Above: Original weatherboards and timber detailing lead to the modern extension.
Some houses stand out – and not in a good way – their design an affront to the neighbourhood character. There are also examples of the opposite – houses that mindlessly replicate a style and simply melt into obscurity. In the case of a home extension in a suburb with a strong historical context, how do you retain an architectural tradition whilst also expressing personality?
The Knights’ Lilyfield home achieves this with flair, overlaying a contemporary extension to an original 1830s weatherboard cottage, resulting in a surprising and charming combination of old and new.
Above: (Left) A lightwell at the bottom of the stairs to the mezzanine is also enjoyed from the kitchen. (Right) The superman comic-inspired graphic wallpaper reveals the family’s creative personality.
Originally a rural settlement, Lilyfield became an industrial working-class suburb in the early 20th Century, with rows of quaint weatherboard cottages defining the suburb’s character. This unique character and convenient location – a mere six kilometres from Sydney’s central business district – has resulted in a largely affluent and creative community with the means and motivation to address the challenge of expressing personality through architectural experimentation.
Meet the Knights – graphic artist, Richard, high school music administrator, Gretel, and their three teenage children, Coco, Perrin and Hero – who moved into their Lilyfield house after outgrowing their previous one nearly five years ago.
Although it accommodated the four bedrooms they wanted, living areas were in short supply. With five busy family members and lots of visiting friends, the Knights were desperate for some contemporary, bright spaces. As it was, some areas of the site were unusable – “There was a big, rubbishy backyard with a long lean-to shed that used a lot of space really inefficiently, getting lower and smaller and mouldier as it went along,” says Richard. There were problems inside too, he recalls – “You’d be in the shower and the tiles would fall off.”
Desperate as they were, the Knights knew the importance of working with a good architect. “We spent a lot of time talking to people, asking friends who are interior designers… we asked and looked and hunted, and it probably took about 18 months,” they remember. It paid off.
Once they found Sydney duo, Nobbs Radford Architects (Alison Nobbs and Sean Radford), Richard and Gretel were comfortable with giving them free rein, saying “We knew they would do something modern so we said ‘here’s what we need, but then you go and do it from there.’”
For their part, the architects were keen to “create an architectural form that spoke to the broader environment,” as Radford describes it. The fact that the Knights were open to new ideas and ways of living was also attractive.
So began the renovation. The process included demolishing the obsolete shed at the rear of the house and inserting a new, modern addition comprising kitchen, living area, mezzanine and study nook. As well, two bathroom renovations were carefully designed into the original weatherboard section.
Externally, the form of the addition is initially a surprise. That is, until you realise that the vertical lines of the steel cladding are a subtle reference to the original weatherboards. “We wanted the new work to read as a strong, single form that could be enjoyed by both the occupiers and the passers-by,” Radford recalls.
As you enter the house, a glimpse of light beckons from the end of the old timber-panelled hallway. When you reach the end of the original structure, the new extension opens up in an abundance of volume and light. It is hard to believe these two very different characters belong to the same house, but Nobbs Radford Architects has taken great care to sensitively incorporate elements that both mirror and contrast the original.
Upstairs, the high-gloss door of the new bathroom is juxtaposed beautifully with 200 year-old timber wall panels. On the ground floor, Kauri floorboards provide a link between the original house and the new dining and kitchen before turning into cool unpolished concrete in the living area. It is these elements that bring together the opposing characters of this unique home.
Inside, the personality of the family is revealed. On the clean canvas provided by Nobbs Radford Architects, the Knights have expressed their colourful, creative and quirky character through elements like the graphic wall in the living room. Taken from an original 1938 Superman comic that Richard and Gretel secretly had scanned, enlarged and printed onto wallpaper, it was hung one day while the children were at school. “We didn’t tell the kids, so they came home and kind of freaked right out,” laughs Richard.
Walking through the spaces, various pop art objects – such as a vintage painted Popeye doll that sits on a bookshelf, or the Thunderbirds wall clock – provide bursts of fun amid the serious architecture. These spontaneous elements catch the eye and make this house a home. There are also the personal touches – a music stand and case in the corner of the dining room, original 1950s Modernstyle chairs given to them by a friend, and a crayon family portrait framed and hung alongside purchased art.
Built on a corner site, the addition is visible from the bordering laneway. Together, Nobbs Radford Architects and the Knights have created something special for themselves and the greater neighbourhood. “We got lots of comments,” says Richard. “Throughout the process as the structure went up, passers-by would give the builder comments – it was fun.”
And whether you agree or disagree with the bold design, it promotes discussion. “Everyone was polarised. Some people thought it was really great; some people were like, ‘What is that?’” Richard admits. “But we thought that was great. If you’re building something, it’s an environment for all the community. So you should at least do something that they’ll talk about, make a statement.”
Alison Nobbs, Claudia Hutchison
Partridge Partners Nobbs Radford Architects
Nobbs Radford Architects