Perched above steep scrubland with views across the Adelaide plains, this tree-top home has its roots firmly planted in family history.
Family tree house
Hugh McIntosh grew up as a “hills kid”. Days spent exploring, building forts and climbing trees on a steep block of native scrubland next to his family home were pivotal to his upbringing at Belair.
Hugh’s grandfather purchased a house there in the 1930s, as did his parents in the ’80s. In 2010 Hugh and wife Emma followed the tradition, purchasing the same block of scrub where Hugh had spent much of his childhood getting up to mischief with neighbouring children.
“Where once I had to climb a tree to get a clear view of the Adelaide plains, we can now raise our family,” says Hugh. The couple spent some of their recent years in the UK, but wanted to return home to their roots. Their daughter will be the fourth generation to grow up on the hillside. “The opportunity to pass on this precious native space to the next generation played a big part in our decision to purchase the block.”
Choosing an architect was easy. Friend and neighbour Adam Brown knocked about with Hugh as a youngster and is also now raising a new generation next door. “There were still remnants of our old fort here from back when we were kids,” says Adam. “It’s a little community of friends living as neighbours; four generations from the grandparents down to children. I can’t imagine our kids growing up anywhere else.” Adam was excited to design the home, which is sympathetic to the surrounding landscape.
The untarnished nature of the block, as well as decades spent observing how the seasons interact with this beautiful part of the foothills, played a key role in the design. The first and most critical decision was to cantilever the structure off the steep incline. Although it was an engineering challenge, the design provides sweeping tree-top views, with minimal disturbance to the surrounding native vegetation. “It’s definitely a hard thing to do and really is a big decision,” Adam says. “But with the value of the view, you’d be crazy not to.”
Approaching the front door from the decked walkway, the view is initially hidden by the southern wall, with vertical timber beams imitating tree trunks. The spectacular vista is revealed upon stepping through the front door.
The entrance acts as a divider between the home’s two distinct halves: the living areas, which enjoy the views from the elevated side, and the home’s private rooms, set in against the hill. A unique feature of the home sees the decking flow from outside into the entrance foyer, emphasising the meeting of different spaces. “The passage has the two decks come in from different directions; an overlap where the private end of the house locks in with the living areas,” Adam says.
Higher ceilings and large windows in the dining and kitchen areas maximise access to the sweeping vista across the plains. Emma loves watching the fog roll in and sunsets across the gulf.
Going against a trend of generous open-plan homes with multiple bathrooms, Emma says they desired a modest floorplan with an emphasis on green design. “Minimising our impact on the native scrub and establishing as small a footprint as was possible were part of the brief to Adam,” says Emma.
While there is only one bathroom on the upper level, it has three sections which can be closed off with sliding doors. “To have the one bathroom is a counter-cultural move in a way,” Emma says. “But you can have different people using it at once as the shower, toilet and vanity all have separate sliding doors.” A downstairs bathroom, not yet fitted out, will give the family room to grow.
Drawing on her background in graphic design, Emma hand-picked and created some of the most striking features herself. A favourite is the bathroom’s vibrant aqua blue tiled mosaic walls. She designed the patterns, which were then printed on sheets of tiles. “I really like the tile design, a lot of effort went into that. I enjoy being in the bathroom and having the white swoopy bath and the skylight illuminating the tiles,” she says. Her creative personality even greets guests on arrival. The bushfire-retardant door was injected with character by using an instant-rust paint, containing iron filings, to create a weathered look.
With a northern aspect and views to the ocean, the kitchen and dining area is the central jewel of the home. The couple opted for a soft industrial feel for this space, flowing on from the front door. “We like industrial but, knowing it’s a trend that may pass, we didn’t want it to be too strong,” Emma says. Their appreciation of nature and traditional furniture inspired a mix of styles which softens the feel. Polished concrete floors were desired at first, but would have increased the weight of the floor and added to construction costs. “We found these great floating floorboards which have four millimetres of concrete on top.” The kitchen benchtop and lounge entertaining unit are a Laminex product made from quartz.
A dividing wall separates the lounge from the kitchen, creating privacy and also giving the room a separate identity with different colours and furniture, including 1950s couches sourced from a Melbourne emporium. “I made an effort with the decorations and more browns and blues to make that room feel different,” Emma says.
Through the large sliding glass doors, each living space has direct access to the narrow decked walkway. “When the sliding door is open, it feels like you are sitting on the deck,” Emma says. They felt a wider deck would have detracted from the view, pushing the edge further away and therefore losing that feeling of being in the bush. Running the deck the full length of the house eliminated the need for scaffolding during construction. “And we didn’t want to pay a fortune for a window cleaner,” Emma says.
The elevated design of the home provided a few engineering challenges, one being that the home would be less thermally stable. To mitigate this, awning windows make use of Belair’s reliable summer gully breezes, which pass through the home and vent any heat which has built up during the day. Glazing on the southern wall was kept to a minimum to prevent heat loss in winter.
The family enjoy the native grasses and shrubs, which are a feature of the location. “This time of year is really nice because all of the wildflowers are pushing up,” says Emma. For any extra landscaping, the couple sourced plants native to the area. “We’re doing our best to blend the garden in with the native flora.”
The experience of building delivered some challenges for the couple, but none more so than when their daughter arrived early. “We started building before we fell pregnant, but the building was delayed,” Emma says. “It was a race of which would come first, the baby or the house.” For several weeks, Emma attended the occasional site meeting between daily visits to the hospital. “We didn’t plan on getting the keys and the baby the same day.”
Nestled among the bush at the top corner of the yard, at the point where three property boundaries intersect, a large memorial stone keeps lookout over the view. On the stone is an inscription dedicated to Hugh’s older brother Jamie who passed away in 2012.
As a child, Jamie had also played on the hillside with Hugh, Adam and another neighbouring friend, Matthew. “So great was this connection to this block that when my brother passed away after repeated battles with cancer, all neighbours were united in the decision to place a commemorative plaque and stone on the northern most corner of our block, connecting our properties,” Hugh says. Now with children of their own, the neighbours are passing on their love of the area to a new generation.
“I’m really happy that our daughter will get that,” Emma says. “She will be a wild child running around on the block.”
This article was first published in the September 2018 issue of SALIFE.