Work has begun in transforming the former Defence Housing Australia (DHA) site at Sydney’s Ermington into a $450 million, 615-apartment estate designed by architects HDR Rice Daubney.

Running across 2.3 hectares of land on the north-western reaches of the Sydney Harbour, PAYCE and Sekisui House’s Royal Shores is a nine block development that draws on the site’s rich maritime history, echoing the existing materiality, form and “finer rhythm” of the existing suburb.

This is seen in the pitched sawtooth roofs – a nod to the former use of the site as naval stores – and white-painted brick facades, which reflect the prominent building material of the suburb and help add a finer grain than would be achieved if a more typical rendered surface was used.

Carved windows with deep sills help define the facade, while the flanking walls add warmth and texture with timber cladding that again, reference the site’s former maritime use. The taller forms on Silverwater Road display the same materiality, although the brick base here aligns with the waterfront buildings in height, with the timber providing an articulated top to the building.

The break up of the apartments, which mimic a terrace module, also helps to break the length of the waterfront lots and give them an appropriate sense of scale commensurate with the residential street.

The layout of each building is organised around a central open courtyard to maximise daylight, ventilation, and a sense of privacy for occupants. According to the architects, circulation is provided by a series of interlinking and overlapping steel and timber lightweight bridges; effectively suspended treetop walkways that add visual intricacy to the courtyards.

Each apartment offers well-proportioned rooms with careful acoustic planning and inventive storage solutions. Instead of traditional balconies, the ‘all seasons’ living room – evoking yet again a maritime flavour – creates a huge indoor-outdoor space. Details and finishes are inspired by the classic timber Halvorsen boats.

“Design inspiration has been drawn from Halvorsen’s craftsmanship, with timber laminate detailing, nautical-style fittings and wall lights that are reminiscent of boat lights,” said Angus Henderson, studio leader of interior architecture at Turner.

“The panelled kitchen islands and overhead cupboards are grooved like a boat hull with a diamond-weave steel marine mesh feature.”

Designed according to One Planet principles and in compliance with Green Star and Basix standards, the project optimises its environmental performance primarily through positive passive design.

Royal Shores was shortlisted for the 2014 Sydney Design Awards, and has already seen its internal streets and cycleways built. Its first two waterfront buildings, twin six-storey buildings that range from one to four bedrooms, will launch on March 7.