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Park life: Clifton Hill House

Peeking out over its back fence at a nearby public reserve, a house extension in Melbourne’s Clifton Hill brings precious green space into the heart of family life. We talk with Nathanael Preston of Preston Lane, the project’s architects, about transforming what was a gloomy building into a light-filled house for contemporary living.

AAU: What’s the central idea behind the project? What makes it unique?
NP: The central idea behind the project really comes from making the most of the site’s location, which backs onto a public reserve and laneway. This unique opportunity allowed the house to be reoriented so that the new living spaces open to this space at the rear of the block and enjoy views back to the city of Melbourne. The new living spaces are raised half a level from the existing house to maximise the views, allow for some privacy from the rear public reserve and also allow for car parking below, accessed from the rear lane. The compact extension is organised around a central courtyard, located between the old and the new, which also then allows for eastern and northern light into the rear extension. The split-level provides some volume and a small, high level splayed window back to the north infuses controlled northern light into the kitchen below.

AAU: What did the clients want their house to be? Conversely, what didn’t they want it to be?

NP: The clients wanted a robust house that worked on a practical level for their young family, as well as in relation to the site and its opportunities. Opening to the park and city views seemed the obvious solution, together with the courtyard arrangement and operable windows, which introduce good light and ventilation through. They also wanted a sense of fun and were not scared to inject some colour into the house. In fact, we were probably more restrained when it came to colour… perhaps they got us across the line on this decision! Our clients wanted to transform the existing dark house into a series of light filled contemporary spaces to live everyday family life in – not a precious show piece. We find clients are increasingly receptive to the use of bold colours, which we have learnt, when used, should be embraced. You need to really go for it – no half measures! In this instance, a bright green painted brick splashback and matching joinery finish provides an accent that contrasts against an otherwise neutral material palette.

An integrated stair/joinery spine connects the lower level kitchen and upper level spaces.

An integrated stair/joinery spine connects the lower level kitchen and upper level spaces.

Image: Derek Swalwell

AAU: Does this project build on any ideas from earlier projects by the practice?
NP: Joinery and detailed threshold spaces between inside and outside are really important in all our projects. This project specifically features a plywood clad seat/reveal to provide shading for the north facing window and, simultaneously, create a usable space externally. Internally, the integrated stair/ joinery spine has a dual purpose. Firstly, it connects the lower level kitchen and the upper level spaces, where the spine mediates the scale and becomes the TV and fireplace joinery. Secondly, the lower stair treads that angle outwards act as an extended casual seating area to the kitchen area.

External timber has a charcoal stained finish, mimicking a Japanese technique of timber charring, known as ‘shou sugi ban’.

External timber has a charcoal stained finish, mimicking a Japanese technique of timber charring, known as ‘shou sugi ban’.

Image: Derek Swalwell

AAU: What lessons did you learn from this project that you’ll carry into future work?
NP: During the course of the project, there was constant discussion about the use of a Japanese technique of timber charring, known as ‘shou sugi ban’ for the external timber cladding. We even used a blowtorch and made some samples to test the effect of this on timber. We were excited at the result, which was a beautiful, oiled midnight finish. While this unfortunately didn’t get across the line on this project (the external timber has a charcoal stained finish) it’s definitely on the radar down the track! Exploration and experimentation with materiality forms an important part of the design process on every project. We are constantly learning and experimenting with the different properties of various materials and are excited when perhaps a more standard and even cheap material is used in a different, exciting way that perhaps it wasn’t intended for.

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