Usually, the renovation of a narrow Victorian row house begins with the wholesale demolition of the older and more unfashionable sections of the building and proceeds to replace them with new, often bigger, louder and more aggressive work.
However, during this process something is lost.
Architect for the Sproule residence, Andrew Maynard, is convinced that an important consideration in any renovation is memory. He believes that all buildings contain history and bear the marks of the lives and labours of those that have inhabited them. He feels that the unthinking erasure of this past, seen so often in renovation projects, is to be avoided as much as possible. Any renewal should contain signs or echoes of what was there before. In this way, the memory of the house before alteration can seep back into the renewed form.
In the Sproule house, Maynard faced a functional brief common to projects of this type. The existing older sections of the house, especially the key service spaces − the kitchen and bathroom − were crammed and cut off from light and outdoor space. The client wanted to replace them with facilities that matched an active and open lifestyle: a versatile and adaptable living and social space that took advantage of the backyard, a more functional kitchen, a study and a new bathroom.
In response, the architect developed a design exploring adaptability, memory and material. The connection between the kitchen and study and the associated living spaces is loose. While these smaller areas can form part of the larger composition when the house is full of visitors, they can serve just as well as separate and private work spaces. Similarly, the junction between inside and outside can be modified. The interior space can spill out onto the deck and yard seamlessly or be separated and filtered through the coloured and clear glass of the doors.
The original design concept for the house was that the forms and finishes of the new work should just slot into the old section of the buildings and so be seen to be discernibly different. Where possible, elements or portions of the walls were to be retained, and where they had to be removed completely, some mark or scar of their previous existence should remain. In its execution, the design holds true to this concept. The kitchen is kept in its original position and wraps around what was the original external wall, using existing window openings to create a social hub around the bench. The direction of the new timber flooring changes in the middle of the new living spaces, marking the position of the removed back wall of the house. Black form ply reveals show where walls once stood. The pattern in the plywood ceiling is generated from the lines of elements that were once in the house and are now gone, and the pragmatic desire to use sheet off-cuts.
The choice of materials reinforces the notion of memory in the building. Drawing attention to the wide intervals between the growth rings of the timber, the architect noted that timber has a certain wisdom to it that you cannot reproduce or imitate. It is adventurous and playful. Like the house, the wood has memory, but its memory is of the tree from which it was drawn.
The material selection was part of a strong sustainability program in the design. The house embraces passive design. It has been well insulated and sunlight offers to maximise exposure and heat gain during winter and is limited in summer. There is no mechanical heating or cooling system in the house. The timber frame is light, flexible and economic. The majority of selected timbers are from plantations and the structure has been designed on a 600 mm grid. This inherently reduces off-cuts and waste and, in this project, led to very little excess ply left at completion. The ply surfaces were also very easy to work and finish, and are relatively simple to maintain. The flow of wood and the careful exploitation of its colour and texture also strengthened the connections between internal and external spaces and between old and new. The darker surfaces of ply signify work surfaces and edges, strip flooring marks comfortable internal spaces, while the decking speaks of exposed outdoor conditions.
From the front, this single-fronted cottage looks the same as any other in the neighbouring streets. The original floor plan was typical of the era. One bedroom and the hall opened onto the street towards the east. Further inside, the hall ran past a second bedroom and then into the living room areas and old kitchen. To allow natural light in, the width of the building was contracted after the second bedroom to form a small side laneway along the northern boundary. Over time, this lane was partly built over with a kitchen. Maynard has retained the position of the kitchen but much of its fabric and that of the old living space was removed.
For the visitor moving into the house down the hall, the first evident part of the new work is a large plywood box. This contains the compact bathroom − finished with white tiling, black lines and splashes of colour like a simple study of the work of Modrian − and laundry.
Moving further into the house, the new living spaces open up. Recognising the logic of the original building form, the line of the original side laneway has been retained but is now inside the building and includes the service spaces: kitchen, display area and study. The kitchen, the spiritual centre of a house, is a compact and functional composition with a stainless steel work surface fixed over a long joinery box fabricated from 19 mm plywood. This sits on a banquette that wraps around the section of wall at this point, connecting the living areas to the kitchen and, more pragmatically, provides additional storage space. While the kitchen is only about 1500 mm wide, it allows one person to work comfortably and efficiently. Ply reveals accentuate the openings through the walls from the kitchen to the living area. With the form and amenity of the banquette, these openings encourage the cook to engage with visitors and family and visa versa. Beyond the kitchen, the reconstructed laneway extends past display shelving to end in the study. This small work area has been handled like a discrete alcove in the corner of the living space extending into the backyard. A large hopper window of western red cedar affords light and the late afternoon sunshine onto the shiny formply desktop and the surrounding surfaces. There is ample shelving and a wraparound pin board. The ceiling in these side service spaces is low. This allows the architect to keep the roof level in this zone down and squeeze in a thin window below the ceiling of the main room at the darker east end of the kitchen. This helps to balance the strong directional light coming in from the backyard.
The main dining and living room spaces are open, bright and versatile. Returns on the south wall, remnants of the original walls, suggest separation of the spaces. However, the red browns of the Tasmanian oak strip floor unite it. Warm and inviting, the close and even grain of these boards, so characteristic of southern Australian hardwoods, provide a significant contrast to the broad texture of the yellowish Radiata pine in the plywood insert that forms the ceiling.
As it extends out to the functional deck, the rear of the building features floor to ceiling steel bi-fold doors. Odd panes of this screen have been picked out in strongly coloured laminated glass. While the position reinforces the lines and proportion of the composition, the colours, as they reflect off the floor, also provide some extra joy to the project.
Many renovation projects contain surprises during construction and this was no exception. When the old fabric was cleared away, the floor was found to be sitting directly on the ground. As the site had been previously filled, screw piles and extensive footings were used to support new walls along the boundaries. Everything had to come through the small back lane and this proved to be challenging. Fortunately, the largely timber construction simplified material handling and easily addressed the inherent problem of matching the traditional with the modern.
Written by Gregory Nolan
9mm Radiata pine, Pinus Radiata
80 x 20mm Tasmania oak, Eucalyptus delegatensis, E. obliqua and E. regnans on timber frame
Kitchen bench tops
19mm Radiata pine, Pinus Radiata
Central bench seat
Jarrah, Eucalyptus marginata
Western Red Cedar, Thuja plicata