Four generations of the same family have occupied this house; now a new rear extension by AIGP has revitalized it for current and future family members.
This Victorian cottage in Williamstown has always been different. Although its classic bullnose facade and four front rooms are typical of its 1860s vintage – and protected by a heritage overlay – the rear of the little house was built in an unusual way for its era. There was a verandah and lean-to housing the kitchen along the north side, with an outdoor toilet, fernery, sheds and small backyard facing south. It was also painted white, rather than the heritage colours used at the time. “It was like two separate houses. And it was cold and dark and dim,” says owner Beryl.
Little changed as it passed through four generations of her family, except that it grew more dilapidated and unlivable, until 2004 when Beryl’s sons Justin and Sean decided to renovate it for her. They engaged designer Paul Gleeson, director of AIGP.
In the front four rooms, the heritage overlay prevented any structural work, so Paul introduced contemporary touches in line with his pared-back style. At entry, the hallway features glossy Japan ink-stained floorboards; the first two rooms contrast with full-height, white spaghetti curtains. Floor-to-ceiling mirrors surround an open fireplace in the main bedroom, which also includes a dressing room and ensuite converted from the adjoining dining room. Paul likes his ceilings bare, so each room has only two downlights within a bulkhead. Bluestone was chosen for all wet areas, the rear living space and the outdoor paving in reference to the house’s bluestone foundations.
While the updates to the front of the house are subtle from the street, the rear of the house is a different story. The tight block – 260 square metres – made difficult any major architectural statements, so Paul demolished everything from the end of the hallway and started again.
“The site configuration enabled a very simple architectural form, with a focus on how the internal spaces were composed. The house really becomes an enclosed interior,” he says.
That enclosed interior comprises a long, north-facing living room and kitchen, with a wall of bifolds opening to a small backyard, effectively flipping what was there before. Above the bifolds, a row of clerestory windows provides more light, while bluestone floors add warmth and depth.
Outside, the bluestone flows past a timber banquette seat with storage within – there’s no room for a garden shed – and a retaining wall flourishing with plants. “The backyard becomes an extension of the living room, and the house becomes a big open verandah with the sun shining in over the top,” Paul says.
The enclosed living space is introduced by his most abstract statement – a long utility space resembling a shipping container – that is perpendicular to the end of the hallway. Referencing Williamstown’s maritime history, it features a wall made from Alucobond aluminium cladding that divides old and new. This utility space is entirely practical: the laundry is near the kitchen, and the bathroom doubles as an ensuite with a door to the second bedroom. “Our plans are very logical and I think that’s a hallmark of what we do,” Paul says.
Like the front rooms, the kitchen is subtle with crisp white joinery, integrated dual-drawer dishwasher and fridge, and mirrored splashback. A standout is the large island bench, crafted from Carrara marble that Sean and Justin sourced from a stonemason in Victoria. “We wanted something that had a bit of a ‘wow’ factor,” Sean says.
The marble is used again in the bathrooms, in the full-length desk in the study and again in the living space as a long, low-level shelf.
Adjoining the pantry is another reference to what came before: a glass backlit cabinet that Paul designed for the extensive crystal collection that once belonged to Beryl’s mother and grandmother. Above this, a full-length line of linear grilles forms part of the airconditioning system, which not only keeps the ceiling clean but also cleverly articulates the length of the room.
With the only hiccups being a lengthy town planning process – one of the battles was retaining the white facade – and the unfortunate discovery of termites through much of the framework, the refreshed little white cottage befits its status as a permanent resident on one of Williamstown’s five best streets.
“Now, the house sits very happily in the street, and most people aren’t actually aware of what’s behind the facade,” Paul says. The light-filled rear living space is Beryl’s favourite part of the house. “I love it. Here in the back part it’s so nice and bright,” she says.
Beryl’s sons fired up the barbecue for the first time recently, and the family is rapt that their forebears’ house has been brought into the twenty-first century for future generations to enjoy.