North Melbourne Townhouses

Planned for both residential and commercial functions, this set of four townhouses by Freadman White takes the idea of multifunctional spaces to a new level.

In a gritty part of inner Melbourne, a transparent facade is presented to the street. At one corner, a glass garage door opens to an empty space with a polished concrete floor and the infrastructure for data and power. Is it a garage, a living area or a shopfront? It’s neutral and ambiguous, but a pile of children’s toys on the floor offers a clue. This facade belongs to the North Melbourne Townhouses – four dwellings that are an experiment in hybrid planning by architecture practice Freadman White.

Often when a site is zoned for mixed-use, the developer’s response is to build residences, or commercial tenancies, or some proportion of each type. This four-storey townhouse project is planned to allow for both residential and commercial functions – in the one space. The ground-floor zones, which the architects refer to as “flexible space,” are complete with toilets and floor-to-ceiling storage cupboards, and are ready to accommodate a creative studio, a shop, an extension of the living area or even a car.

The project draws on Freadman White co-director Michael White’s PhD research at Monash University, on integrated precincts and intensifying development in the suburbs. A developer approached the practice to design a project in North Melbourne, and Michael used the feasibility stage of the project as a research platform for his studies. The architects evaluated potential sites using criteria such as amenity, and eventually homed in on this 188-square-metre, south-facing site. In order to get the yield for commercial profit, the building had to be tall. The average footprint of each townhouse is just forty-seven square metres.

Designed for commercial or residential use, the townhouses present a transparent facade at street level.

Designed for commercial or residential use, the townhouses present a transparent facade at street level.

Image: Christine Francis

Ilana Freadman and Michael, partners in business and life (and newly married), gave themselves an extra incentive to make the project a success – they purchased one of the townhouses. The townhouse mentioned earlier, with the ambiguous ground-floor space on the corner, is the one they chose for themselves. Their townhouse differs a little from the other three in that its flexible ground-floor space incorporates a kitchenette and full bathroom, whereas the other three have smaller powder rooms. The couple has already planned a sequence of functional transformations over the next few years. They will run their architecture practice from the lower two floors until their family grows bigger and needs the extra room. In another scenario, Michael’s mother could move into these two levels, which can function largely autonomously. That’s the beauty of flexible space.

North Melbourne Townhouses

Image: Jeremy Wright

The four-storey building has a roof terrace, effectively making it five storeys, without a lift. “Obviously our intended market was not retirees, it was more young families,” says Ilana. “We saw a gap in the market,” says Michael. “One and two-bedders flood the apartment market around here. Our project could also suit students wanting to share-house.”

Michael and Ilana will use the flexible ground-floor space for activities such as model making, and they plan to remove the dividing partition from the first-floor bedrooms to turn the space into a more open-planned office space. The second floor, above the horizontal band on the facade, is the living/dining/kitchen space. The slope of the site has been effectively “ignored” by the precise, spare geometry of the building form. Changes in height are handled internally by shifts in the sill heights of windows. The views are spectacular, especially from the rooftop terrace. From Michael and Ilana’s terrace you can see Melbourne’s CBD, and from the western townhouses views open up over roofs and treetops to the north, including the picturesque dome of North Melbourne’s Ukrainian Catholic cathedral.

Sliding shutters screen bedrooms from living areas below.

Sliding shutters screen bedrooms from living areas below.

Image: Christine Francis

The southern orientation added to the challenge of getting light into the tall, narrow footprints. The second-floor living levels have an outdoor courtyard “subtracted from the solid form,” as Michael puts it. This turns the indoor spaces into L shapes, providing room for a small dining table in front of the linear kitchen. Built-in cupboards and a television bench make the most of the tight space. Above this living level is either the main bedroom or additional living space.

The floor has been further subtracted to make a mezzanine above the living area, and to allow the light from a skylight to be shared by both spaces. Where a different architect/developer team might have put a window directly to the view outside, the trade-off here is privacy and tranquillity. Sliding shutters to the bedroom/additional living space can be closed to block out light and provide an extra degree of separation from the living areas below. The bathroom on the third floor of each townhouse also uses light from the void, with a window looking across the void and through a full-height window to the courtyard. The placement of these windows means there is no need to keep blinds shut.

It remains to be seen how the hybrid garage/living/commercial spaces get used. It might take the designers themselves to set the example.

Products and materials

Lysaght Longline roofing in black.
External walls
Robertson’s Building Products brick tile in blue and grey metallic; Alucobond window surrounds in black.
Internal walls
Amerind timber veneer in American oak; Classic Ceramics wall tiles in ‘Alaska’ gloss.
Capral window frames powdercoated black; Breezway louvre windows; Velux skylights; clear double glazing.
Designer Doorware door hardware in satin chrome; Brio sliding door track in satin chrome.
Godfrey Hirst Carramar wool carpet in ‘Coal Ash’; Classic Ceramics Futuro Grafife tiles in grey; Vic Ash timber flooring in satin water-based polish.
Globus pendant, Barro ceiling light and recessed trimless downlights, all from Ambience Lighting.
Rogerseller Tonic square sink mixer; Reece Afa Vertus sink; Miele appliances; Laminex vinyl wrap; Amerind timber veneer; American oak and Quantum Quartz benchtops.
Rogerseller Vitra T4 wall basins, Tonic basin mixers, hand shower rose and Comfort Lux bath.


Freadman White
Melbourne, Vic, Australia
Project Team
Michael White, Ilana Freadman
Engineer Tim Gibney and Associates
Interiors Nuline Cabinets
Lighting Ambience Lighting
Services engineer Thomas Consulting Group
Site Details
Location Melbourne,  Vic,  Australia
Site area 188 m2
Building area 680 m2
Project Details
Status Built
Design, documentation 12 months
Construction 18 months
Category Residential
Type Multi-residential



Published online: 10 Jun 2014
Words: Tobias Horrocks
Images: Christine Francis, Harvard Wang


Houses, February 2014

Related topics

More projects

See all
Built-in timber bookshelves that edge the living and dining room are accented by exposed chalk-toned brick. ‘A cascading series of salon spaces’: Garden House

Soft boundaries create multipurpose spaces that reflect a young couple’s character while generous windows connect interiors with “domesticated wilds” around this fluid, functional Melbourne home.

Planchonella House by Jesse Bennett Studio Talking Houses with Jesse Bennett: Planchonella House

In this Talking Houses video, Jesse Bennett and Anne Marie Campagnolo reflect on their remarkable first home together, Planchonella House.

The windows are double-framed, making the glazing blast-proof in the unlikely event of an explosion at the nearby port. A deceptively simple cafe in industrial Footscray: Gathered

Designed by Ewert Leaf, this pared-back and striking cafe in Melbourne’s Footscray belies a host of logistical and functional solutions to manage its portside setting.

The vast plaster ceiling features copiously repeated prismatic forms, housing lights that can be varied in colour and intensity. A good Melbourne citizen returns: The Capitol

After a major 1960s downscaling and a series of ad hoc renovations, Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin’s Capitol Theatre has been re-engineered to …

Most read

Latest on site