ly, with delays in con­struc­tion, local glass sup­pli­ers were able to man­u­fac­ture free-form glass. Even­tu­al­ly, the glass was man­u­fac­tured in Bris­bane to high­ly spec­i­fied tol­er­ances and deliv­ered to Syd­ney for instal­la­tion on site. Lipp­mann acknowl­edges the inspi­ra­tion of mod­ernist ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Berlin archi­tect Erich Mendel­sohn and the poignan­cy of Jorn Utzon’s Syd­ney Opera House, vis­i­ble from almost every room of this house.

There are many hid­den fea­tures embod­ied with­in this house, not least the stair­well ris­ing up the cen­tre of the plan.

Hot air is sucked out of the house through open tread stairs and the oper­a­ble glass lou­vres at the upper lev­el. This Ven­turi effect draws cool­er air from the low­er lev­els through cus­tom designed oper­a­ble grilles below the win­dows and pro­vides pas­sive cool­ing through­out the house. Hydron­ic floor heat­ing and deep solar pen­e­tra­tion in win­ter pro­vides pas­sive warmth. Reverse cycle air con­di­tion­ing is only used as a last resort.

Lippmann’s vision has been car­ried through to the inte­ri­ors. The kitchen, for exam­ple, fea­tures white ter­raz­zo floors com­bined with an in situ organ­ic-shaped ter­raz­zo island bench. Mir­rored polyurethane kitchen join­ery catch­es the after­noon light. And to add colour, there are bright red cir­cu­lar floor rugs in the liv­ing areas, com­ple­ment­ed by vibrant fur­ni­ture with a num­ber of pieces designed by Marc New­son. In the main bed­room, floor to ceil­ing win­dows are enveloped with cur­tains to cre­ate pri­va­cy at night. The sump­tu­ous dress­ing area and ensuite are inte­gral to the bed­room and are a delight­ful adjunct.

As the house is ele­vat­ed on a land­scaped podi­um (giv­en the fall of the land) and with the ben­e­fit of a deep fore­court to the street, the need for screen­ing is reduced, pre­vent­ing the pry­ing eyes of neigh­bours and those pass­ing by.

Despite the ini­tial reac­tion of the neigh­bours and build­ing inspec­tor, the house has become a local land­mark, which iron­i­cal­ly, the Coun­cil have been proud to take cred­it for.

Over­seas vis­i­tors reg­u­lar­ly detour from the estab­lished route to take a look at the But­ter­fly House. On one occa­sion, just before the house was com­plet­ed, a Cal­i­forn­ian tourist saw the house and tracked down the archi­tect. He want­ed a repli­ca on his ocean front site in San­ta Cruz out­side San Fran­cis­co. Lipp­mann was flown over to inspect the site and get to work. But­ter­fly House II, not a repli­ca of the first, was designed specif­i­cal­ly for its north­ern hemi­sphere loca­tion and approved for con­struc­tion by the local author­i­ties. Were it not for the 2008 Glob­al Finan­cial Cri­sis, a sis­ter house would now exist 10,000 kilo­me­tres away on Sydney’s north­ern lat­i­tude. This was not to be, and this But­ter­fly House remains a unique one-off.

By Stephen Crafti

Project details

  • Loca­tion
    Dover Heights, Sydney
  • Key con­sul­tants
    Alba & Asso­ciates, Thom­son Kane, MPI Con­sul­tants, Bar­ry Smith & Associates
  • Builder
  • Pho­tog­ra­phy
    Willem Reth­meier