East ends of the two pavilions as constructed for Marie Short (Source: Stella de Vulder (ed), 1979, p.4)

Site Overview

site name:
Marie Short Farmhouse
architect(s):
Glenn Murcutt
date of commission:
1974
date of completion:
1974
address:
985 Beranghi Road, Crescent Head, NSW 2440
classification/typology:
Residential / Housing (RES)
protection status:
NSW State Heritage Register – listed as Marie Short Farmhouse, Kempsey
SHR Item number 02070 (listed 12/9/2022)
Professional recognition:
RAIA – Register of 20th Century Buildings of Significance
Fiche Author:
Scott Robertson, 5 October 2023

Looking from the north pavilion through the pivoting timber doors/panels to the Sitting area in the south pavilion
(Photos: Anthony Browell.  Source: Françoise Fromonot, 2003, p.104)
Floor Plan of the house as extended by Murcutt for Murcutt’s family (Source: Françoise Fromonot, 2003, p.100)

Description

The Marie Short Farmhouse, Kempsey is situated on a coastal plain with seven kilometres of river frontage to the Maria River and Connection Creek, and a freshwater tidal body of water about 80 kilometres from its mouth at Port Macquarie.  The property has large areas of riverine rain forest as well as marine life, including fish and sharks that move between salt and freshwater systems, reptile, animal and bird life.  The river is approximately five kilometres in a direct line from the ocean and eighty kilometres from the river’s ocean outlet.

Marie Short Farmhouse is sited on the edge of a broad grassland area. It has a slight rise that relates to the floodplain and the house axis has been designed to relate to the orientation of water elements.  The siting of the 1890s farmhouse was selected for being the part of the property nearest to the river and above the flood level. It was the point of collection that facilitated the delivery of milk and mail to Port Macquarie.  The site of the Marie Short Farmhouse overlooks the flood plain and grassland as well as the Maria River and the dam.  Its siting conceals the front door and provides the house with visual command of the approach road.

The native trees offer a tracery of foliage, a transparency unlike the solid form of European trees.  The lowland swamp country supports melaleuca, swamp casuarina, flooded gum and swamp mahogany.  On higher ground, there are forest casuarina, tallowwood, brushbox, scribbly gum and many other hundreds of plant species.  There are rainforest trees by the Maria River and native water lilies, water grasses and reeds in the river.

To the west of Marie Short Farmhouse is the Maria River.  To the east of the house is the three-hectare dam, which is visually a lake and the overflow delivers the water to the reinstated wetland Murcutt did in 1992 and finally drains into the Maria River.

The Marie Short Farmhouse is raised 0.8 metres from the ground with tallowwood posts.  The floor being raised off the ground avoids snakes into the building, keeps water splash off the house and allows watch for termites below the suspended floor.  Being raised from the ground enhances airflow and cross ventilation throughout the building.

The Farmhouse comprises two symmetrical pavilions set side by side but staggered in relation.  The two contiguous off-set floor planes are contained within an exposed supporting frame comprising a series of tallowwood post and beam frames set at three metre centres.  The original northern wing is allocated for living (kitchen, dining and living area) and a southern wing separate for sleeping areas.  Fitted into this structure are modules of metal and glass louvres, insect screens and aluminium venetian blinds.  The gables are faced in cedar boards set out for roof spaces. The two pavilions are attached by metal tie-rods that support the central gutter.  The interior walls and ceiling linings are local hoop pine, the structural columns and beams are lined in Douglas fir and the floor is local brushbox.  The timber interior is furnished with Artek items.  The design allowed for the building to be easily dismantled and relocated.

The floor plan is structured by compact service cores separating living spaces from bedrooms with the open verandahs via open-tread entry steps.  One wing has its end facing west to the river while the other looks east to the lake.  While a western verandah is ideal during winter, the projecting southern bedroom and roof shade the verandah and capture the prevailing on shore northeast cooling sea breezes.  The verandah serves as the transition zone between the scale of the landscape and the scale of the house spatially.  The window areas on the northern wing draws the prevailing cool north east summer breezes through the southern wing and ventilates the interior. The northern wing, whose axis is oriented to the bend in the Maria River, contains the daytime living zone with the main entry on the screened verandah leading to the open plan living, dining and kitchen.  The services and farm utility area are located behind the kitchen with a secondary entry on this elevation.  The southern wing comprises two bedrooms, a secondary sitting room with a fireplace and a roof covered tallowwood verandah.  The secondary sitting room is used throughout summer and winter.  There are interconnecting doors between the wings.  When closed, the doors form part of the continuous wall plane.

The triple skin window-wall is based on addressing the variable warm temperature climate that can have some very cold winter days.  The system consists of three super-imposed layers being, adjustable sets of louvres, insect mesh screens, and fully adjustable external venetian blinds.  The full length of the northern facade can be tuned to different conditions and provide different light filtrations assigned to the external wall, in turn becoming an active skin.  The flexibility of the triple skin facade allows the intensity of wind, sun and light to be controlled.

On the inside face of the load-bearing columns, the suspended timber floor is attached.  Each of Murcutt’s twin wings ends in a verandah open on two sides and contained by a simple prolongation of the horizontal plane, providing both prospect and refuge.

The fireplace has a double flue taken straight off the firebox, reducing the height of the fireplace by 200mm.  The Murcutt-designed firebox casing, steelwork and flue are painted with heat resistant red oxide priming paint.

The humidity in summer at northern New South Wales can be high and rains heavy.  Flat roofs in these conditions leak and water needs to be shed from the roof quickly.  Ventilation is necessary to prevent mildew and release the build-up of hot steamy air in ceilings and roof spaces.  Ventilation in the roof space of the Marie Short Farmhouse is designed with regard to the aviation principles of positive and negative airflow over forms that Murcutt learnt from his maternal uncle.  This building was the first opportunity for Murcutt to incorporate a curved roof, apply these aviation principles and experiment with positive air moving to negative air suction for ventilation.

The overlapping curved ridge section junction with the corrugated steel pitched roof provides very good airflow and ventilation.  Cool onshore north-easterly wind is sucked into the building.  The step in the roof sheets two-thirds of the way up the pitch and the flutes of corrugation are offset.  When the wind turns either hot or cold as mid-summer and mid-winter the winds change direction, from east or west, slots in the gable ends of the weatherboards ventilate the roof space.  Eddying is eliminated by the vent of the curved roof ridge that generates smooth wind movement over the ridge and through the flutes in corrugations.  This ventilates the void in the roof space, which is constantly cleared of air.  There is negligible build-up of heat radiating or re-radiating that goes through the roof and into the living spaces below it.

There are two glass roof planes on the northern roof to each wing admitting winter sunlight.  During winter and until the equinox, sunlight pours into the interior.  The glazing system of the roof lighting has been designed to accommodate the sun screening system on the exterior.  Louvres are set on the vertical plane above the northern glazing, which can tilt to any angle or fully retract.  This was achieved through a system of slats set at the angle of the midday mid-winter solstice of about thirty-two degrees.  The overlap from the upper slat leading louvre edge to the lower louvre trailing edge is fifty-five degrees.  When the summer sun exceeds fifty-five degrees, it is blocked off by the overlap of three mm slats.  During winter, full sun is admitted into the room. The Marie Short Farmhouse has been designed to respond to the long summer, warm winter days and cooler winter nights.  At selected points, there is a shutter system that is drawn down on the inside of the glass roof that folds out of the ceiling and drops back onto the glass.  A curtain rail spanning the whole way around the pavilions allows for a blind system that can be used depending on the season.  A diaphragm wall comprising a series of louvres opens to the cooling north-east winds and allows it to drift inside.  These design features insulate the interior and retain the warmth.

Murcutt presents a bold and innovative solution of the roof as an aerofoil and sun screen.  The Marie Short Farmhouse is not a static sheltering element but actively engages with climatic imperatives.  The dynamic architecture of The Marie Short Farmhouse enables its inhabitants to directly engage and operate the building as an environmental machine akin to a yacht.

Guest Studio

The studio located to the south and below the main house was designed by Murcutt through alterations and additions of the existing 1930s shed that had been a rural worker’s flat and tractor shed.  The studio has three zones with the fireplace in the middle zone.  All the materials were reused from the building or recycled from the pergola that was dismantled as part of the works to the main house.

The interior comprises reworked single original timber boards sanded with a hoop iron strap tongue between each board edge to allow for the movement of timber and prevents wind, rain and insects entering the space.  The roof was renewed and the roof framing was renewed in part, where termites had caused damage.  The hand-shaped adzed timbers have been retained.

As some timber posts had also been damaged by termites, new posts were bolt connected to the solid sections of the posts.  The new posts extended the existing posts and set up the roof skillion to allow the mid-winter angle of noon sunlight from the north to penetrate deeply into the room.  The finesse in the kitchen provides a balanced contrast to the rawness of the other elements of the studio.

In the 1930s and 1940s, some of the flooring was propped resulting in old flooring boards that are thick and oversized with oil stains throughout.  The timber floors, including the different oil stains, have been retained with a wax finish.  The window system is standard steel.  The bathroom is lined externally in Miniorb steel sheeting.  There is no corner mullion within the bathroom shower recess and the corner dissolves into the landscape when the windows are open.  Murcutt aspired to create as much space as possible in order to visually relate the studio to the house and the landscape.  The design was drawn from the appeal of working with what was essential, providing for the essence of living.

(Description sourced, and modified, from the SHR listing, item 02070)

Written Sources         

Haig Beck & Jackie Cooper (eds), 2002, Glenn Murcutt: A Singular Architectural Practice, Mulgrave: Images Publishing Group

Stella de Vulder (ed), 1979, “Wilkinson Award: Under the mulberry tree,” Awards/79, Sydney: RAIA NSW Chapter

Philip Drew, 1985, Leaves of Iron: Glenn Murcutt, pioneer of an Australian architectural form, Sydney: Law Book Co

Philip Drew, 1999, Touch this earth lightly: Glenn Murcutt in his own words, Potts Point: Duff & Snellgrove

Francoise Fromonot, 2003, Glenn Murcutt: Buildings + Projects 1962 – 2003, London: Thames & Hudson Ltd

Tom Heneghan & Maryam Gusheh, 2008, The Architecture of Glenn Murcutt, Tokyo: Toto Shuppan

Kenneth Frampton, Juhani Pallasmaa, David Malouf, Phil Harris & Liisa Naar, 2007, Glenn Murcutt, Architect, 01 Editions

Harry Margalit, 2019, Modern architectures in history: Australia, London: Reaktion Books Ltd

John Pardey. 2020 20/20 Twenty Great Houses of the Twentieth Century, London: Lund Humphries Publishers Ltd

View of the house from the north-east.  Note the light-coloured corrugated steel roofing of the recently-completed
extension of the house to the east.  (Photo: Scott Robertson, December 1981)

View of the house from the south-east.  Note the light-coloured corrugated steel roofing of the recently-completed
extension of the house to the east.  Glenn Murcutt sitting on the steps.  (Photo: Scott Robertson, December 1)