A Sydney terrace house by Chenchow Little features an inverted plan with the living areas raised to the first floor under a sculptural glass roof.
The curse of the typical terrace is a long, linear plan that offers nowhere to go but up. Skylight House, in the Sydney suburb of Balmain, makes this a virtue with its sculptural glass roof opening the house up to the heavens.
Husband-and-wife architects Tony Chenchow and Stephanie Little designed the house for Tony’s parents. “They like the area but there were a couple of things they didn’t like about the original house. The spaces were compartmentalized, you couldn’t see the sky from anywhere inside, and there was no outdoor space. The rear was dominated by the kitchen and an outdoor toilet. So the brief was to turn all those negatives into positives, to make it feel nothing like a terrace.” To complicate things further, in Chinese culture, says Tony, “You can’t have the kitchen in the centre of the house.”
They kept the original facade, demolished the rest and inserted a new building that inverts the traditional layout, putting the living area on the first floor and bedrooms on the ground floor, with a central courtyard as the entry point to the public space. “Then we created a series of fluid, warping planes for the floors to negotiate the level change (about two metres from front to back of the site) and bring all the levels together.”
Three levels in total are set over two distinct volumes. The front volume has bedrooms and a bathroom downstairs, and the living area above. The rear volume contains the kitchen, a casual lounge area, a small rear outdoor terrace and the master suite above. Connecting the two is the central courtyard at the top of the stairs, a light well where the roof is cut out around a silvery green Banksia integrifolia, positioned to great effect against a neighbour’s yellow wall. At this pivotal intersection, the glass walls that close off the living area, landing, breezeway and kitchen can all slide open, dissolving any barriers. “The idea was for a fluid feeling of continuous space from the front all the way through to the rear. Once you’re inside there are no real barriers; it’s ambiguous where the doors end, and you really perceive all the boundaries.”
Chenchow Little also likes to express the structure in its buildings, so the material palette for this house was limited to timber, glass, steel and white-painted plaster. Moving through the spaces from public to private, the use of timber (spotted gum) increases, “to give intimacy and warmth.” The living room’s concrete floor wraps up the wall either side, “creating a datum line,” which also functions as a balustrade over the stairwell. The kitchen mixes concrete and spotted gum joinery; the master bedroom is timber-lined, its low walls angled out to scoop in the sun, with black window louvres to screen the glare. The banksia infiltrates the view up here and attracts the morning birds. “It’s a very special part of the house,” says Stephanie. “And quite unexpectedly, given that the skylight is the ‘hero’ of the house design.”
As a term, skylight doesn’t really describe the vaulted living room ceiling, where clear glass bands are separated by sculpted white blades. Built on the south-east roof section, it infuses the room with shafts of light in the early morning, followed by a soft and constant light all day. The largest blade dips into the living area like a Boeing’s wing, cordoning off the living room without interrupting the floor space. “My parents couldn’t decide if they wanted a dining table there, so we designed this to create options for furnishing. Having the living level on top allowed us to exploit that sculptural potential of the skylight and the dramatic spatial qualities of light,” says Tony.
The skylight and courtyards combined give the public area a ground-floor sensibility and flow, and focus the house more inwards than out to the nearby harbour. At street level, the Victorian facade has been restored by heritage specialists Clive Lucas Stapleton & Partners, and inside there are nods to the Victorian, too: timber or concrete to the datum lines; and strategic use of heritage colours, for which the heritage architects were consulted. “We rarely use colour,” says Tony, “but in a typical Victorian house, every room was painted differently, so we played with colour in a contemporary way.” The front bedroom is a sage green, the second bedroom dusty pink – another play on the neighbour’s yellow wall.
Mixing the vaulted living room with quieter, compressed areas such as the kitchen and bedrooms brings the spatial dynamics of a larger home to the smaller terrace typology, and extends the language of this award-winning architectural practice. They had not previously designed a terrace house, but began with a simple question: ”Why have the best part of the house for the bedrooms, where you spend the least amount of time?”