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Balmain East Residence

Melocco & Moore Architects crafts a modestly scaled addition to an 1883 villa, stepping down to the harbour’s edge creating a private waterfront hideaway.

The shoreline around Sydney Harbour varies enormously, as do the houses on its waterfront. Modern properties on the eastern shores are designed to maximize the view at all costs. They are characterized by floor-to-ceiling glass, a grand sense of scale and stunted landscaping. By contrast, the shoreline around Middle Harbour supports gums interspersed with modern, but still ambitious, steel houses. The Balmain peninsula is one of the longest occupied and remains a rich historical precinct. Unlike Hunters Hill and Woolwich, where the original buildings have been substantially concealed by largely overwhelming additions, Balmain remains an evocative thread of land with a mixture of housing stock and aspirations.

This project sits at the north-eastern end of the peninsula and is a substantial reworking of an existing four-room Victorian villa, constructed in 1883. The building presented modestly to the street and faced the harbour. A vast, mature eucalypt in the garden is a marvellous feature of the site as one looks out from the original house towards Goat Island and the bridge.

Melocco and Moore Architects was appointed to work on the project by a client whose family the architects had worked for before. The client was clear from the outset that he would act as an owner-builder (which he had previously done) and this information allowed the architects to design and document accordingly. The site is divided into three almost equal parts – the villa nearest the street, the central lawned area with the large gum one level below the street, and a lower harbour garden with a simple boatshed, slipway and lawn area running out to meet the sandstone sea wall.

The new addition is shaded by a sprawling mature eucalypt.

The new addition is shaded by a sprawling mature eucalypt.

Image: Brett Boardman

The architects’ strategy was to strip accretions from both the street side and the harbour side of the villa, exposing the original building. Its fine detail on the harbour side is celebrated with reinstated iron lacework. A garage and a service entry were added to the street side, as well as an entry alcove that, when opened, allows the eye to wander right through the hall of the building to the harbour. This initial view is breathtaking, and generous, and respectful of the form and modesty of the villa.

A low and careful addition has been made to the southern boundary of the site at middle garden level, its sill height matching the lawn. The flat, pebbled roof of this building can be seen from the verandah of the villa. The architects’ original intention was to have this as a green roof, covered in succulents, but such visual generosity was eliminated at the planning stage due to concerns of overlooking by this garden’s “use as a terrace.” A glass slot clearly separates the new wing from the original villa.

The stepped concrete shell of the dining and kitchen pavilion.

The stepped concrete shell of the dining and kitchen pavilion.

Image: Brett Boardman

The addition is now the heart of the house. A discreet new side stair from the upper hall descends to the back of the new lower wing, where fine, curved timber cabinetry leads to alcoves for a study, a media room, a bathroom and a gym under the old villa. The kitchen of the new living pavilion faces north to the adjacent “middle” garden, its umbrella the generous gum tree that filters light into the new space.

The hideaway has a gentle relationship to the harbour.

The hideaway has a gentle relationship to the harbour.

Image: Brett Boardman

The living pavilion steps down towards the water, terminating in a viewing deck that overlooks the harbour. With a slender yet robust raw off-form concrete frame and natural timber windows, the new space is reassuringly protective from the inside and magnificently modest from the outside. It appears almost as a sort of garden wall in a natural setting. The building is thermally stable and, being narrow, has excellent cross-ventilation.

From the middle garden, the simple box form of the new wing is offset by a series of stepped platforms that lead down to a pool. There is an extraordinary pool bathroom tucked under the living area, all raw concrete, with a confident and playful use of dark mosaic tiles. Where pools are usually front and centre of waterfront sites, this one is a calm oasis down near the water, barely visible from the villa or the new wing. Jane Irwin advised on landscaping, and the terracing of the garden only reinforces the subtle control the whole design team had on the site, even though they did not supervise site works.

Each part of the design contributes to the site but allows the celebration of those separate parts. The villa has been restored and again made into a transparent simple four-room dwelling. The new wing sits modestly below it, deferring to the enormous gum. But within the new space, the living areas are generous in spirit, precise in execution and relaxed in feel.

This reworking captures that idyllic concept of a private waterfront hideaway. Nowhere in the house is there evidence of gratuitous grandness. At every point, there is generous light, beautiful views and a modesty that many clients, architects and builders can learn from when considering waterfront work in Sydney.

Products and materials

Ardex bituminous membrane; existing grey Welsh slate.
External walls
Off-form concrete; existing render and paint.
Internal walls
Off-form concrete.
Windows and doors
Stockton Joinery rosewood timber windows and doors.
Polished concrete; existing Nash Timbers red ironbark hardwood boards.
Opal Lighting Systems 35-watt halogen downlights and Taipan LED floor washers; Inlite Quad S3 pendant.
Fisher & Paykel C450 pigeon pair integrated fridge/freezer; Miele oven and integrated dishwasher; Gaggenau Vario 400 series cooktop; Qasair custom rangehood; Briggs Veneers joinery doors; Fantini Cafe kitchen mixer from Rogerseller; stainless steel benchtops.
Duravit Scola basin; Kaldewei Centroform freestanding bath; Catalano 54 wall-hung toilet suites, Fantini Nostromo basin mixer and Soho Round Cafe shower rose, all from Rogerseller; Bisanna Tiles Mocha honed stone and Chestnut glass mosaic tiles.
Heating and cooling
Allstar Shutters Blinds & Awnings external timber blinds; Jetmaster 700 fireplace.
External elements
Homestone Pellegrino sandstone paving.
Polished concrete finish by Waterstone.


Melocco and Moore Architects
Redfern, Sydney, Vic, Australia
Project Team
David Melocco, Philip Moore, Temara Lane, Nick Hibberd
Builder Owner
Engineer Leo Carboni and Associates
Joinery Reino Joinery
Landscaping Jane Irwin Landscape Architecture
Site details
Location Balmain,  Sydney,  NSW,  Australia
Site type Suburban
Site area 690 m2
Building area 395 m2
Category Residential buildings
Type Alts and adds, Houses, Residential
Project Details
Status Built
Design, documentation 12 months
Construction 12 months



Published online: 3 Dec 2013
Words: Genevieve Lilley
Images: Brett Boardman


Houses, October 2013

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