Make Architecture completes its remodelling of a Melbourne family home with a backyard garage and atelier. Inside it offers a flexible space for the family, while its crafted brick exterior brings a fillip of joy to the street.
Adding a backyard garage-with-studio to a house in Abbotsford, in inner-city Melbourne, represented an opportunity for the Make Architecture team to practise its public building design skills. Rather than the house backing onto the usual laneway, the street at the rear is actually busier than the one at the front. “The thing I was excited about was that we had a little corner building,” says Make Architecture director and owner Melissa Bright.
Neighbouring backyards turn away from the street with fences, roller doors and lean-tos, ignoring their public address. Melissa hopes her office’s little project might eventually change all that. “You start to do things like this and it takes just one or two and then other people go, ‘Oh – this is a street!’” she says. The Little Brick Studio project could be “a little action of change, like when one person puts Christmas decorations up and then others follow,” she says.
The unique brick bond used in this project was originally developed by Melissa some years ago, as an entry to a brick design competition. “I’ve always wanted to build a brick building, ever since I was a student. This is the first one we’ve done,” she says.
The choice of brick relates to the existing commercial context across the road. “A lot of the buildings along here have nice brick details,” says Melissa. Make Architecture came up with its own brick pattern, produced in contrasting white. “I modelled every brick on the computer,” admits Melissa. “It was pretty obsessive.” The acute-angled brick corner cantilevers slightly above the footpath, emphasizing its public presence and de-emphasizing the dark grey garage door, which is set slightly inside the property line. Maximizing property area has been sacrificed for greater design objectives.
The backyard faces north and the Little Brick Studio has a small footprint with a steep roof pitch to duck under the winter sun, allowing it to warm the neighbours’ backyard as well as the clients’. Rather than push the building directly against the boundary, which would again have maximized the available real estate, an outdoor stair takes up this gap, further increasing the amenity to the neighbours. The studio expresses the steep roof pitch internally and squeezes in a toilet and shower. A tiny roof deck is carefully screened to prevent overlooking, while allowing just enough passive surveillance from the main house to satisfy the parents’ need to supervise their two sons.
Make Architecture’s strategy of not building to the maximum size possible began in stage one of the project, the renovation of the main house (read the review from Houses 85). The office calls this project House Reduction, because the renovation created a smaller footprint than the existing conditions. To achieve “suburban amenity on an urban block,” as Melissa puts it, Make Architecture increased the amount of outdoor area. The idea was to minimize the size of “inflexible” spaces and to increase the “flexible” zones. Therefore the kitchen/dining area is small by typical standards and so is the living area, but both face onto a covered outdoor deck and operable walls merge the spaces when needed.
The Little Brick Studio is another flexible space. “It could be a home office, a teenage retreat, a spare bedroom or, if they stay here forever and the boys move out, they could rent it out. It’s a space that can change over time,” says Melissa. It has a “front” door to the street, too, which not only reinforces its pseudo-commercial public image, but also facilitates the real possibility of separately tenanted space. For example, “It could become, not a granny flat, but a ‘nanny’ flat,” says Melissa, “for when you get old and someone moves in to look after you.”
Make Architecture designed the backyard landscape, including plant selection. Melissa is a keen gardener and her home garden is not far from the site, so she drew on her local experience. She selected the edible plants, including a vegie patch and a row of kalamata olive trees in a narrow bed between the pool and back fence – more suburban amenity on the urban block. The pool fence will soon be hidden behind plants.
Architecture students generally do not design small domestic renovations at university. The profession is encouraged to think about architecture in a broad context, beyond the client to the needs of a community, from the scale of a streetscape to how a building sits within the city, right up to the global scale with environmental sustainability. Yet early commissions are invariably small ones. This small project benefits from big thinking. The clients are happy and the city has an enriched bit of urban fabric.