David Boyle Architect delivers harmonious triplets on a complex urban site, where once a single house stood.
Marrickville is a Sydney suburb that is noticeably diverse, both culturally and architecturally. The council area is home to some 83,000 people and has welcomed waves of immigrants from southern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The peak of migration was from the 1950s to the 1970s and each of these groups “colonized” the neighbourhood with its own cultural character. The 2006 Census indicates more than 30 percent of residents spoke a language other than English at home.
This diaspora is where architecture is most needed and least often seen. The site that David Boyle has spent the last five years working on is tucked down a small street but occupies a prominent corner. The existing house was originally built in the 1930s or 1940s. It had been extended a number of times and had had a first floor added, with possibly one of the ugliest ski-chalet roof forms ever built. A long garden was filled with sheds and concrete paving, the ubiquitous Hills Hoist and an unused vegetable patch. The whole site was just under seven hundred square metres.
The clients had some previous development experience and bought the property in 2010 without any subdivision guarantees from council. They came to Boyle with some dubious pre-development application advice and a need to rework, divide and sell the house (or houses) before they could contemplate how to live in what was left over.
Boyle reimagined the land in three instead of two parcels, creating the opportunity to add a new house at the rear. The original big house was divided down (mostly) existing walls in the middle, leaving two terrace-like plans on 6.4-metre-wide blocks. The eastern house has three to four bedrooms; the north-western house has two to three. Council required a separate entry for each house, and Boyle’s design tweaked the existing entry for the eastern house and made a new north-western colonnade leading to a side entry for the corner house.
The eastern house, closest to adjacent terraces, acquired more terrace-like features in the reworking – a parapet hiding the roof form, more pale rendered areas than before, and a more cubic form that echoes other terraces on the street. The design of the corner house dismembers that typology a bit – the timber entry colonnade brings the street scale down to a single-level building, and where the building is by necessity still two storeys at the front, the upper level is looser and softer than its upright semi-neighbour. The long side street boundary is fractured into three discernible parts – the colonnade, the side fence and the car space at the rear.
This gentle rhythm of fences and building components continues to the very back of the original block, where a new house now sits. Both streets were carefully documented and the nuance and care of Boyle’s observations and architectural responses are evident. The new dwelling stitches together numerous constraints and components into a generous, informal, private and sunny home.
Originally the planners advised the client to submit a proposal with the new house close to the street, creating a garden behind it. But this plan was then refused when lodged and, in a last-ditch, save-the-project meeting with the planners, Boyle suggested the idea that came to him instinctively: part of the dwelling would come forward to match the pattern of other houses with verandahs abutting the street. The new house would then pull back and run along the rear of the site, with a wing pushing forward at the other end to screen it from the corner house. The planners embraced this idea and revisions and approval followed relatively quickly.
The new house echoes the mishmash of the street beautifully. When I comment that “the oxide red poles of the front verandah match those of the neighbour’s carport,” Boyle seems surprised. This is probably his renowned modesty, but you get the feeling that he absorbed the environment so thoroughly that the resulting house sings in harmony with the street by architectural osmosis.
The front garden is concealed by a garden wall of recycled bricks, high enough to give privacy but not so high as to block low northern winter sun. A modest porch roof curves around the canopy of an existing tree, then pulls away to show a patch of blue sky. The owners’ car sits discreetly in a carport behind the verandah.
From just inside the front door, the new garden is immediately revealed through big doors opening to the north-east, where a deck steps down into the landscaping. The main living space is a combination of study, library, kitchen, dining and living, but each area has its own ceiling, as the twisting geometry of the site is reconciled with other wall height constraints along the southern boundary. A back door near the kitchen opens to a small deck that catches the morning sun and leads to a narrow herb garden, also useful as a “back-of-house ” drying yard.
A wide corridor, glazed to the deck/garden, links the living end of the house with the main bedroom area. Two multi-use spaces are accessed from this link hall. One opens to the living room and is used as a music studio. The other, past a bathroom, is a combined guest and writing room. Beyond that sit a generous main bedroom and a lofty ensuite with a beautifully curved tile shower. This space has a high- level northern window and a clever series of low windows/screens that open to the south to allow glimpses of the central garden. The high, thin ensuite “wing” acts as a privacy shield, concealing the adjacent houses.
For the clients, this has clearly been a successful exercise. Each of the two terrace houses sold for more than what they paid for the property. Factoring in holding costs and build costs, it is clear that the clients’ willingness to carry the risk and venture into the unknowns of subdivision and speculation rewarded them with the third plot of land for their new house at no additional cost, while the cost of the new house was somewhat subsidized by the sale of the other houses.
Marrickville Council awarded Boyle the 2015 Marrickville Medal for the project and press interest in the houses is immense. Boyle has had great fun playing with the broad palette of materials and wide range of styles that decades of immigrants have brought to the suburb. This is the sort of work he does exceptionally well, bringing his trademark common sense and playfulness to complex urban sites.
Most importantly, the projects are a great model for the future of Marrickville, and indeed for most cities’ suburbs, where the demand for increased density makes large blocks with large houses ripe for subdivision. As work progressed and the houses developed, locals wandered past the property, amazed at the possibilities, bemused by the aesthetic and surprised by the resale values.
This group of houses has become the talk of the “village,” inspiring people in the streets around to contemplate similar possibilities for their own large houses on their own large blocks. While most will not have the beauty of these projects (because their designer lacks the skill of David Boyle), it is a great thing when such a project can inspire many non-designers – the “average person in the street” – to discuss urban planning, change and regeneration for the first time in their lives.