Can a mansion ever be too big? Not for the super rich

Personal car-wash? Tick. Satellite laundries? Standard. Indoor pool? Of course.

Australians might have been goggle-eyed about the $70 million sale of Erica and James Packer's mansion in Sydney's Vaucluse to Chau Chak Wing, but this kind of house with these kinds of fittings (glassed garden, 20-seat cinema, separate entertaining areas and sweeping harbour views) is more common than you think. 

"As people see more of the world and the way that truly wealthy people live, that's their reference point. Whereas even when we had large houses here in the past, many times they were Xeroxed-up bungalows," says architecture and design firm Burton Kaley Halliday's Ian Halliday.

"There's a more thorough look at what is it that makes a great house traditionally: great public spaces, a lovely sense of arrival, and gardens."

Millionaire movers

The number of Australian millionaires is growing more than three times as fast as the population, according to a report by capgemini, which estimates there are nearly 250,000 people with investable assets of more than $US1 million ($1.35 million). 

It's one of the best things that you can do if you have all that money. Because what happens inside is your world.

Marco Meneguzzi

And, increasingly, Australian interior designers and architects are being enlisted to design and fill bigger, and more bespoke, spaces. 

"It's one of the best things that you can do if you have all that money. Because what happens inside is your world. Anyone can stay in the St Regis in New York," says Sydney-based interior designer Marco Meneguzzi. 

Lifestyles of the rich and rich

So car enthusiasts have an underground car wash that cleans their car as they leave the garage. And people who like cooking for their family and friends have three or four dishwashers, for starters. The children have their own ensuite bathrooms and dressing rooms. There are games rooms and cinemas.

"Many successful Australians who have returned to Australia for the lifestyle and who once avoided the tall poppy syndrome are now more confident in having these impressive homes and enjoying them. Those that we know about are only the tip of the iceberg," says interior designer Thomas Hamel.


Hamel is working on two houses with indoor swimming pools, and another in the US where he is designing a Western-themed bowling alley. Wine cellars with seating for a few or many are also popular, he says, noting that one way to avoid the cold is to put a glass partition between the cellar and the cellar dining room.

"People in these vast houses tend to allocate areas. So rather than put your running machine in your kitchen, there's a vast gym, yoga rooms, massage rooms, inside pools, hair parlours," POCO Designs' Charlotte O'Neill says. "With this sort of scale the way people live is that people come to them, they don't necessarily go out."

Mega design challenge

Doing all this and still having a house that works for the immediate family can pose a challenge. 

"It's got to have an intimacy. It's not making it look like a reception hall. So two people can be in it, or 200," says Hamel, who often clusters small groups of chairs in a bigger room.

Some of the tricks the designers employ to make the houses look luxurious and welcoming include layering different fabrics, objects and colours, and ensuring the furniture and lighting is to scale. So if the room is enormous, so's the sofa. 

POCO's Poppy O'Neill says that using the house's positioning – particularly when it has sensational views as in the case of La Mer in Vaucluse – is critical.

"Seeing the wonderful arches in the Packer house, they are a key feature and they frame the view, allowing it to become the artwork," she says, noting that a west-facing house like this one means that nooks can be created to make sure the glare doesn't hit the television.

Halliday says clients now bring in full-grown trees to finish a house, where 20 years ago, they planted shrubs that "a poodle could have jumped over".  

But ultimately, it's about bringing people together. 

"They're often building for the dynasty. It's about how to make all these families stay together," Hamel says.

This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review