Sydney Architecture Images- Northern Suburbs

Woolley house


Ken Woolley 


33 Bullecourt Avenue Mosman 




"Sydney School" Late 20th-Century Sydney Regional


Builder: Pettit, Sevitt and Partners 



The house is located on a steep hillside, covered with large rocks, trees and ferns and that originally looked out over Middle Harbour. Now, almost 40 years after construction, the site’s trees have grown and screen the view. 

The design derives from an idea of garden terraces, most of which are covered by sections of timber roof which slope parallel to the land. 

A geometric discipline was imposed on the plan, the basis of the which is a series of 12 foot square units, several of which combine to form the main central space. The main bedroom, bathroom and kitchen units open from this central space. 

The individual units step sideways and downwards across the slope and the roof sections follow, creating narrow rooflights which serve to make the roof float over the living areas. 

Each unit steps aside 4 feet (one third its width) to follow the contours of the land, and the same proportion is used to separate the units vertically. 

The building’s external walls, and several internal walls (which create screens and balustrades which divide the flowing interior) are of clinker brick. The palate of materials is kept to a minimum and was selected to define the individual elements of the structure and its infill. Internally, the structural frame of sawn hemlock is visible. Infill panels are of oiled tallowwood. 

Ventilation is provided by the means of solid timber panels which have insect screens fitted externally. 

The concrete floors were originally covered with cork and matting. The cork remains, but the matting has been replaced with carpet.


The building is an example of Ken Woolley’s early work before joining Ancher, Mortlock and Murray in 1964. Ken Woolley had designed the State Office Block for the Government Architect’s Office, as well as Fisher Library at the University of Sydney. 

At the time of the house’s construction, Sydney had been developed to certain boundaries and most of the flat building sites had been exhausted. Developers therefore set their sights on land previously considered unfit for building (such as the steep bushland on which the Woolley House is built). 

A new house type that accepted that the land sloped was required for such sites. The split level form minimised the amount of excavation and filling that was required for construction. 

This requirement led to amazingly spatially dynamic forms – space vertically through the interiors as well as horizontally. Internal spaces were staggered – a unique approach – and stepped down the sites so that sightlines could angle down and views could be achieved from remote areas of the house. 

Materials often used were quarry tiles, western red cedar boarding and panelling, clinker or sandstock bricks, polished timber floors, sawn and unfinished timbers. Colour schemes were typically neutral internally to allow the materials and spaces to speak for themselves. 

Living spaces were generally open plan, connected but articulated by changes of ceiling height, changes of direction and screening with fittings or elements of the plan. The clever and complex manipulation of space meant that floor areas could be tight while maximising the feeling of space in the house. Visual separation was often achieved by arranging lines of sight to wholly or partially conceal some views (such as views of the kitchen from the living area). 

Decks and terraces which opened the interior to the exterior were common. Small bedrooms were generally chosen to allow living areas to be maximised. 

This style of house became known as the Sydney School, and was used across Australia, but predominantly along the eastern seabord, mainly around Sydney. This style offered charming and intimate spaces, beautifully crafted with naturally finished materials. 

It really only became possible at the end of the 1950s to use more interesting building materials as war time difficulties were at an end. Clinker bricks were imperfect and suited the aesthetic of the Sydney School, which was in part a revisiting of the Californian Bungalow aesthetic. 

The design ideas were quite radical in one way, but the scale of the spaces and the palate of materials was very warm and human. 

The Woolley house and the other examples at the time were highly influential and affected the designs of many other contemporary houses, both one-off designs and, more directly, the project homes Ken Woolley went on to design for Pettit and Sevitt.

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