Ambition and circumspection. NMBW’s small extension to an Melbourne suburban house makes big public gestures.
Elwood is an inner Melbourne bayside suburb with London-plane-lined streets named for English poets, closely packed with arts-and-crafts houses and vaguely deco or moderne blocks of walk-up apartments. Here NMBW has transformed a house – already much altered – which appears originally to have been typical of the neighbourhood, the tightly planned volume decked with woody details suggesting a care for building craft that, in this case, was more rhetorical than real. The NMBW work has responded both to the house’s earliest architectural history and to the many changes wrought subsequently. The new work is also frankly contingent. It updates the house to respond to the current circumstances of the family who occupy it, with a new area for the parents and expanded spaces for their teenage children.
While the house is perhaps rather typical, the lot it sits on is not. Its triangular plan shape results from its being sliced by a drainage easement along the edge of the canal that hooks through Elwood from Port Phillip Bay. With walkways along its banks freshly enhanced with judicious planting by landscape architects RushWright, the canal is a unique amenity in this suburban milieu. But while occasionally the blocks of flats typical of Elwood’s second phase of development take advantage of outlook to the canal, mostly the houses adjacent have turned away behind high paling fences.
NMBW has been fascinated both by these fences and – contrarily – by the possibility of producing visual engagement across the long property boundary to the canal edge. From canal-side, they have made the house look like a continuation of a beautifully crafted fence they have introduced along the edge of the site, this new element morphing into the house. Up close, it is apparent that this fence is much more robustly built than the fences to which it alludes, but nevertheless it still approximates to the condition of its neighbours and NMBW anticipates that it will gracefully age to their silvery grey, presumably without becoming so ramshackle. Detailing and timber selection have been researched to facilitate this. But clearly this fence departs from its neighbours by the care with which openings are set in it, and by the offset arrangement of the boards, set alternately light and dark to the front and back of the frame. This allows the slightly oblique glance of a passer-by to look into the property, and from the kitchen and main ground-floor living area of the house and adjoining garden spaces it allows a corresponding glimpse into the public realm outside. The careful arrangement of elements in the narrow width of a timber wall erodes it as a visual barrier, while the different colours of the boards nevertheless allow the fence to still read as a single surface, at least from the outside. All this entails a shuttling between building craft and an architectural examination of the separation of public and private, which the project – responding to the particular opportunities of the site – quietly puts in question.
The boundary treatment obviously departs from its precursors also by rising several metres above normal fence height to become the apparent cladding over the volume added to the north of the existing house, the dark and light of the inner and outer skins of the fence becoming dark and light inner and outer shiplapped boards. The principal space accommodated in this volume is the new main bedroom/parental refuge. Reached from a landing in an existing stair, it is a half-level below the upper floor of the house that now becomes the realm of the younger family members. In plan tight against the public boundary, this room achieves privacy through its elevation rather than its setback. Its carefully placed windows also invite lateral views along the canal edge, and down. Beneath, the car port space is available when unoccupied for passers-by to traverse as a short cut. The connection is underlined by the landscape design of the property, coincidentally also done by RushWright, which seamlessly connects to their strategy for the public spaces alongside the canal. Above, the elevated deck – possible because on this side of the site there are no issues with overlooking – feels like the top of a children’s fort, playfully switching between viewing and being viewed. Again, it’s as if the new building volume puts each distinction a house typically makes between what is proper to it and what is not, between the interior world and the exterior, slightly out of register.
In making the open and accessible car port area, NMBW has been mindful of the undercrofts of the external stairs typical of Elwood flats and rooming houses. Until the current alterations, the house featured such an open stair that once served residents when in a past life the place was used as rooming accommodation. There is a kind of elevated inverse afterimage of this in the new stair to the roof deck from the first floor. The car port space is furnished with lockers for outdoor equipment, tools and so forth. Surfaces are lined with dark stained ply and have a kind of interior feel. Indeed, inside the house, some existing walls have been renovated with overlays of ply in the same dark brown, appropriate to the dour tones of the arts and crafts to which the oldest parts of the house aspire. By contrast, the interior ply surfaces are pale where the building fabric is entirely new.
From the exterior, the pointy prow end of the new main bedroom iterates both the triangular shape of the site as a whole and the plan of the mid-nineties two-storey addition on the other side of the house. With its palisade wall wrapping from the side, this sits awkwardly by the old facade, acknowledging that the house has been pushed and pulled around. NMBW do not do the nice period front/new back thing, and in any case there is no hiding that this family’s needs have outstretched anything that the decorous old part of the street frontage could veil. Of course the awkwardness in the abrupt adjacency of old and new also responds to a certain expectation that, in serious Melbourne architecture, things should be visually difficult. But more importantly, the design seems to entail acceptance that it is provisional: things change and will change again. Motivated by contingencies of site and the opportunities it afforded, the clients’ current circumstances and NMBW’s curiosity about specific architectural histories, this project is exemplary in its balance of circumspection and ambition. The circumspection is directed to a refinement of building craft deployed in the project’s architecture, the ambition to probing how distinct public private realms have to be.