Finding Form

Review of house at Northbridge by Atom Design Group, HOUSES Magazine, Vol.37, 2004.

A tree-lined street on Sydney’s north shore is home to small older style bungalows and larger, newer trophy homes. This project by the new partnership of Atom has all the qualities of the former and none of the excesses of the latter. For their first project, this was almost the dream commission. Having lived in the single storey bungalow for several years, the client, a sculptor, was ready to mould the house to personalise her sanctuary.  Tom Wills and Nick Bell of Atom explain that she was open to all ideas and accepted every one of theirs bar one: the colour of the kitchen benchtop. Not a bad conversion rate for a project of this scale.  The spatial qualities and integrity of the existing house have been retained.

A simple bungalow with a central corridor is flanked by rooms either side. Entry is through a front entry/ sunroom. The glazing which originally sealed it closed has been replaced by horizontally slatted timbers. From the front of the house this is the only indication of a more contemporary intervention. The timber slatting allows the house to be left open securely and the central hallway can then act as a breezeway.  It is a wide useable corridor with enough width for shelving and storage.  Original rooms have had the once over but only with a delicate touch. Old ceiling roses have been refurbished. An en suite has been built in and around an old fireplace for the main bedroom. A new bathroom has been slotted in. The study at the rear of the house has had some peeping slots opened up through to the rear to give ventilation and a sneak preview of something quite different at the rear. New flooring has been laid through the front and back of the house. It is recycled blackbutt and has been deliberately chosen for its rougher qualities. The warmth and texture of the holes and veining are a means of giving a comfortable lived-in feel. The client wanted warmth and texture, not slick minimalism.

Moving towards the rear of the house there is a growing sense of anticipation. It’s all very well having new timber flooring and freshly painted ceiling roses but this is where the action is. The new extension at the back opens to a large open plan space. Living, dining and kitchen are combined in a light filled room spanning the width of the house and overlooking the rear garden. Glass spans floor to ceiling and full width of the room. The acoustic ply ceiling reduces reverberation in a hard surfaced space. It also adds another layer of texture. Originally designed to be a 3.5 metre ceiling, the local authority in their wisdom deemed that height to be two storeys by definition. Apparently that is not allowed.  So the ceiling was lowered to 3.4 metres and everyone was happy.

Consistent with this dream first commission, even the passage through council was relatively smooth. The extension is not visible from the street so there were no issues of preserving a heritage streetscape.  There is no deck or balcony. The owner is not a backyard barbecue type.  The south facing glass wall marks the difference between inside and outside. There is no blurring of edges. This actually increases the dramatic effect of the garden view. At once we are floating amongst the treetops.  A clerestory louvred window lets northerly light in to the new living room over the existing roof. It also draws heat out by stack effect with the aid of the adjacent ceiling fans. Given that there are no eaves overhangs or sun control devices for the large glass expanses these will be put to good use.

Large sliding doors open up along the south wall and the living room becomes the indoor deck. Rather than build handrails for safety, the architects have designed fixed joinery units in front of window openings and to protect the stair opening. They are sized to comply with building regulations. These units house the client’s sculptures so that the house feels very personal.  This is no generic styled interior. It is a signature of its occupant.  In the kitchen three different benchtop materials denote the varying functional zones. Stainless steel is used at the cooking area.  Reconstituted stone surrounds the sink area (the client’s preferred choice of colour) and timber for the eating area. Every space is personalised and customised.

Tucked behind the kitchen the timber stair leads downstairs. The location of the stair evolved through the design process. By pushing it against the eastern façade it leaves space in the middle of both floor levels.  Downstairs is the sculptor’s private domain of studio and bathroom.  Though to call it a bathroom is to understate it. The island bath is washed in red light and there is a full glass wall open to the rear garden. This is more a theatre than a washroom.

Not that the owner is an exhibitionist. It is a completely private outlook on to the garden. This is somewhere to relax and contemplate after working.  Flooring downstairs is a polished concrete slab flowing between indoor and outdoor under-croft space. It is one consistent level without hob or step-down at the door threshold.  Being a fully covered space it can afford to be so as weathering is not an issue.  Overhead a plywood ceiling contributes to the sense of durable yet refined finishes.

The extension is expressed as a steel framed box that is clipped on to the existing house. There is a clear articulation between old and new. The existing pitched roof has been left in its entirety while the new tucks in under the eaves line. There is no messing around with attempts to match roof pitches or details. The new is almost Miesian in its expression. Steel and glass and a flat roof combine. Window framing is pulled back from the corners.  Some sandstone cladding is used in vertical banding on the east and west facades. It loosely ties in with the sandstone sub-floor construction of the original house but that is as literal as it gets.

The architects have worked in a manner that is respectful to the existing house and created sympathetic yet contemporary architecture. An openminded client that had complete trust in them was a huge advantage in their successful first commission.