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Upside-down and Back-to-front House

An early project by Sydney’s Carter Williamson Architects, this Balmain house turns the original plan convention on its head with a journey that ends at the beginning. Ten years in the making, it was recently published in Urbis.

The inner-west suburb of Rozelle, Sydney, there is a house known as the Upside-Down Back-to-Front House. One of two middle houses in a set of four typical row houses that date back to the 19th century, the dwelling sits on a site that spans Hartley and Starling Streets. The latter is a back lane originally built for service but is now a formed street. The long, narrow site drops by two storeys from Hartley Street down to the lane. The original house, which was demolished save for one wall, had the entry at the top where the bedrooms were and guests descended a stair to the living area but the owners and their friends always arrived at the entrance off the back lane. When the house was rebuilt, the architects decided to utilise the lane as the entrance and have the journey through the house rise up to the high part of the site – hence the topsy-turvy name.

The house was originally commissioned in 2001 and was the third project of Sydney practice Carter Williamson Architects. The clients were an architect and a scientist, Antony and Kate Merlin, who have two children. Shaun Carter’s approach was to “turn conversations about their home and life into a house”. He was also keen to create a Sydney house in a Queensland way. It wasn’t easy on an 180m² site only 4.5m wide.

The discreet entrance to the house.

The discreet entrance to the house.

Image: Geoff Beatty and Blake Brockdorff

“The climate in Queensland encourages a much more open way of living,” Carter says. “People think it’s cold in Sydney but it’s not – for nine months of the year, the weather is great. I’m interested in how we can open up our houses to take advantage of this. The landscape is important, particularly in how it comes into contact with the built environment and so the main living area opens right out onto a small but exquisite courtyard.”

The main bedroom has a secret stair behind some joinery that leads to an eyrie above.

The main bedroom has a secret stair behind some joinery that leads to an eyrie above.

Image: Geoff Beatty and Blake Brockdorff

But let’s start at the front of the house. Shaun Carter wanted the entry to “keep the discreet nature of the lane so it is nondescript, like a stage door, where you just slip in”. From here, visitors pass through the garage and up to an outdoor courtyard. Straight ahead are doors to the lower level living space. This long – but narrow – open space contains the dining room, kitchen and living area. A stair of floating timber treads leads up to three bedrooms on the upper level. Because the house is so slim, the architect decided to have no corridor upstairs; the bedrooms open on to each other.

The bath, when filled, weighs 500kg.

The bath, when filled, weighs 500kg.

Image: Geoff Beatty and Blake Brockdorff

“It is a bit unusual to get to a bedroom via another one,” says Carter, “but the building was so narrow we needed the space. I think of it as like an enfilade you might find in a traditional museum.”

A cunning light-well brings light to the middle bedroom and delivers it down to the dining table below. The main bedroom at the end (by the original Hartley Street entrance) has a secret stair behind some joinery that leads to an eyrie above. This is the ensuite, all in white tile with a curved floor that rises up like the side of a boat. The underside of this fulsome curve is lined with timber veneer to form the ceiling of two of the bedrooms below. A voluptuous bath sits centre stage.

Fitting this nest under the eaves to create a third storey wasn’t easy – and probably contributed to the twenty-two months it took to get approval from Leichhardt Council. It also required a feat of engineering as the bath, when full, weighs 500 kilograms. Curved steel beams created the boat-like structure and the bath was craned in.

Challenges like this excited Carter and his clients, who worked on the house for more than a decade before it was completed. “They were willing to park their egos and I was open to their ideas,” says Carter. “They were fortunate that the builder was also an architect. This combination allowed for some really high-level thinking; we discussed every aspect of the house. All the joinery, even the timber handbasins, is bespoke. We were totally committed to the project. And we put in over 1,400 hours of on-site observation during the construction period.”

The 193 square-metre house was finally finished in 2011. The result is a finely crafted house with attention paid to every detail. It manages to do this without being obsessive or overwrought, precisely because of the patient pursuit of the best ideas, the best design. “It’s not often that you do a project that takes so long yet you are so happy with,” says Carter. “I was lucky to have perfect clients with a lot of patience.”


Carter Williamson Architects
Sydney, NSW, Australia
Site details
Location Sydney,  NSW,  Australia
Category Residential buildings
Type Houses, Residential
Project Details
Status Built



Published online: 6 Feb 2014
Words: Tommy Honey
Images: Geoff Beatty and Blake Brockdorff


Urbis, December 2013

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