“I’m pleased you saw the connection to the Japanese aesthetic,” says architect Matt Elkan, who not surprisingly, has been working on a ski lodge in Nozawa, regularly traveling to Japan since 2017 (excluding COVID restrictions). “Like many Japanese homes, this plot is also quite tight,” adds Elkan, pointing out the dimensions of the corner site, just a tad over 112 square metres.
Located in a heritage conservation area that predominantly features Victorian terraces, this building, originally built in the early 20th century as a smash repairs workshop (hence its name) is one of the anomalies. Transformed into a house by well-known architect Col James, who also happened to teach Elkan in the 1990s, it needed to be updated for a professional couple looking for more light, cross ventilation and some of the creature comforts that were omitted in the 1970s. “Essentially, the main living area occupied the darkest part of the house and the path to the north-facing terrace was fairly arduous,” says Elkan, who received a commendation from the Australian Institute of Architects (NSW Chapter) for this project.
While the ‘70s exterior colours, including baby-blue painted window frames could be easily addressed, heritage controls required careful deliberation at every turn, including satisfying the council’s requirement for a pitched steel roof to complement neighbouring terraces. Elkan managed to make a few subtle additions to the exterior, including operable steel shutters and a new steel insert into the brick façade to delineate the new front door. “I recall the initial discussions which included the remark, “We want what we already have but better,” says Elkan, who replanned the rooms in the house to take advantage of the northern light, cross ventilation, and views over Sydney’s city skyline.
Elkan rejigged the spaces, transforming what was previously the main living area in the south to a television/guest bedroom. A study, a laundry and a bathroom all enjoy a connection to the courtyard-style garden with features such as internal louvred glass windows in the study allowing for cross ventilation through the new doors framing the courtyard. Timber-battened ceilings along with expressed timber on fibrocement walls further add to the Japanese sensibility. The timber battens on the ceiling, lined with acoustic fabric, reduce noise from the concrete floors, with underfloor heating. And while many of the 1970s features are no longer, there still remains the bridge (part of James’ design that connected two wings) on the first floor which allows the gaps between the timber to funnel warm air to the first floor.
On the first floor, one can now find the main living space, with windows orientated to the north, a guest bedroom, together with a kitchen that leads to a protected outdoor dining area and an adjoining terrace. A double-height space in the living area gives a hint of the main bedroom and ensuite on the top level with the presence of the operable timber shutters that separate the two levels. “As it is a house primarily designed for a couple, these shutters are generally left open,” says Elkan.
The kitchen, positioned adjacent to the original bridge, also takes on a Japanese quality with its pitched timber-battened ceiling, black laminate joinery and slatted island bench made from solid blackbutt. And to create a seamless reading of the indoors and out, the timber-lined ceiling extends to the protected outdoor terrace.
Elkan regularly designs renovations and new houses outside of Sydney (his office is based in Newport on Sydney’s Northern Beaches). However, given his connection to Japan, he and his team were still eager to work around the many council restrictions that were imposed from the outset, with the initial development application needing to be tweaked to meet strict heritage guidelines. “Our clients still have all the amenity they were looking for. But like many Japanese homes, these are only discovered once past the threshold,” adds Elkan.