A different coax for different folks

Published on 09/03/2014

ne-off homes, no matter how celebrated, require a broader approach when it comes time to sell, writes Paul Best.

Among the mansions and bungalows of Kew sits a modern home full of Dr. Seuss whimsy - twin cones (one pointing up, the other down), a spyglass porthole, windows and a door set at a lean. And that's only the facade. Inside, there are more sloping walls and sweeping curves, crooked windows and doors, as well as a playful white spiral staircase, like a suspended swirl of milk, with its tilting balustrade peeling upward through a central light-filled void.


Across town, off Northcote's bustling High Street, there's another striking contemporary abode, Polygreen, wrapped in a translucent wrinkled skin of fibreglass imprinted with graffiti-like streaks of green.


Both properties are of a kind that can't help but catch the eye: truly original, invariably architect-designed one-offs. They're unique homes that literally stop you in your tracks - as much private residences as public architecture.


They are also examples of structures that arise from the particular visions of owners and architects - sometimes independently, sometimes in concert.


When David O'Donnell found a block, also in Kew, on which to build his dream home, he wanted something that would stand out in relief against the 1950s blandscape of clinker brick and terracotta: "High-end and stylish ... but not a McMansion."


In the hands of designer Michael O'Sullivan, the end product was "a traffic-stopper" - a floating box of horizontal silver-ash battens at right angles to an elongated box with vertical timber strips underneath. What he had in mind was a '60s-styled stereo speaker cabinet.


For architect and public artist Michael Bellemo, Polygreen was as much an art project as architectural. The abstract pattern tattooed on the building, for instance, was adopted from a sculpture, adding greenery to the red-brick streetscape.


"We work forwards and backwards from building-making to sculpture-making," Bellemo told Domain when he looked to sell Polygreen a couple of years ago.


For architect Andrew Bartholomeusz, it's the combination of the relationship between client and architect that often produces these unique outcomes. In Toorak, he created a dazzling facade studded with hand-slumped faceted glass diamonds and triangular windows on silvery glass sheets, which reflected the owners' interests in bars, restaurants and nightclubs. Bartholomeusz describes it as "a necklace" adorning "the expanse of one's body".


While these funky-cool looks are often a projection of owner and architect, they're just as frequently a design response to the site. One of Bartholomeusz's projects is an X-shaped residence, cantilevering over a berm, to take advantage of a sweeping vista. Another on Beach Road has two townhouses stacked on top of each other at the front to accommodate the narrowness of the block, before ending up side by side.


When owners come to sell, it can be a wrench to let go. When Gordon Samson and his wife were selling their early-'60s North Warrandyte home - designed by iconic architect Robin Boyd - they wanted a buyer who would love the property as much as they did.


However, finding the right buyer can sometimes prove a little tricky, says Jellis Craig agent Richard Winneke. "They don't appeal as widely as, say, your more standard double-fronted, single-level period home with a traditional floor plan," he says.


For this reason, it's important to promote the property as widely as possible.


"You need to open the place up to everybody, even the stickybeaks," recommends buyers advocate Melissa Opie. "You have to cast the net far and wide and get as many through as possible."


Mr Winneke points out that the special nature of these houses - often award winners - attracts media coverage, giving the properties the exposure required to draw a broader audience, particularly potential buyers outside the area.


"The more people that find out about it, the more they'll talk and generate word of mouth," he says. "I've sold to people who weren't even looking to buy."


But he says sellers have to be open-minded about the sale method - expressions of interest instead of auction, for instance. They must also be prepared for a longer campaign (up to 90 days) to spend more on marketing and allow more time to sell.


Mr Winneke adds, however, that these high-end (high-art) architect-designed properties can also command a premium, especially if "it's the must-have house".


While Ms Opie agrees, she stresses that sellers still need to temper the "emotional value" they've invested and set a realistic price. At the same time, these highly individual houses can be harder to price.


"[Buyers] need to know they're paying the right price and not riding the wave of the vendor's dream."


Tim Hill doesn't see the fuss. The striking curved timber-and-steel roof and translucent polycarbonate face of his award-winning Kensington home, which he built in 2008, were merely design responses to the four-metre wall overshadowing the block for "most of the day, most of the year".


"[The design] was trying to channel as much light into the property as possible," he explains, "to turn a dank and miserable site into a light-filled, comfortable home."


Still, the Melbourne architect admits most passers-by stop and, if he's there, remark on the house, known as Kensington Lighthouse. "They'll say they like it or ask what it's like living there," he says.


He is also asked who designed it, which may explain, in part, why Hill is so low-key. The Melbourne architect designed the home with his late partner - also an architect - Dominique Ng.


"It's what you get when you get two keen architects involved," he says. "All the things people identify as striking or unusual we saw as logical responses to the circumstances we found at the site and the way we wanted to live."


Hill admits it's hard to let go but it's about closing a chapter and doing it over somewhere else. He knows it will be a special kind of buyer who will covet it. Passed in at auction and on the market privately at $1.05 million, that person is still out there.

Paul Best- Financial Review

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