Sydney-based architecture and design firm Benn + Penna - headed by architect Andrew Benn and his interior-designer wife Alice Penna - have been turning heads in Sydney with a residential project for their own extended family. The Balmain Houses are reimaginings of two classic semi-detached Victorian-era workmen’s cottages - many of which cascade down the hills of this once-working-class harbour-side peninsula. The dilapidated dwellings were burdened with crude additions and were dark and introverted. But they had a good corner-block position close to the ferry docking in their favour, as well as assets like north-facing gardens and potential for harbour views.  

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Benn + Penna’s idea was to create two houses that were part of a whole, yet separate family homes for Andrew and his wife, and Andrew’s mother and her partner. The aim was light, open-plan houses that were more ’semi-attached’ than ’semi-detached’, reassembled for family living. Over the years the two properties had become ’divorced’ from each other with different materials used. So timber was chosen as the consistent material palette, which sits comfortably alongside the historic fabric of heritage Balmain.

Though the design is lively, striking and geometric, it is also adaptable, offering shade from the sun, direct harbour views, and privacy from neighbours, even while purposely revealing its striking rear facade to passers-by, so as to be a friendly participant in the streetscape.  

Inside, the use of timber and geometrics continue, but the interiors play to the different characters and needs of the families. One house uses a warmer palette of finishes with a focus on natural materials such as slate and recycled Australian timbers; the other has a more contemporary aesthetic, with references to Scandinavian design, incorporating birch plywood joinery and lime-washed timber floors.   

There is flow and interconnectedness between the two: for example, the stone wall that divides them has in-built peep holes; and you can slink through a gap at the end. Parts of the roof space have been used over the living rooms to increase the sense of space, as have built-in storage and furniture. This is self-described ’textured modernism’- homes that are clearly contemporary but with a layering and grain that speak to the historic area of Balmain.