Rather than simply adding a new level on top of an old terrace house, architects Edwards Moore reconsidered the entire proposition as a set of vertically connected spaces beneath an enormous skylight.
There’s a lot of great contemporary residential architecture in Melbourne’s Carlton North, but thanks to its comprehensive network of heritage overlays, you wouldn’t know it. Unless, of course, you snuck down the cobblestone laneways and peeked over a few fences. Or, in the case of this inventive new extension by Edwards Moore, you found yourself walking past one evening – on the opposite side of the street, far enough back, where minimum setback requirements can’t quite protect you from modernity – and the eerie glow coming from the roof caught your eye.
Even then, you wouldn’t see much more than a pitched roof clad in translucent polycarbonate sheeting, which, despite being more visible at night, was designed explicitly for its effect during the day. The original house was one of two small single-level terraces wedged between taller buildings and, with a brief calling for a second level to be added, bringing natural light into the home was the major architectural challenge. A three-storey-high wall immediately to the north meant the only way to do that was to let light in from the top down.
The end result is dramatic and comes into play as soon as you walk through the front door. Expectations of a small sitting room or classic terrace house hallway, with their familiar feelings of compartmentalization and compression, are dissolved in a wash of diffused natural light that – and it takes a few seconds to work this out – emanates from a ceiling of perforated steel. On the upper level, that ceiling is the floor below the translucent roof. In effect, two living spaces, one inside the front door and the other immediately above, occupy a large, open lightwell. On a purely functional level, as a way to brighten up spaces that would otherwise require artificial lighting for most of the day, it works brilliantly. But its effect is more than that.
The perforated steel is powdercoated white and its degree of transparency changes throughout the day, influenced by the conditions outside and the lighting in the lower and upper levels. The photography accompanying this review gives you a sense of what it’s like to look up through the ceiling to people – and a dog – upstairs. But at night, with no lighting on the top level, the ground-floor ceiling becomes opaque. In between these two extremes, the effect is moderated. And in this way the house imparts a sense of boundaries being somewhat hard to define – no mean feat for the cramped old house the architects were given to work with.
This sense of openness is heightened by various design decisions that serve to break down barriers between different rooms and zones. The ground-floor living space runs the full width of the building, and doorways to the two bedrooms reach from floor to ceiling. The stairway carves a sculptural swathe up one wall, with no balustrade and a single, unobtrusive handrail.
The upper level is entirely open but has been programmed to strike a balance between connectedness and functional zoning. The stairs deliver visitors to a second living space, essentially a large landing area corresponding to the section of floor clad in perforated steel. From here, the floor steps up to a neat, contemporary kitchen and dining space, with the change in level providing opportunities for concealed storage as well as several different places to sit and perch.
Clear, even light from the polycarbonate roofing washes into every corner and thanks to a massive pivoting window on the southern wall, the sense of connection with the outside world is immediate and explicit. Again a boundary is broken down, the feeling of seemingly limitless space is surprising, and the views out over rooftops and through leafy street trees is delightful.
It’s a lovely place to be, upstairs by the window. With the front section of the roof pitched at an angle to satisfy setback requirements, the space almost feels like a loft apartment. The decision to leave the bedrooms down below and allocate the occupants’ waking hours to the first floor is fully vindicated.
In describing the project, Ben Edwards and Juliet Moore distil their architectural response down to three key moves: the polycarbonate roofing, the perforated steel floor/ceiling and the massive pivot window. Each of these plays a significant and identifiable role in the way the spaces look, feel and work, and yet the house is very much more than the sum of these parts. Rather than simply adding a new layer of house on top of the old one, the architects have reconsidered the entire home as a series of linked spaces that branch out in all directions, both horizontally and vertically. It’s a house that feels bigger than it really is, is brighter than it really should be, and sets the scene for a modern lifestyle to match the inner urban locale.