Castle in the Sky


From goat track to grand design, the construction of North Curl Curl House was little short of miraculous.

A cascading house that speaks directly to its rocky Sydney context was another of the abodes spotlighted in Series 8 of Grand Designs Australia. 

Sandstone is king, and the integration of natural rock in this superb project was a dominant design decision. From the cliff to the cave to the walls, natural stone stretches as far as the eye can see. The severe nature of the site was punctuated by spectacular views, and it was these vistas that attracted the client to the daunting piece of land. Despite the site being better suited to mountain goats than humans, owners Steve and Rae would not be deterred. As a builder, Steve was particularly excited about honing his skills, experimenting with different materials and techniques, and finally building his own dream home.

Panoramic views from Dee Why to Bondi were ripe for the picking on the upper reaches of the site, but by no means easy to secure. Rising 17m from the street and encompassing a 3.5m sandstone cave plus 4.5m vertical sandstone walls, the exposed southern orientation was among a long list of obstacles faced by the architect. But these ultimately inspired the design solution — one that incorporates the natural elements of the site and celebrates their permanence. 

“Steve and Rae always knew this house would be an uphill battle. But they also knew difficult pieces of land like this one would evoke creative solutions,” Grand Designs Australia host Peter Maddison explains.

Large timber treads guide visitors to the entrance, where a number of zinc-clad boxes meander up the cliff. The zinc cladding is tempered with timber and concrete accents, while walls of glass keep the interior light and welcoming. The concrete was treated to a board-form finish, an old texturising technique that softens the look of concrete with natural wood-grain embossing. “The concrete soaks into the timber and leaves an imprint,” says Steve, who used oregon timber in this instance. “The deeper the grain, the better it looks.”

The fragmented home feels connected thanks to sunlit courtyards. “One of the major challenges of this site, beyond being steep, is that it faces south and sunlight comes from the north,” architect Andrew Donaldson says, “so getting light in and chasing its tail down that slope was a very important part of breaking apart the design and creating those internal courtyards and its unusual arrangement.”

If the 100 or so steps leading to the front door sound intimidating, then the lift might be more your style as it makes the journey a magical Willy Wonka-esque trip. Opening directly into the living room, the stainless-steel mirrored lift was designed with subtlety and style in mind.

The neutral and restrained interior colour palette is peppered with warm and textured detailing that combines to soothe the brutalist nature of the structure. Attention to detail was paramount and the joinery is superb. Belgian designer Filip Janssens was commissioned to design two pieces of geometrically inclined feature joinery with recessed handles for concealed entry. “I love Janssens’ work because it’s unique,” Steve enthuses. “He creates pieces of art as opposed to simple pieces of joinery. Finishes are critical. If you don’t get them right it doesn’t matter how great the structure is, it will look like an ordinary home.” This particular Filip Janssens joinery is intricate and incredible and represents just one of the architectural Easter eggs hidden inside the dwelling. 

In defiance of its vertical nature and mass of stairs, each room is bright with light and spoilt with inward- and outward-facing views. The living wing hangs over the sandstone cave, with an internal courtyard nestled into the cliff. The rock courtyard extends the living space and a huge picture window keeps one end of the building open. “Every window is like a living artwork, allowing you to look out to the beautiful landscape of Curl Curl and beyond,” Rae muses.

Kids across the country will be green with envy after they see the private retreat and play area that spills onto the deck and out to the 100sqm backyard. Forget “rooftop garden” — this backyard has a rock-top lawn that rests on top of the rock shelf.

With a granny flat on the first floor and a plunge pool cut into the rock, the house ensures your jaw barely leaves the floor. The master suite is located 20m above street level, hovering bird-like in the sky. From this height, the views would likely cause an acrophobic to pass out. They might also make a new mum regret moving into such a monumental structure. In fact, three-and-a-half years after they commenced the building of their dream home, Steve and Rae sold the newly completed Curl Curl House. As beautiful as it is, the home didn’t complement life with a young family. “We started building the house before we knew we were going to have a child and it simply wasn’t a practical home for a toddler with all the sharp corners,” says Steve, who, at time of writing, was busy working on his next family home in Dural.  

Words: Louise Smithers Photography: Katherine Lu