Rein­vent­ing an old fisherman’s cot­tage into a twen­ty first cen­tu­ry home.

In the mid 1990’s, archi­tect Ed Lipp­mann was look­ing for a house for his wife and two young children.

They came across a fisherman’s cot­tage near Gibson’s beach in Wat­sons Bay. The semi-detached tim­ber house on a mod­est 230 m² par­cel of land was an entry point into this now exclu­sive Syd­ney enclave.

While the sin­gle sto­ry fisherman’s cot­tage (cir­ca 1880’s) appealed to some because of its quaint­ness, it cer­tain­ly wasn’t the attrac­tion for this cou­ple. The orig­i­nal house need­ed sub­stan­tial repair and the spaces, includ­ing the three bed­rooms, were minis­cule” says Lipp­mann. How­ev­er, Lipp­mann could see how the cot­tage addressed the street, with its steep pitched roof and bull­nosed veran­da. It had an unpre­ten­tious sim­plic­i­ty and we loved the over­grown gar­den”. But the lack of space was some­thing not resolved with a sim­ple renovation.

Lipp­mann sought a new arrange­ment of space with­in the exist­ing enve­lope. By low­er­ing the floor 200mm, he was able to accom­mo­date an addi­tion­al mez­za­nine lev­el inside the exist­ing vol­ume. While acknowl­edg­ing the impor­tance of the roof in terms of streetscape, he pro­posed a bank of open­able sky­lights right around the new house in the same plane as the roof, pro­vid­ing gen­er­ous nat­ur­al light and ven­ti­la­tion into the new mez­za­nine space as well as over gen­er­ous new ground lev­el void spaces.

As is not uncom­mon, the pro­posed changes were met by oppo­si­tion from local coun­cil her­itage experts” who opposed the argu­ment that these sub­tle but sym­pa­thet­ic inter­ven­tions breathed life back into a dis­used out­dat­ed cottage.

It took a court case to over­come the coun­cil objec­tions but it was nec­es­sary to push past the red tape, allow­ing demo­li­tion of the old house and con­sent for the new. Instead of small pokey win­dows, the new enve­lope con­sists of floor-to-ceil­ing slid­ing doors and piv­ot glass, ply­wood pan­elled walls and cor­ru­gat­ed steel roof­ing. The scheme also meant that the house, exist­ing gar­den and new court­yard spaces were at the same lev­el. The new lev­el deck plunge pool com­pletes the ground plane con­nec­tion between inside and out. You could say the use of water inside the house was a nod to Richard Neu­tra”. The house was, he insists, faith­ful to the spir­it of the orig­i­nal cot­tage while being of its time and place.

The ground floor is a space with­out rooms. An immac­u­late­ly engi­neered spi­ral steel stair and guest bath­room are sculp­tur­al forms seen in the round as much as objects of utter prac­ti­cal­i­ty. The wet area core — kitchen, laun­dry and bath­room — is embed­ded in the cen­tre of the plan with perime­ter liv­ing areas extend­ing to the exter­nal gar­dens and court­yards beyond. The inte­ri­or ply­wood pan­el floors and ceil­ing cre­ate a rig­or­ous sense of space which is reflect­ed in the exte­ri­or ply­wood pan­elling. On the upper floor, bath­rooms, stacked above the low­er-lev­el wet areas are nat­u­ral­ly lit and ven­ti­lat­ed with an oper­a­ble lou­vred glass roof while the bed­rooms occu­py the end of the house. A roof ter­race, mag­i­cal­ly accessed through the mas­ter bed cup­board above the glass roof pro­vides roof top views of New Year’s Eve fire­works for all to enjoy. The two floors togeth­er, mea­sure a mere 170sq.m. but the gen­eros­i­ty of space belies its mod­est size.

The children’s spaces are at the rear south­ern end of the house with the par­ents’ zone at the north, fac­ing the street.

In both cas­es, bed­room mez­za­nines over­look and are inte­gral with a ded­i­cat­ed ground floor liv­ing area. To address the acoustics, per­fo­rat­ed ply pan­elling absorbs sound and pro­vides pri­va­cy and an inti­mate ambience.

Unlike the orig­i­nal fisherman’s cot­tage where access was via a cen­tral front door between two bed­rooms, the new house is accessed via a side path allow­ing direct access to the mid­dle of the house and no cor­ri­dors. The orig­i­nal façade was rein­ter­pret­ed with frame­less glass doors and oiled ply­wood pan­elling. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, the Lipp­mann house received the Belle Mag­a­zine House of the Year Award in 2000, the year it was com­plet­ed, along with oth­er awards from the Aus­tralian Insti­tute of Archi­tects for its inno­v­a­tive use of timber.

The house was enjoyed by the fam­i­ly for three years until a third child arrived and the house grew tight. Liv­ing in this house was prob­a­bly the hap­pi­est time our fam­i­ly ever had togeth­er but it was time to move on to big­ger, not nec­es­sar­i­ly bet­ter things. Some lucky buy­er inher­it­ed the lit­tle gem and, I have to say, took good care of it for years to come”.

By Stephen Crafti


  • 2001 Boral Tim­ber Award for Res­i­den­tial Build­ings
    Aus­tralian Insti­tute of Architects
  • 2000 House of the Year
    Belle Mag­a­zine
  • 2000 Inno­v­a­tive use of Tim­ber in Archi­tec­ture
    Aus­tralian Tim­ber Design Awards

Project details

  • Loca­tion
    Vau­cluse, Sydney
  • Key con­sul­tants
    B G and E, Webb
  • Builder
    Gor­don Leggett
  • Pho­tog­ra­phy
    Farshid Assas­si