A residential project by Breathe Architecture, “Stonewood” is a fascinating dialogue between past and present, writes Stephen Crafti.
This tree-lined street in Northcote, Melbourne, has been given heritage status by the local council. While there are a few period homes, there are also a number of fairly unremarkable homes. One of these was an early twentieth century timber home in a dilapidated state. A couple with three young children bought the house with the intention of pulling it down and building a new house. “There was considerable resistance from the local council. But it wouldn’t have been worthwhile restoring,” says architect Fairley Batch from Breathe Architecture, one of the project architects who worked on the new house.
Breathe Architecture referred to a bluestone house tucked behind a Victorian cottage a couple of doors down when applying for a permit to build. While the front of the two-storey 1850s building isn’t immediately visible from the street, it was a catalyst for the heritage precinct. “Jeremy (McLeod, Director of Breathe) questioned the area’s listing and was drawn to this bluestone pile in the process,” says Batch.
While a new two-storey house was eventually approved, there are numerous connections between it and the bluestone house. The new home was set further back from the street (5 metres) than the timber home it replaced, aligned to the bluestone home. The form and scale was also influenced by this house, but modified to address residential code. And while not constructed in bluestone, the new house is clad in sugar gum, which was cut into the same dimensions of the bluestone rather than being laid in planks . The windows of the house also share the same proportions as the nearby home, framed in steel however rather than in timber. Builder James Wilson, from Construction 32, must have been in high spirits when he agreed to take on this project. And like many early Victorian homes, with a timber lean-to, the rear wing is clad in charred timber.
The house is simply arranged with kitchen and living areas at ground level, with four bedrooms, all of equivalent size above. “They’re an egalitarian family. They didn’t want the traditional larger main bedroom, which often means reducing the others,” says Batch. Although the bedrooms are separate, there are internal openings to allow glimpses and connections between bedrooms and shared areas of the house over the stairwell. “The twins each have their own bedroom, but they’ve rigged up a pulley system where they can send things to each other,” says Batch.
Also important to the brief was a separate music room for one of the owners, a composer, requiring her own space. This music room, leading directly from the living area, features a large sliding timber door that can be left open when not being used. Built-in shelves, located behind this door, not only reduce noise, but also provide valuable storage.
Although the clients didn’t have a clear image as to what the interior should look like, they were taken by a Michelangelo sculpture titled Quattro Prigioni in Italy. The torso, wresting from the marble, clearly made an impact. “We were trying to create a sense of carving in this house,” says Batch, pointing out the irregular-shaped island bench in the kitchen. But rather than using marble, this bench is made from recycled timber floorboards and limed plywood. “We’ve ‘chiseled’ the undercroft to allow for bench seating,” says Batch. Likewise, the chiselled forms of the master bedroom balcony roof form a reading nook under the stair with embedded with bookshelves, also adding to the carved theme.
One of the most used areas of the house is the courtyard-style front garden, with timber fence and unusual screens. These screens, clad in the same sugar gum tiles, appear to ‘dissolve’ into the façade when not in use. However, when opened, this outdoor space becomes private, creating temporary walls to neighbouring homes.
The Northcote house is not only a fine family home it also makes one question a number of architectural issues, from heritage to equality (size of bedrooms). And while there are cues from the nearby heritage house, there’s also a fascinating dialogue between past and present, this design is contemporary, using both the latest and classical materials in new and innovative ways.
Design Architect: Jeremy McLeod
Project Architect: Fairley Batch, Eugenia Tan
Project Team: Janusz Choromanski, Bettina Neate
By Stephen Crafti