Merchant Builders Open Day

Sunday the 20th of November saw an open day organised by the Robin Boyd Foundation which examined the influence and impact of houses designed and built by Merchant Builders

Merchant Builders was a company established in 1965 with two business partners – David Yencken and John Ridge. It traded until 1986 when it was sold and shortly thereafter the business ceased trading. They utilised the services of architects, principally Graeme Gunn. It was a complete service including landscaping and interior design. The landscaper was Ellis Stones. Interior design services were provided by Janne Faulkner.

There were open homes and townhouses constructed by Merchant Builders in various suburbs including Toorak, Kew, Rosanna, Vermont and Doncaster.

I visited four homes in Rosanna located in what was known as the Elliston Estate. The name comes as a tribute to the landscape architect Ellis Stones. He was a proponent of the natural garden style with extensive use of strategically placed rocks with native plantings. The estate was established in the late 1960’s – back then the idea of using native plants in the garden was revolutionary.

Self-walking tour guide to the Elliston Estate

The subdivision ran along the Rosanna Parklands which has Salt Creek running north-south along its length. The pleasing sounds of Banjo Frogs and Magpies added to the sense of open space. Indeed the entire subdivision incorporates many original trees which the builder worked around as part of the initial plans – trees were seen as an asset. This is in contrast to the complete destruction of all plant life that occurs on nearly all building sites these days being a distinct feature of all knock down rebuilds.

Ellis Stones was brought into the design of the entire estate early in its conception, and the local council also retained him to design aspects of the parkland that lies adjacent to the subdivision to the west. This must have been a coup for Stones professionally and it would be unusual for both the developer and the council to have worked so collaboratively. However the results and benefits of that collaboration are still evident today. Adding to the aesthetics is the lack of overhead powerlines and footpaths. All of these factors make the overall feel of the estate one where the nature is enhanced. The houses sit low and comfortably in that environment rather than dominating.

No mission brown here but the colour scheme still blends well with the surrounds. The choice of bricks is also sympathetic to the landscape. Floor to ceiling windows allow for maximum light penetration.

Comfortable in every way – this design allowed plenty of natural light into the main living areas with highlight windows facing south.

View through rear of garden toward Rosanna Parkland and Salt Water Creek. The absence of fences adjacent to the parkland adds to the connection between the homes and the parkland.

The homes visited were all in first class condition and a tribute to both the builder and the owners who have kept up the maintenance on these homes over the decades. They are worn but still in good working condition with the only obvious change in most instances being the addition of a dishwasher. The entire estate is still relatively intact with homes of the same era. There was also an absence of Ikea furniture, oversized TV’s and oversized vehicles.

Each of the homes visited were slightly different with the highlight to me being the simplicity of the design, the sensible size of each house, and the use of strategically placed floor to ceiling windows that allowed maximum light without taking up too much wall space. Thin feature windows giving views of the garden were also incorporated into the designs.

Each house had an en-suite in the master bedroom. If the bathroom was in the middle of the house with no external view they would have a skylight. They were built to last with original tiles in each instance.

There was also the clever link between the kitchen and living areas which typically linked to a court yard. There was direct access to private garden spaces off the master bedroom.

Simple elegant timeless design and better than nice. And the house is not bad either.

I also visited townhouses constructed by Merchant Builders in Kew and Toorak. These had a different feel to them to the Rosanna houses but employed that same clever use of windows and simple material palette. Each site had difficult slopes to deal with and between the architect and the landscape design still managed to maximise the garden views and internal

Kew double storey townhouse – there is actually a pool out of shot in the foreground. Note the retention of an original River Red Gum (Eucalyptus Camaldulensis) . The owner must have very large bottles of wine as there is a huge corkscrew located in the garden – just in case.

Toorak Townhouse – the Ellis Stones garden compliments the slope of the block. This home made great use of an internal courtyard that the townhouse wrapped around on three sides.