CO-AP Architects took an anti-logical but genius approach in its design of a Sydney terrace house that has become the built version of the wonder and richness of Alice’s rabbit hole.
Architectural photographs always show a project at their best – when the sun shines, the windows are cleaned, and the garden is looking its finest. But when Sydney is beset with biblical weather, the streets are flooded, and houses are being washed away, one imagines a terrace renovation in suburban Annandale, just off Parramatta Road (a major arterial in the city’s inner west), can’t possibly be that interesting. What can one do with a terrace, really? There will be a rear extension, with a funny angle somewhere, as vaguely recalled from an online image.
Thus with little expectation, the Tardis that is this project turned out to be an astonishing revelation. A neat fence and hedge hides the old front door/window of the house. One enters through the original gate, but then is drawn around beside the old house, to the discreet new entry gate tucked beyond the main form, adjacent to a narrow garage door.
On stepping into the space, a visitor is drawn into a gentle vortex – a welcoming room leads to a faceted hallway, which ramps up round a diminishing garden to another space. This (living) room has bookshelves and a space to sit, which is like a magnificently oversized landing. Beyond that, up some steps, one finds a warm generous kitchen, with its own lush garden lightwell, and a dining area, again connected to a tiny rear garden. It is the built version of the wonder and richness of Alice’s rabbit hole. In each room one family member, each a perfectly comfortable distance from each other, is doing their own thing.
The site was exceptionally long, originally a terrace with a lean-to and a large decrepit rear shed. Its northern boundary is the towering brick wall of the heritage-listed Piano Factory complex, now apartments. In some parts this wall towers some 6m above floor level.
The solution by CO-AP Architects is a common strategy for terraces – abandon the original house structure to bedrooms and build living spaces anew behind the house. But instead of ‘going wide’, as many architects would propose, so a client can use the maximum width of the site, the CO-AP team took an anti-logical but genius approach – make the new parts even longer and thinner than the terrace house rooms, and grant each narrow space a complementary outdoor space.
The solution is incredibly logical. Where winter sun is needed, the new part of the building becomes a narrow sliver against the southern boundary, maximizing possible sunlight over the high northern neighbour’s wall. This space has become a very warm zone in winter, and with its level changes and proximity of garden, the clients’ young children tend to play in this area. Where continuity of daylight is most needed, a series of skylights were inserted along the southern boundary. These naturally illuminate the storage and work areas of each room. A series of limed birch ply cupboard doors below the skylights (concealing kitchen services) and the bookshelves in the living area, are bathed in constant daylight.
The most generous gesture seems to be the variety of spaces created in a contiguous single-storey “extension.” The new “wing” modulates and defines three different garden areas, giving each adjacent space its own character and its own relief. The floor ramps, then steps up, to define different areas. Some ceilings seem very high, some compressed to make the space feel cosy. The steel windows are sometimes floor-to-ceiling, sometimes have a low sill, and sometimes have a higher sill to a raised planter. The latter are dressed with a wide generous timber shelf to sit on, or put a glass on.
The original part of the house has been left largely intact, with beautiful traces of old brick openings (sometimes painted, sometimes raw brick). Original fireplaces with tiled hearths exist in three of the four front rooms. The downstairs rooms include an open study, and a guest suite facing the street. The modern timber stairs climb up from new rear wing back to main house, with only glass separating the stair from the upper hallway. If one turns left, they traverse an en-suite, a walk-in robe lined with birch ply, to a main bedroom facing the rear garden courtyard. If heading towards the street, there are two large children’s bedrooms.
The palette of materials used in this project is astutely considered. The new windows are alternate panels of primed steel painted in dark red. The polished concrete floor, ramps and stairs add precision and robustness that contribute to the informality of the family spaces. The remaining brickwork, formerly the back of the house, has been delicately left with various historic paint layers, and these flakes have informed the series of soft pastel colours selected for adjacent cupboards. The project won a Dulux Colour Award for this work.
Director Will Fung (very much wise beyond his young years) says of the colour choices of his co-director Tina Engelen, “I know the more shocked I am with her colour suggestions the better they will be in real life!” He was shocked, she was right, the project is beautiful. It is a telling reminder that even work on a standard terrace can be profoundly rich when the skill of a bright architect and an immensely talented interior designer are conjoined with an enthusiastic client.
The project appears in The Terrace House: Reimagined for the Australian Way of Life, edited by Katelin Butler and Cameron Bruhn, published by Thames and Hudson. The Terrace House will be available in selected bookstores from October 2015.