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Creativity And Constraints: How Architects Are Modernising Heritage Ho...

Creativity And Constraints: How Architects Are Modernising Heritage Houses

The constraints of early Australian housing typologies encourage architects to thinking creatively about how to respectfully adapt them for modern-day living.

Australian housing in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries was very much influenced by the British, Italian, French and American with Victorian terraces, Edwardian cottages, Federation villas and California bungalows lining inner-city and suburban streets. While these houses embody a slice of Australian history, serving as architectural symbols of the country’s heritage, many have been altered and adapted over the years, reflecting the desire for more natural light, fresh air, open space and outdoor connections.

These houses are often located on long, compact blocks with neighbouring properties and heritage overlays. But with constraints comes creativity as architects modernise the houses while preserving and respecting an original character.



Bell Street House by Bagnoli Architects

The Victorian style proved to be the most popular housing typology from around 1840 to 1890. They began as formal but plain one-storey dwellings and became taller, grander and more decorative as the period progressed – an expression of Australia’s increasing wealth and confidence and development of industry and craftsmanship.

Bell Street House in Hawthorn is a Victorian cottage built in 1887 that Bagnoli Architects transformed into a light-filled home. The client – also the builder – wanted and a home with flowing spaces, increased living area, separated sleeping zones and outdoor space for the dog.

“Despite no heritage overlay in the area most of the houses have remained sympathetic to the original Victorian cottages lining the street,” says Stefan Bagnoli. The front of the house has been preserved and the two-storey addition begins behind the front hip roof and is clad in timber battens to soften the form and create interplays of light and shadow. “The dissolving nature of the spaced timber-batten façade and hip roof provides a sympathetic response to existing neighbourhood conditions,” Stefan explains.

The interior layout is compact and efficient with small sanctuaries that enable the family to be together or on their own. Skylights bring light deeper into the house; a large circular window provides a view into the backyard (and an escape hatch for the dog), and custom-designed elements, such as the staircase plinth that doubles as a low seat for changing shoes, are designed specifically for the family’s way of living.

Photography by Peter Bennetts


South Yarra House by O’Connor and Houle

South Yarra House is an alteration and addition to what O’Connor and Houle describe as a “somewhat unconventional two-storey Victorian house”. Part of a Level 1 streetscape in a Heritage Overlay, the area is highly protected with Victorian-era homes and early-twentieth-century houses and apartments lining the streets.

O’Connor and Houle modernised the house, adding new service areas, living spaces and courtyards, while restoring the characteristic elements of the Victorian house. “We cut into and away from the cellular nature of the Victorian plan to create an amalgamation of private spaces and communal spaces that represent the ideal configuration of the modern house,” explain Annick Houle and Stephen O’Connor. “The new rear façade and north-facing garden exploit the environmental context and introduce light, shade, air, city views, and greenery to the historic interiors.”

A verandah wraps around the front and side of the house, while the other side is set in from the boundary. O’Connor and Houle inserted a barely visible addition in this tall, narrow space to accommodate services. Clad in a deep-green glass and set back from the façade, it houses the kitchen, bathrooms, a study and laundry.

The upper and lower hallways were offset from each other, which enabled the removal of small upper-level rooms without interrupting the envelope of the house and its roof. A new two-storey void brings generous space and light into the middle of the plan, and new living spaces within a modern addition are oriented onto a north-facing courtyard conceived as an outdoor room.

Photography by Earl Carter


Highbury Grove House by RITZ&GHOUGASSIAN

Federation-style houses built in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century celebrated Australia’s budding national identity. Architects and builders fused influences from France, Britain and America to create houses less formal than Victorian-era predecessors and far better suited to the country’s subtropical climate. And with the fervour of nationalism and pride that accompanied federation in 1901, architects embedded symbols of flora and fauna in timber work and sunrise motifs in front gables to signify the dawning of the new century.

Highbury Grove House in Prahan is the family home of Gilad Ritz, director of Ritz&Ghougassian. The studio took an inward-looking approach to updating the Federation house, creating private spaces with internal courtyards, rather than a traditional backyard. “The project contrasts the medium of light and air against the heaviness of the concrete walls,” say Gilad and Jean-Paul Ghougassian.

The heritage façade conceals the expansive contemporary addition, with a narrow threshold accentuating the transition between old and new. Heavy-set concrete-block walls define cavernous spaces and frame views of the courtyards that flank each end of the living area. “The connection between the heritage architecture and the new addition is expressed as a singular moment cast in shadow. The user is squeezed into close contact with the concrete walls, before stepping up into a large hollow volume of open air and light,” Gilad explains.

The concrete-block walls emphasise the module of the brick and meticulous geometry of the house, with spotted gum joinery and doors bringing warmth and grain to the interior.

Photography by Tom Blachford


Bouwam House by Sam Crawford Architects

Haberfield was dubbed the Garden Suburb in the early twentieth-century due to its parks, tree-lined streets and one-storey Federation houses with pristine gardens. It was an experiment in urban planning and to be an exemplar for middle-class Australia suburbs. Consequently, the majority of houses in Haberfield are protected in the Conservation Area of Haberfield, part of the Register of the National Estate of Australia, and renovations and additions must follow strict guidelines ensuring they stay true to the style of the era.

Sam Crawford Architects’ addition to this 1914 Federation house included removing a 1990s extension and adding spacious and contemporary living spaces: open-plan kitchen, living and dining room, media room and attic conversion. “The original dwelling has its own strengths and is very much of its time. We wanted to reflect the solidity of that existing form, yet at the same time provide a contrast,” says Sam.

The contemporary use of concrete represents the timeless nature of the original and new buildings. A curved concrete wall expressed inside and out marks the transition between old and new and draws visitors into the light-filled rear living spaces. Formwork joins and tie-rod holes are visible on the exposed concrete walls reflecting the rawness of the material.

A former garage at the back of the property has been repurposed into a cabana space, creating a sanctuary and recreation area adjacent to the pool.

Photography by Brett Boardman


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