— observations from the Blue Mountains Design Bureau —

The Worst House in the Mountains

When the real estate agent handed over the keys to contemporary artist’s Billy Gruner and Sarah Keighery’s new home in Faulconbridge, his parting words were ‘Congratulations, you have just purchased the worst house in the mountains!’

Clearly, it takes an artistic eye, not to mention a passion for mid century design, to recognise the architectural gem that this creative pair stumbled upon in an out of date newspaper. The ‘contentious’ home was an intact, unmodified ‘Beachcomber’, designed in the early 1960’s by Nino Sydney as a project home for the then newly established Lend Lease Company.

Inspired by Le Corbusier’s radical concept of ‘living design’ and a rigorously rational approach to construction, migrant architects such as Nino became the pioneers of affordable, contemporary home design in Australia. Their architectural contribution to the built form of the burgeoning suburbs of the post war period, in our rapidly growing nation was significant.

Of the many houses designed by Nino for Lend Lease, the ‘Beachcomber’, with its elevated living platform was the best suited for tricky terrains such as the steep rocky hillsides of the Blue Mountains. The design was easily orientated on the average house site, which allowed the optimum northern aspect to be achieved. With modest proportions that encouraged natural cross ventilation, double sarking and wool batt insulation in the walls and roof, the ‘Beachcomber’ was way ahead of its time in employing passive environmental design principles. The radical, metal clad facade also assisted this home in surviving two significant bushfire events.

The upper level accommodates a kitchen, open plan living/dining, 3 modest bedrooms, and a bathroom. A covered verandah punctuated by the open tread entry stair runs the full length of the northern facade. The basic ‘Beachcomber’ design provided a carport/covered entertaining area on the lower level with a centralised laundry pod. Designed to allow for client customisation or cost effective expansion, additional rooms could easily be created by enclosing part or all of the lower level. With an additional 2 bedrooms on the lower level, Billy & Sarah’s home comfortably accommodated the previous owner’s family of five for 45 years.

It is said that imitation is a form of flattery, and there were certainly many copies of the ‘Beachcomber’ built by competing companies in the 1960’s. However, there were only about 200 genuine ‘Beachcombers’ rolled out in the mid 1960′s and many of these can still be found throughout suburban Australia. There was even one at the end of the suburban street in Canberra where I grew up.

The difference between Nino’s design for Lend Lease and its imitators lies in the architectural detailing. Inspired by a half open match box, the design is a simple idea, well executed. High level glazing between the graphic, expressed roof beams flood the home with natural light, and reduce the bulk of the roof structure; the simple balustrade is cantilevered off the verandah allowing this element to ‘float’ free from the main building form, and lighting is confined to wall lamps, to provide a visually ‘clean’ ceiling that increases the illusion of height and space.

After a painstaking renovation rescue, the house having been vacant for many years, including the replacement of all of the original exposed oregan roof beams, this home is now a mid century design enthusiast’s treasure trove.

Lucky for fellow enthusiasts such as myself, Billy and Sarah’s passion for this era of design extends to their business activities, and a number of gems can be found lurking in their shop ‘The Pink Flamingo’ in South Hazelbrook. Their stock is definitely worth keeping an eye on, you never know when you might discover the ‘worst chair, lamp or occasional table in the mountains’!

The Pink Flamingo can be found at 35 Railway Parade, South Hazebrook. T. 02 4758 9460

Open Thurs-Sun 10am-5pm

Please note: All information about Nino Sydney and the Beachcomber was sourced from Dr Billy Gruner’s excellent article ‘Nino Sydney – The Beachcomber’ in Australian Modern 2012 Edition


6 comments on “The Worst House in the Mountains

  1. Sarah Tulloch on said:

    Fascinating article as my husband and I are also renovating one of Ninos homes in Frenches Forest which is built on a north west facing rocky steep hillside. We have recently been in contact with Niño Sydney as he lives still in Sydney to visit once we have renovated. Beautiful designed house worth reporting about – great article thank you.

    • billy gruner and sarah keighery on said:

      Hi Sarah,
      we were just showing this article to a friend and saw your response….
      would love to see some photos of your house!!!!
      There will be a MAD (Modern Architecture and Design) weekend in the blue mountains coming up October 24, so we will send you an invite if you are interested..
      billy and Sarah

  2. Neil & Sandie Abraham on said:

    In 2015 we moved into a Beachcomber in Glenbrook, Lower Blue Mountains.
    We also also looking at renovating, in particular improving the houses thermal insulation and bushfire protection/resistance (the house is rated the flame zone!)
    How did your renovations work out Sarah?
    Have either of you replaced the original Permalum cladding?
    Any suggestions?
    0423 778 196

    • Hi Neil and Sandie,
      Congratulations on purchasing such a gem! Unfortunately, we don’t know the answers, however you can find Sarah and Billy at the Pink Flamingo store in Hazelbrook, and they also run MAP. An amazing group of talented artists and curators that run events throughout the Blue Mountains. You could ask those questions directly, otherwise you could also get in touch with Libby Sullivan, architect and designer of 2000ft DESIGN who has a passion for mid-century houses and for retaining beauty of houses from eras past. Good luck!

  3. Neil & Sandie Abraham on said:

    In 2015 we moved into a Beachcomber in Glenbrook in the Lower Blue Mountains
    We are planning to renovate to improve the thermal insulation and bushfire protection.
    Any suggestion?
    0423 778 196

  4. Pingback: National Trust Heritage Award - Beachcomber House : Beachcomber House

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