By Tracey Hordern
A planned seaside community is testimony to the success of sustainable practices, creating a luxurious estate and preserving the spectacular setting for future generations.
Concealed by the coastal bushland on the scenic road between Lennox Head and Byron Bay and set behind an inconspicuous timber and rail gate is Linnaeus Estate, an extraordinary concept in sustainability and contemporary design. Linnaeus Estate is for people who want to be a trustee for the future, with the opportunity to enjoy and protect one of the most spectacular stretches of the eastern coastline of Australia.
A combination of private dwellings and communal buildings, Linnaeus Estate occupies just more than 110 hectares of beautiful ex-dairy farming land with gentle undulating hills that extend down to the sands of Seven Mile Beach. Since the departure of the dairy cows, the precious indigenous flora and fauna have slowly been returning to the land. Linnaeus Estate is aptly named after the 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, who developed a system for the classification of plants and animals. Interestingly, it also turns out that Linnaeus had trained one of Captain Cook’s naturalists.
Exquisitely located just a 10-minute drive from Byron Bay, the Linnaeus Estate is a unique pristine coastal environment, something that is rarely available today. The 111-hectare property runs along 1.5-kilometre stretch of the Pacific Ocean between Lennox Head and Byron Bay. The property is a microcosm of superb nature, boasting wetlands, heath lands, rainforests and coastal sand dunes. At the far end of Seven Mile Beach, this particular stretch of beach would by any measure be one of the most spectacular on Australia’s eastern seaboard, therefore, the world. During the winter months the region is famed for whale watching, and year round, dolphins can be seen playfully swimming and surfing the waves, while fishermen still catch mullet from the beach most days.
Renowned architect and developer, Phil McMaster, designed Linnaeus Estate so that it is entirely simpatico with its pristine coastal bushland surroundings. With obvious respect for the region and its many charms, McMaster has designed every aspect of the development and each of the beach house dwellings so that they complement the surroundings rather than compete. The estate has been preserved as a nature reserve with all elements of the property protected, including wildlife and vegetation. The remarkable buildings in the developed area cover less than one per cent of the total land area. This minimal developmental impact is one of the key ecological features of the estate. The passion for this development began when the land was purchased 11 years ago and continues today as it sets the benchmark for individual styles within a community-focused setting.
An environmental master plan for the entire site covers everything from weed control to replanting and regenerating the native trees. Linnaeus Estate also has it own wastewater treatment plant and provides its own water on site. The estate is for people who want to enjoy and protect one of the most spectacular pieces of coastline in Australia and to be part of a small ecologically engaged community. This intergenerational equity is a key part of the trust that has been established to protect Linnaeus Estate, with members of the Linnaeus Estate trust becoming a part of a small seaside community that will act as custodian of the site for the future generations.
Buyers of Linnaeus Estate legally become members of the trust, which enables them to lease a beach house for the life of the trust, which is set up for a duration of 150 years. After the one-and-a-half centuries have passed, the heirs and beneficiaries of the trust will decide what they want to do with the estate. All members of the trust own equal shares of the trust and its facilities. Linnaeus Estate also has an active private and public education program on a diverse range of subjects, from the arts to environmental sustainability and from conservation to political science. The trust was conceived to be a private retreat where trustees can participate in any manner of philanthropic and cultural or educational activity proposed by members.
Phil McMaster’s previous designs focused on developments predominantly located in Australian national parks, such as the Kosciusko National Park in Australia’s Snowy Mountains. McMaster trained as an architect at Queensland University of Technology and completed his studies in London before undertaking further study as a landscape architect and master planner. Speaking exclusively with Contemporary Home Design, McMaster outlines his experience, “I’ve worked on many hotels, clubs and lodges in Australia’s Snowy Mountain region, principally in Thredbo village. All three disciplines that I have studied are ideal for developments within national parks or designing projects set in extreme natural beauty. My work generally encompasses the three disciplines of architecture, landscape architecture and environmental planning.
“As well as alpine-style houses in the Snowy Mountains, I also spent quite a few years in Lisbon, Portugal where I designed houses. Once I returned to Australia, I set up a practice based in Canberra, and it was from there that most of my work in the snow region was commissioned. In Australia, my work has also included beach houses at Belongil Beach, also near Byron Bay, plus a development in Uluru in central Australia.
“When my business partner, Steve Duchen and I first saw the property that Linnaeus Estate now occupies, we recognised that it had so many fabulous components; its natural beauty of the ocean-front setting, sand dunes, wetlands, rainforest and dry forest. It was, and is, an extraordinary property. After purchasing the land, we spent three years working out what we could do with it. Most developments cover 40 to 50 per cent of the land. We wanted to create a development with the smallest site coverage to preserve the land in its natural state.
“We developed a master plan, starting with a legal structure, with the main aim to preserve the property’s natural assets, it was extremely important to create a binding structure that would protect the land. Subdivision changes things and so often you can’t control what your neighbour does. We needed to set rules where the overall property was protected for as long as possible. The key focus from day one was to preserve the estate and to do that; we formed a trust that would ultimately have 27 investors. The trust runs for 150 years, and that’s around the longest term you can run a trust such as this for.
“Investors can come and go, as they wish, with one of the main aspects of the trust to guarantee inter-generational equity. This is the main principle of sustainability for Linnaeus Estate. From one generation to the next, the equity, the quality of the estate is passed on. In essence, we want to leave the property better tomorrow than it is today. My architect heroes are Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Moore. They’re organic architects, and if I had to describe my style of architecture, I would also describe it as organic. The designs, shapes, forms and materials are all organic in origin. There are now 19 houses completed, with a total of 27 to be built. The mood, the style of the buildings, is very nautical, yet quirky. Imagine what a beachcomber could collect, it’s very flotsam and jetsam, from the beach, or a shipwreck! There are a lot of recycled materials, the colours and shapes are organic and of course it all fits in with the seaside setting.”
The master planner is adamant that the environment is his first and most important priority. “Linnaeus Estate has been sensitively designed with a small group of beach houses and cabins, together with community buildings that service the community in a variety of ways.”
The total development footprint on the estate is less than one per cent of the total land. Rather than carving up this unique coastal environment and selling off each parcel of land to the highest bidder, the freehold property is operated by the trust owned by the residents, with each resident taking out a lease on their choice of beach house. According to McMaster, “It’s not just about buying and selling a house, it’s about setting up a system where future generations can come and enjoy the estate and it’s all about protecting this magnificent environment. The essential sustainable elements of Linnaeus Estate are to protect the natural beauty of the estate, conceptually. And to do that in practice, you need to legally guarantee that.”
Although he spent many years overseas, McMaster was keen to return to Australia, and went on to build an impressive body of work in national parks across Australia, having designed many projects in the Thredbo village and the Kosciusko National Park as well as in Canberra, where his practice flourished for more than 15 years. But McMaster always wanted to live in the Byron Bay shire. As a child, he and his family used to camp along the coast in the region, “We always had some land in the Byron area, but nothing as amazing as this,” says McMaster. And so it was inevitable that he would want to return to the beautiful land that he enjoyed so much growing up.
Although Linnaeus Estate is accessed by car, there’s a refreshing absence of cars visible upon arrival. While residents drive up to the beach houses and unload, they are encouraged to keep their cars in a carpark a short distance away. “You can explore the estate by walking or by bicycle,” says McMaster. Referred to as an environmental architect, McMaster is mindful of the sensitivity of the environment, he is keen to point out that Linnaeus Estate is not a resort, which is exactly what attracts investors, putting the environment first.
“We have control mechanisms, where we measure our water usage; we monitor our energy and wastage. We have our own garbage corrals, we compost and have a vegetable patch, and most importantly we harvest and treat our own water. There are 11 years of planning that have gone into this estate.
The Linnaeus Estate has two types of accommodation; beach houses that are approximately 200 square metres in area with these larger houses complemented by smaller dwellings, called ‘beacons’. These smaller dwellings are 110 square metres in size, and the ‘beacons’, according to McMaster, are inspired by lighthouses with the unique and innovative nautical aspects incorporated into the designs of the beachside buildings. Constructed of timber, with interiors that feature recycled hardwood floors, there’s a sense of a Treasure Island, or Robinson Crusoe approach to the design. Whimsical and featuring design follies, the designs of the buildings and surrounding artwork, are fun and entirely suitable to beachside holidays.
Much of the joinery has been built by the estate’s own craftsmen. There are a lot of handcrafted elements in the designs, starting from the front doors of the houses, each unique and with a certain amount of humour in the work. The idea was to create individual buildings, AUrather than the cookie cutter, serious and minimalist beach houses you can find elsewhere on Australia’s coastal areas. Skilled tradesmen, employing the use of handcrafted materials, copper roofs and superb recycled timbers, constructed each of the beautiful beach houses and cabins. Each beach house features intimate spaces and private retreats with spectacular ocean views from all the rooms and decks. This is one of the primary design elements of the houses, to maximise the impact of the surrounding natural assets.
The first thing you notice is each of the copper-roofed beach houses is constructed with a stunning array of timbers. The interiors of the dwellings all feature large living spaces, soaring ceilings and internal decks over two floors. With their distinctly nautical-inspired designs and galley lookouts, the homes enjoy spectacular ocean views from all rooms and decks, also capitalising on the fresh sea airflows. The multiple decks and verandahs combined with lofts and hatches also give the residents areas to be alone, places to enjoy the surrounding nature and spaces to relax.
The one-bedroom beach beacons are quirky spaces, ideal for romantic getaways. The majority of the year, the weather here is stunning, another reason that all the homes feature large areas of outdoor space as part of the design.
An unlikely source of beautiful building materials for Linnaeus Estate was the bottom of Sydney Harbour, providing the estate and in particular, the clubhouse with a wealth of timbers after 40 years of submersion. The well-worn and colourful wood has given the buildings an authentic rusticity creating a character-filled cosiness that suits the beachside setting. Using ancient timbers dragged from the bottom of the harbour has added to the rustic authenticity and originality of the designs of all the buildings.
McMaster describes some of the unique built features in detail, “All the flooring at Linnaeus is from recycled timber. It comes from all over Australia. The copper roofs were a big investment, but in the long run, they’re really worth it; they will last forever. The copper roofing is already showing the beauty of weathering that can only happen with natural materials close to the ocean: they are discoloured and worn, already bearing the ageing scars brought about by the elements at the seaside location. The steeply pitched cones of the retreat roofs are clad in greying ironbark shingles, created by a master roofer from Wales who laid the hardwood shingles, an increasingly specialised craft. Other expert craftsmen also did myriad work to the houses creating the lovely hand finishes to the unique buildings. The overall theme is fun, nautical, and casually elegant.”
The energetic hub and the social heart of the estate is the Linnaeus Club, which has a bar and a casual dining room and cellar, performing art space and a superbly stocked library and a recourses centre. The commercial kitchen can also cater to large dinner parties and in-house cooking schools. Residents are encouraged to enjoy all the facilities on offer, as this is an integral part of the community aspect of Linnaeus Estate. ‘The Crab’, as it is known, is also available to outside groups, attracting myriad talents and artists. The ‘Crab’ itself is a building that takes on an organic form with claw-like decks. The centre building has a broad range of uses, including the opportunity for lecturing guests to come and talk and share their knowledge. Members of the trust recently enjoyed the company of artists such as Margaret Olley and composer Peter Sculpthorpe. Equally enriching for residents and guests was to enjoy Sculpthorpe’s company as he worked with other musicians to write a new opera. The centre operates like a social club, with a bar, dining room, library and reading room, and a performance space — all next to the beach with the sound of the surf and seaside weather in the background.
Wide verandahs and a sandstone courtyard create a homely counterpoint to the imposing ceremonial entry doors to the club. The courtyard centrepiece is a massive, colourfully rendered chimney towering above an open fireplace. The building wraps around a central courtyard where for six months of the year, the old frangipani tree drops its exquisitely scented tropical flowers. The garden is well kept around the immediate areas bordering the buildings and is home to a mixture of fragrant flowering trees and natives set in manicured lush lawns and whimsical garden architecture creating a sense of fun and irreverence. Located near the Linnaeus Club is the 25-metre blue-tiled infinity pool, which is set in sandstone-tiled surrounds, with views down over the organic vegetable and herb gardens to the sea. The tennis court, gymnasium and bocce court area are also located here.
Another large aspect of Linnaeus Estate is the education program. Money collected each year by the trust has to be spent on education. These programs range from education about sustainability principles and practices. McMaster elaborates, “For instance, we recently had more than 100 high school students discussing sustainability, and then they go back to their respective high schools and report on their environmental programs and what they learnt from our experience and lectures. We also have political science lectures and lectures on economics, as well as a music composition prize that is implemented through the Queensland Conservatorium of Music. Each year a brass ensemble comes down to Linnaeus Estate and performs, which is really special. Then we also put on the performance at Byron Bay community hall for locals for free. Retreats are also available to visiting playwrights and writers. At present, Bill Duckworth is writing a piece for the Queensland government and he’s here on retreat.”
While special guests provide a rich and cultural life for Linnaeus Estate residents, the estate also encourages other members of the wider community to experience its environmental values. According to McMaster, “We want to be able to share this beauty with everyone, even though the price of the houses does not allow everyone to stay here.”
Linnaeus Estate is a great model for other planned communities. An estate that is committed to preserving a natural environment, it’s privately funded and anyone can do it! Nothing bad will happen to this estate for 150 years, and that’s great to know. Investors in Linnaeus Estate come from all over the world, attracted by its extraordinary beauty and the opportunity for enjoyment of the estate by future generations of their families.”