Appearing as an object in the landscape and giving generously to its inner-Sydney context, Cowper Street Housing by Andrew Burns Architecture reasserts the well-loved terrace as a relevant and useful housing type.
Though the terrace house is a common and well-loved type of housing, it couldn’t be said to be flexible. There are times in your life when living in a terrace suits better than others. Student share house – fantastic. Young family with trikes, prams, schnoodles and disrupted sleep patterns – maybe not. Young professionals working in the city and coming home only to watch Netflix and change their suits – perfect. Family with teenagers – yep, great. Couple with a few cats and a long list of dinner party guests – fabulous. Anyone needing a knee reconstruction or bad at remembering where their glasses are – terrible.
So many of us have lived in a terrace house at some time. We’ve been renovating the bejesus out of them for years, we’ve come up with hundreds of contemporary versions and we’re still not done with them. This is because even the traditional terrace does more good than harm with its efficient stacked planning, its comfortable medium density and its polite and gracious relationship with the street. The downsides of limited light and air and an orientation that is determined by the angle to the street and not by the points of the compass have all been dealt with successfully in different ways over the years. And so the terrace house goes on as a relevant and useful housing type.
Andrew Burns Architecture has produced a set of five terrace houses in Sydney’s Glebe, sitting between the social housing and established terrace houses on the top of the hill and the larger apartment developments that surround Wentworth Park down in the valley. It appears as an object in the landscape (street), giving generously to the local context, and at the same time is a dramatically internal series of houses that draw their light from above and shield their openings with perforated metal screens.
Four of the five terraces are 125 square metres, while the fifth is slightly larger. Each has a garage below and a pair of roof terraces facing east and west on top. The staircase is located in the centre of the plan and capped with a north-facing pop-up roof, drawing light down through all the habitable levels. The roof terraces are served by what looks at first like a laundry – and it is – but with a guest toilet and a small fridge, it also supports these roof terraces as valid and workable living rooms looking over the city. There are three bedrooms and three bathrooms, plus the toilet on the rooftop. I’m always a bit sceptical about houses that might seem to have more toilets than bums, but in this case I can see the reasoning. Each room could almost be occupied separately, like a boarding house with a shared kitchen. One of the ground-floor bedrooms even has a wet bar in what would otherwise look like a walk-through wardrobe. Any of the three-bedroom houses could also function as a studio apartment combined with a two-bedroom house. There’s a gate in the wall between two of the gardens, which would allow a multi-generational family arrangement. They don’t seem like houses that have been driven solely by the needs of a nuclear family, as so many houses are. They seem like the kind of houses where almost any life situation could be accommodated.
The building sits opposite local hotel the Friend in Hand – which presides over the corner, as pubs should – while directly over the road, the siting of the terraces gives over a large wedge as open landscaping. The canopy of a large fig tree spreads into the roof terrace spaces and was clearly considered valuable by the council, the clients and the architects. So building on this part of the site was probably out of the question, but still, this space has the feeling of a public park, with a path serving each terrace door.
The rosy, terracotta-coloured facade directly references a block of social housing terraces nearby and the facade mimics the fenestration of these traditional terraces, while flattening out the elevation by omitting verandahs and balustrades. The windows and doors place themselves in the centre of rooms with little regard for the effect on the elevation, and in doing so create something that is both playful and austere, traditional and radically contemporary. The colour reflects the light differently on each of a very limited palette of materials, in a play of tones that looks deliberate and sophisticated.
In our big cities it has become normal for people to move many times throughout their lives, changing houses when the size and needs of their living and family arrangements require it. The problem with this is that only some of us can afford to do it, and by buying and selling real estate in this constant game of musical chairs we are propping up the prices of our housing, making it less and less affordable for the rest of the population.
This development was undertaken by a family that has owned the land since the 1940s and is intent on retaining it for the future. Two of the five terrace houses are occupied by members of the extended family. As this family grows through more generations, I can imagine these houses coming into use by other family members, perhaps by young professionals and students, or by elders or visiting relatives from overseas. Andrew Burns Architecture has designed terrace houses with this long-term view in mind – who knows who they might need to accommodate next? But this could also be a good approach to housing flexibility over time – broadening the possibilities for when a terrace house in the inner city is just the right thing.