Palm house, Mosman


Rob Brown, of
Casey Brown Architecture

Toby & Penny Harrop

We first met Rob Brown more than a decade ago after admiring and visiting two houses he had done on the northern beaches of Sydney. In 2011, we explored the idea of renovating the existing house here in Mosman but couldn't overcome some of its basic limitations. Thankfully, that proposed renovation became a complete redesign and rebuild.

Rob had built several houses with Bellevarde and it quickly became apparent that they were the ideal choice for our project. We were advised that having them would remove most of the risks and uncertainty, as well as guarantee the very high quality we wanted. It was good advice.

That choice was vindicated early in the process when Bellevarde came up with excellent solutions for the large volumes of stormwater and rainwater we needed and wanted to retain. Throughout the project, care taken with water management on this hillside site was a feature of Bellevarde’s commitment.

At the framing stage, I remember being particularly impressed with the clever engineering and intricate work that leading hand Blake Pitt came up with for a difficult corner section frame for the roof, where the span and junction point of several pieces came together. I think even Blake was pleased with it when it was finished, and we lamented the fact that such work would be hidden in the ceiling. We promised him he could visit from time to time to go up into the ceiling void and sit with his masterpiece! 

During the build, I was at the site several times each week, and was constantly impressed with the village atmosphere of the place. There were routinely 10-20 people on site and the industriousness of everyone was a credit to Bellevarde's organisation and management approach.

Concrete pours were special days. With all hands on deck, the excitement would rise around the slabs each time one was done, but even these were outshone by the various feature walls constructed in beautiful off-form concrete. The preparation was intricate, and the pour always a big moment, though of course bigger was the unveiling a day or so later!

Our Foreman Mick Carroll claims to have no sense for colour - "Tell me the number and I'll tell the painters" is his self-deprecating joke. Aside from that, no other shortcomings are evident. His work ethic is prodigious. I would routinely witness him solve complex building problems, liaise semi-continuously with Casey Brown, manage the Bellevarde staff, hound subcontractors and suppliers to meet his relentless schedule, tolerate unpredictable neighbours, muck in with the concrete pours, and yet still have time, enthusiasm, and patience for visits from us. Always quick with a sketch, and/or an analogy, Mick is a fountain of knowledge and experience, but was reassuringly frank when he needed technical input from the engineer, for example. His constant insistence on excellence is the Bellevarde approach in daily practice and we found it deeply reassuring to have him running the show.

We were lucky enough to hire Bellevarde, and then to realise early on that their reputation for excellence was well deserved. That left me able to enjoy the fascinating process of the build. From major engineering questions around the cantilevers to tiny details around joins and corners and transitions, the possibilities, the problem solving, the choices and implementations were a source of interest and often delight. Penny, with her inimitable style, took charge of the many and varied finishes and we were thrilled to see all her ideas being realised so beautifully.

Someone asked us what our favourite feature was and that’s difficult because there are about a hundred different ones, top to bottom and outside to in. The overall look and proportions of the house are wonderful, but the real day-to-day pleasure is in the details - the bathroom floors and walls, the joinery in the studies, the handrails in the stairwells, the off-form concrete walls, the beauty of the sandstone, the solidity of the doors and windows.

We have nothing but admiration for the way Bellevarde realised our and Rob Brown’s vision for Palm house. The collaboration between all three parties, but especially between architect and builder, was highly effective. All the way through, there was constructive discussion and idea development and improvement. Bellevarde understood the aspects that were important to us, like the finishes and details, and didn't waste our time and budget with anything unnecessary.

There is a peaceful quality to the place that we may have hoped for but couldn't have really imagined beforehand. It has a calmness, an oasis-like effect which we're thrilled with.

We used to need a good reason to stay home, now I need a good reason to go out. It is a pleasure and a privilege to live here.

Rob Brown, of
Casey Brown Architecture

For a house with such a deceptively simple design, the art is definitely in the detail. 

The owners of Palm House had really done their research. 

Penny, with her exquisite eye for detail, brought a beautiful and eclectic moodboard featuring work from the renowned Studio Mumbai. 

The double block needed to house both the family as well as a beautiful collection of art and furniture pieces from their years in Europe. 

Designing and building modern houses in well-established areas means dealing with local pressures to fit in. The local Federation style led us to its precursor—the 1890s American Arts and Crafts movement and, in particular, The Gamble House by Greene and Greene. 

Californian Bungalows like The Gamble House with their famous overhanging gables are great for Sydney weather and became our inspiration. In this way, the modern design would remain sympathetic, even with our rich materials palette of oiled merbau, zinc and slate. 

Because the plan itself is quite straightforward, it naturally plays up to the skills of the craftspeople. Everything is exaggerated, the huge top floor overhang, the big gables and cantilevers, the unexpectedly large and open living area. Scale almost demands it be viewed from a distance but as you approach, ever-increasing layers of depth and beauty are revealed. 

Of course, that’s where Bellevarde come into their own. Construction Manager Mick Carroll and his assistant Mike Ryan assembled a group of tradespeople, carpenters and joiners that would be considered elite anywhere in the world and, what’s more, they got the best out of them. Devotion is evident in every detail. Mick asked my opinion often and I found that a great compliment. It was inspiring to see them work. I struggle to pick a favourite feature— from the elegant concrete fin stairs, to the fine joinery on the gate, the suspended pergola to the Venetian chimney, the craftsmanship is first class. 

Mick, our project architect Tom Monahan, and the Harrops formed a great team. Nothing was ever an issue and, as a result, every single element has been perfectly realised. One morning, after a once-in-a-century storm, I got the message that a large expanse of white siding had been stained. By the time I arrived on site, not only had Mick found a solution, the fix had been completed and the siding was gleaming again. It’s typical of him and the Bellevarde obsession with doing everything perfectly. 

Michael Bates brought his usual deft touch to the garden with tall clumps of Bangalow palms finishing off the breezy LA look. 

Together, we created a house that’s way past functional. I think it beautifully addresses context and history too. Penny told me the family are staying home this summer because it feels like they’re in a resort. A dream job really. 

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