What is it about houses that makes us feel? Sheona Thomson asks Michael Banney and Michael Lavery of m3architecture about inventive approaches to renovation and creating connections between old and new.
m3architecture is arguably one of Brisbane’s (and Australia’s) more interesting practices. Since 1997, principals Ben Vielle and Michaels Banney, Christensen and Lavery have, in varying combinations, worked together to produce architecture that has been recognized for its idiosyncratic inventiveness. The practice genuinely advances architecture as an imaginative, participatory, human enterprise. In recent years their work in the public domain has been acclaimed for these characteristics.
Theirs is architecture that draws its interest in genuine human engagement with all of the possibilities for encounter, from the cerebral to the sensually tactile, from the practical to the slyly outrageous. Among the many original moments of experience that their architecture offers, there are flourishes of rich material magic, as in the UQ Microhealth laboratory, or dynamic optical surprise, as in the supersized moiré effect of the western screen wall of the Cherrell Hirst Creative Learning Centre at Brisbane Girls Grammar School. In their residential work, they recognize that each new piece of architecture contributes to a larger whole and that the decisions that shape an individual project have implications not only for its inhabitants but also for the shaping of a locale, for the experience of the street, and for the use of resources.
The work profiled here demonstrates a resistance to submit to a status quo of unthinking development and a desire to thoughtfully preserve and promote a set of sensibly inventive values while altering and extending houses built in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They work with ideas that clearly acknowledge the felt experiential values of our much-loved old housing stock. It’s not just about replication of form; it’s about getting to why it is that people are attracted to these houses, how these houses make us feel. The thrill, as Michael Banney notes, of the handmade sense of construction, the gracefulness, of the variety of spatial experiences they can contain, of sometimes being low and close to the street at the front, and high and breezy above the ground at the back. In these houses, m3 seeks to stitch new and unexpected experiences back into the fabric of the existing context in a way that feels contiguous.
Michael Banney: For the Armstrong House, set on a shady slope in Taringa in Brisbane’s west, we were initially commissioned to build a little back deck. The client agreed to pull it right off the back of the house – because of the aspect and the house’s setting among established and very tall shady trees, we were keen to capture some northern sun. There was no easy way to draw in direct sunshine and certainly not at the back of the house, so setting the deck apart and linking it to the house was the only way of achieving a sunny spot. The deck is a fun element. It’s cranked at an angle to the house to avoid the trees. Because it is so far from the interior kitchen, we designed a bush kitchen as part of the deck.
Sometime later, when the clients wanted more living room, they came back to us. The clients wanted to expand their space, to make the house into one in which two parents and two adult daughters could live. The paradigm the clients were expecting to pursue was the one that we rail against: digging into the bowels of the south-facing slope, dragging all of that earth away, building big retaining structures and packing the doubled space in underneath. Instead, we built an incredibly thin platform right on the edge of the house and used the undercroft for coolness and ventilation, opening little windows from the bathroom, for example. We accepted the fact that we weren’t going to fit all of the lumpy bits – the required extra volume – into this area, and we proposed a single room out in the garden – a detached concrete structure located out in the wild green space, a landscape the clients absolutely cherish.
The idea for the mirrored surface finish was to multiply or extend the perception of green landscape, reflecting new views of it back at the occupants as they move about on their common paths of travel. Atop the pavilion is a gravel roof. The neighbour is a sculptor and the idea was that he could use this new level to place some of his work, expanding his boundaries, so to speak, and generating opportunities for neighbourliness.
Michael Banney: Franzmann Residence 1 was underway around the same time as the Armstrong House. It was a beautiful old cottage that had already been built in underneath. It had been extended at the back over the years, and the roof dragged down over the new spaces. We removed some additions from the 1950s and then draped a tangential roof off the original back verandah to create a new living pavilion.
The floor of the old kitchen was quite ruined, so we used that as the place to insert a new staircase. Sequentially, you can move through the five rooms of the original house, which are still used as bathrooms and bedrooms, and walk out onto the old verandah, which is now an interior mezzanine overlooking the new space. The new lounge area is partially tucked underneath the old verandah, beneath the underbelly of the old hardwood structure. This new lower living level flows out onto a terrace and into the garden.
Michael Lavery: We have a lot of conversations with clients about what our approach means. It does challenge what they believe to be a sensible intention. It would seem that for many people, the idea of lifting the house or excavating and building beneath is a way of preserving the backyard. But what it often means is a lot of expensive cutting and filling and a situation that creates disjunction between the interior and the exterior. This separation, in effect, makes the landscape at the rear of a dwelling less usable, much more isolated than it ever was.
Our approach is based on thinking carefully about the conditions of any existing building and using these to set the agenda. The extensions and alterations that arise out of this might mean that there is physically less open yard, but it yields other benefits, chiefly better use of space than there ever was before. The trade-offs become interesting.
Those discussions with clients are often challenging in the early stages of brief development but, when successful, you see the clients take the bit in their teeth and understand the benefits even though they might have been suspicious originally. Through the challenge, a lot of site usage and site coverage issues are considered and thoroughly resolved.
Michael Banney: This house is located in a really tight street. Almost all of the houses in the street are high set or have been lifted and built underneath. In general, we consider the state of the original building, and use that as a guide to sensibly rethinking the construction. Here the verandah was in such poor condition that it couldn’t be retrieved. It prompted us to reconsider the role of the verandah in a contemporary context. The result was a transformed typology – a verandah reconstructed as a space that spans the entire width of the property.
We removed part of the floor of the old verandah to make a much more useful mediation between the interior of the house and the street. The reinvented verandah captures the entrance sequence, creating a generous forecourt space as well as a covered zone to park a car at the side. There’s a beautiful bay window there, which has a very satisfying relationship with the street and captures the winter sun. The living room also faces the street, but stretches all the way to the deck at the back, flanked along the way by two bedrooms and a little staircase that travels up to an attic room.
Michael Lavery: This project definitely deals with the issues of a micro site of two hundred and fifty square metres and of accommodating a young family of four in a very small building. It’s been planned and detailed almost like it’s an apartment so that you get an incredible flexibility of space: a bathroom that becomes a flat-floor environment by covering up a sunken bath to create a wet playroom for kids; a continuous living space that offers flexibility from the street to the backyard so that you can dine informally at either end, have dinner parties, or clear the whole thing out and have a cocktail party or family function.
Michael Banney: There are space-saving things that happen in this house because it’s so tiny – for example, the bottom three steps of the staircase can be detached and rolled away for use as an aid to reaching high-level kitchen cupboards. The bathroom is quite a complex area, with a series of sliding panels that open the space into the playroom, creating an opportunity for including water in play, under surveillance from the kitchen/living area.
Michael Lavery: In Franzmann 3, we really thought about the local town planning codes and how they could be interpreted creatively, taken to their illogical conclusions in some ways, crunching the planners’ numbers while at the same time presenting architecture that is unexpected and new.
Michael Banney: For example, there was something interesting to us in the notion of taking an exact copy of a fragment of the existing roof and transposing it, adjacent to but formally separate from the house. The new copied angles defer to the old house, sitting alongside it as a little quirk, a piece that fits the code but which is entirely fresh, a place to begin the new work. In fact, this is a rare instance in our work of having a substantial part of the new work visible from the street.
The new work houses a study space and guest accommodation. From here, the form wraps and kinks all the way around to the back of the house into an open, two-level, pavilion-like element of rumpus and terrace downstairs and bedrooms above.
Michael Lavery: In our website profile for this project, you can see a selection of the study models that were made as this design developed. You can see clearly in these models the break between the old and the new and the way we have arranged the form of the new roof. The new element at the rear is a simple form but, in its treatment, it appears more three-dimensional.
We have used colour to break up the form into a series of triangles reminiscent of the scale and colouring of the old roof shapes. A piece of white Colorbond turns the corner and climbs back up. From various angles, what is essentially a form made of few planes looks much more complex and faceted.
Michael Banney: When you catch a glimpse of this house, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this might be a little pitched roof and that that was a little dormer.
As with the other houses, here we had to make a decision about where to start the new work in relation to the old. We also sought to redress what was a kind of deficiency in the first Franzmann residence, where the living spaces were all addressed to the rear yard and there was no life on the street. This house contained an old fireplace that no longer worked, but which had an interesting presence as one of the few brick chimneys in the suburb. We removed the room that originally housed the fireplace, creating a garden space, but we retained the fireplace as a brick relic that becomes the garden’s focus. It allowed us to resolve the connection from street to garden, creating an open pause between the existing house and the new pavilion.