Assertive Addition

Review of house at Cremorne by Emili Fox Architects, HOUSES Magazine, Vol.36, 2004.

What-a-lotta terracotta.  In Sydney’s lower north shore it is difficult to avoid the deadly orange plague.  Suburb after suburb drips in finials and Marseilles roof tiles.  On a house built in the early part of the twentieth century they look appropriate.  For new houses they look a sham.  Conservative councils produce restrictive controls to capture a past that never existed. Houses are squeezed into arbitrary building envelopes. Upper storeys are forced into pitched roof forms. This is modern Sydney?

How refreshing then to see this new addition designed by architect Emili Fox.  Her contemporary design makes no attempt to re-create the Edwardian style of the duplex that she has extended.  This new piece of architecture is about space, light and modern living.  The original house has not been disrespected. In fact by choosing not to imitate, it is enhanced.  The qualities of the original house are kept.  Materials and fenestrations are contrasted. This two storey timber box has been clipped on to the outside of the house and given it a whole new lease of life.

In a conservation area it was always going to be a challenge getting council approval.  Its location in a street of similar Edwardian duplexes made it even more difficult.  Fortunately the heritage planner said only the front street elevation had significance; the rest of the house was degraded.  This gave the architect some room to move.  However council still wanted the new cladding to be painted weatherboard to match existing.  They also required the window mullions along the northern wall to have a vertical rhythm of mullions.  This was seen as an attempt to be ‘sympathetic’.  Emili stood her ground and after a long approval process, got what she had designed.

From the footpath there is a sliver of a view down the side of the old house to the new addition. The front is all brick arches, pitched roofs and maroon shingle cladding.  What is revealed down the side is something else altogether.  A clean lined flat roofed timber box gives a hint of something special.

The owners had seen a couple of the architect’s earlier projects and liked her work. Nothing but a contemporary design was ever considered.  Having lived in the two-storey duplex for several years they knew what they wanted.  Through its life, the building had evolved from duplex to two separate flats and back to a duplex.  The latest evolution had left it in a traditional layout with a central corridor that ran along the party wall and series of cellular rooms.  It was time to open up and let some light in. 

Removing a previous addition was a starting point.  Clearing the overgrown garden was the next.  The addition is at the rear of the house and clipped on to the northwest corner.  The ground floor has been rearranged to remove the central corridor and open up a large living zone, which combines living kitchen and dining.  Internal walls have been demolished to open up the space.  It is a long linear space that is accentuated by the horizontal slot window that runs the full length of the northern wall.  Designed with a window seat for its length, this was omitted during construction in favour of more space.  Windows and shutters peel away.  The corner pulls back.  A big green slot is left.  The green is the tree canopies that the house sits amongst.

To the west, a deck continues out and is partly roofed to form an outdoor room.  From this deck, stairs lead down to the rear garden and out through a slatted timber fence to a public reserve.  Views to the west look across an urban valley to a city skyline.  It wasn’t until the building work was done did the view reveal themselves.  The original front room was left largely as is. The formal spatial qualities of the room are retained. Only new joinery flanking the retained fireplace indicates any intervention.  The lounge now functions as a secondary living space, a place for kids to retreat to when the parents entertain.  The existing stair was modified to suit the new circulation pattern.  A guest bathroom has been provided on the landing with lighting from above provided by a high skylight.

Upstairs, bedrooms have been retained. Small by modern standards, they have been enlarged by the new addition.  The upper floor of the timber box has been built as a deck.  It runs along the northern wall of the bedrooms.  Their windows have been replaced with sliding doorways on to the deck. In effect the deck has become an extension of the bedrooms.  It is a secure and private kid zone.  The deck is roofed and screened with a solid timber balustrade and timber blinds.

At the front upstairs, the parent’s bedroom has been tweaked with a new en suite, joinery and the sunroom amalgamated into the room.  Timber was used as a foil to the existing masonry.  It gives a feeling of lightness in contrast with the heaviness of bricks.  Charcoal stained horizontal weatherboards are the cladding. The dark stain feels serious and sophisticated.  It is set against the lighter clear stain of the timber windows.  The light and dark express their respective elements.  Framing is Blackbutt, recycled from an old wool store. Flooring and decking is spotted gum.

The window system has been designed as a series of skins. The outside layer comprises sliding timber windows that. On the inside, a series of horizontally slotted plywood screens slide and provide privacy and sun control. The slots express the horizontal nature of the living zone and give a cool streamlined effect. Tracks are recessed.  Linear skylights have been installed between the existing house and the new roof on the upper floor. It lets light in deep in to the plan and allows two the elements to be read independently. A clear separation is made between old and new.

It is this element, which probably best illustrates Emili’s architectural approach.  She describes her design philosophy as combining new interventions with old and maintaining the integrity of both. “How the spaces are used is more important than the form of the building”.  “It’s how you live in a space”  Her clients can only agree.  They have been left with a house that is open and spacious.  A house which links the indoor and outdoor spaces.  A house that does not detract from its original roots.  All this, and not a finial in sight.