Wednesday, 3 March 2021

‘Renovate don’t detonate’: Owners convinced not to raze 1970s brown brick home

On the website of John Liu’s Inbetween Architecture, pertinent quotes back up his design philosophies. One relates to a project that retained the soul, and some of the substance, of a 1970s Doncaster house, and sums up his rationale for convincing the owners not to raze it on its parkside patch.

 ” … while it is sometimes tempting to wipe the slate clean aesthetically, it is the enduring traces of the structure’s past that create an altogether more rich and interesting monument.”

Set on sloping land opposite the Ruffey Lake parklands, the occupants of the three-bedroom home were so over the brown brickwork, compacted and dark interior rooms with arches and brown quarry tile floors, that their intention “was to bulldoze the whole thing,” says Liu.

After: Architects convinced the owners to reinvent the existing brick house.After: Architects convinced the owners to reinvent the existing brick house. Photo: Tatjana Plitt

They went looking for a display-home builder. Fortunately for them – and the resulting rebooted  building that is all light and lovely, square-set modernity – they couldn’t find one to tackle the difficult site.

“The budget was tight but the (north-facing) orientation was great,” says Liu, the architect they eventually consulted. “The house was well made,” he says. In fact, “the structural condition was so good, I only found one slight crack in the brickwork”.

Even so, Liu had to crack the clients’ resistance to retaining the masonry that was “so worth keeping”, and get them to work with him in repurposing those brick bones and the concrete slab that steps up and down in a way that was so fashionable in 1970s houses. He saw keeping its terrazzo surface as another win.

Before: The home's dated, cramped interiorBefore: The home’s dated, cramped interior Photo: Supplied

The remade house – now with four bedrooms in a recessed composite timber-clad upper level, and an intriguing and fantastically flexible sequence of downstairs living rooms that allow for opening up and closing down spaces – stands as a thoroughly convincing argument, not only for the quality of the era’s structures but, “for preserving part of the history of a house that helped to make a streetscape”.

Spaces were manipulated to give the clients the open downstairs entertaining areas they wanted, while also building in the ability to close off the noise associated with three children into smaller rooms such as the combined TV/music den on the split level floor, and the library. It was a planning conundrum that initially “did my head in”, said Liu.

“But once we got it all worked out, it was simple.”

After: The interior is now lighter and brighterAfter: The interior is now lighter and brighter Photo: Tatjana Plitt

He reversed the orientation of the stairs from the semi-subterranean garage to the bedroom floor in order to refine the circulation lobby at the bright centre of the home. “That was a major cost.”

Liu and interior designer Aldona Pajdak introduced what he calls “hero joinery” throughout and, having lost the argument to keep the brown brickwork in the interiors that the clients insisted be replaced with white plasterboard, the designers opted for a high degree of texture in the tiles and timber cabinetry.

“We did a lot of texture to enrich the experience.”

After: The interior designer introduced hero joinery throughout the houseAfter: The interior designer introduced hero joinery throughout the house Photo: Tatjana Plitt

An imaginative application of texture also helped reinvent the exterior. To yet to keep a tangible sense of its 50-year-old character, the “hit-and-miss” patterned brickwork screens are made from bricks recycled from demolished parts of the building. The screens now bracket the front balcony to make it semi-private from the front entry and the neighbours.

Liu admits that had the block been flat enough to accommodate an off-the-peg project home – even with a $30,000-$70,000 demolition fee – it probably would have been cheaper to knock down and build than to reinvent the house, which he says is so different from the original “it’s essentially a new house”.

“Custom design is more expensive. But you end up with a better quality house; not only materially but for the lifestyle of the people who live in it. In a project home, you have to adapt to it.

“This house is a radical change from what it was. It’s definitely contemporary and nothing like a ’70s home. But we love that we were able to use elements from the past and bring them into today. That’s been very satisfying”.


« »