Fresh Faced

Review of house at Clovelly by Drew Heath architect, HOUSES Magazine, Vol.34, 2003.

“What was I thinking?” asks architect Drew Heath, “I like to do things that are different and they are just such a cliché.”  He is referring to the bi-fold doors that open out from the living room to the courtyard of this recently remodelled house in one of Sydney’s eastern beach suburbs. The house is actually anything but a cliché. Modernising an old house in Sydney’s desirable east is hardly ground breaking but in the hands of a talented architect like Drew, the mundane has been elevated to the poetic.

When the owners bought this semi-detached Californian bungalow it could have technically been described as a dump. There was no kitchen, no hot water and an outdoor toilet. Essentially the brief for the young family’s home was to re-design the rear of the house and add a future upper storey. Not only that, but when tenders came in over budget, Drew ended up building it himself. This was nothing new for Drew who has built a number of his architectural projects himself as well as houses for notable architects Sam Marshall and Peter Tonkin. With the family living on-site and Drew working around them, they all got to know each other very well. How did that go? “Well we’re still talking,” responds his client.

The architect describes the design as about “a series of five or six timber screens that layer the site and close off the house”. Indeed for a small site, there are a number of differing spatial experiences. The front of the house has been left intact. It is entered through the original side porch into the gun-barrel hallway that runs along the common party wall.  Beyond bedrooms the first stop off the hallway is the bathroom. A small room made to feel bigger with a panel of full width opaque glazing in a timber frame that runs along the external wall. Timber is then continued through into the vanity benchtop. The window becomes part of the furniture of the room as a stainless steel rod is attached horizontally to a mullion as an integrated towel rail. Above the vanity a floating cupboard bulkhead hangs proud of the frameless mirror behind which further enhances the room’s spatial qualities.

At the end of the hallway a sliding door opens to the living room. This is the first portal in the series of screens that define the remainder of the house.  Tucked around behind the open plan living room is the galley kitchen that opens to a small courtyard.  It has been carved out from the existing footprint of the house to provide some breathing space for its adjacent rooms. Crisply detailed and clad in dressed Western Red Cedar, it is enhanced with finely crafted timber sunhoods over openings.  A deliberate effort has been made to weave the new smooth insertion into the existing fabric of the house with minimal impact.

The aluminium bi-fold doors to the larger courtyard seem to float away from the walls due to the use of narrow vertical fixed glass between the operable doors and the brickwork. Above are ventilating louvres and it is all capped by an exposed frame roof pointing up and westward to maximise light into the living room. Sun penetration is controlled by a simple roll down canvas awning, “like you see in old butcher’s shops” explains Drew.  The timber experience is continued outside but now the scale and texture change. Cedar becomes cypress and closed joints open to become a series of slatted screens.

A paved courtyard is enclosed by an integrated retaining wall and bench seat across the site. Parallel side boundaries are fenced with flat painted black planes on a simple timber frame. This contrasting effect neutralizes and visually recedes the side boundaries.  They form a secondary experience to the primary screening across the site. From this space, stairs follow the site contours up to a terraced lawn courtyard level, which leads to the studio/ garage and out to the rear lane. The double garage and loft studio is hidden behind a multipanelled façade of horizontal timber slats. The patchwork panel collage has been created using a variety of timber sizes and spacing. The façade offers only glimpses of what lies behind. Screens slide open at ground level to open the garage to the courtyard. The cypress slats have been left untreated and weather to a silver grey. The fully recessed batten screw fixings punctuate the elevation in a constant rhythm.

A council requirement limiting the height of the neighbours existing garage was used to advantage in the design of the roof. The adjacent garage to the north was too low to give adequate head height in the loft.  However, Drew chose to run the stair up in this zone and build wide box gutter overhead along the boundary wall. This and a shower room at ground level are all contained within a masonry zone built from bricks removed from the old house. This articulates the façade and provides a counterpoint against the timber. Within the brickwork a downpipe is framed in a recess and slips past the shower room’s punched, frameless opening. By setting back from the boundary the opportunity arose to run a series of north facing clerestory windows and louvres for the full length, parallel with the side boundary. The mono-pitched roof continues beyond the glass line to cut out the summer sun angles while air can be brought in at low level and out through the high level louvres to provide ventilation.

A feature wall of half-height concrete blocks defines the southern edge of the garage. The vertical joints have been closed up while horizontal joints stay as fully expressed. This is an example of the creative way that Drew uses simple, basic materials. The top of the wall is corbelled out to express the connection with the rafters that span the roof. Plywood soffit panels are fixed between and fold down to line the inside of the walls.  In the corner is a small white shower room with gloss ceramic tiles that juxtapose against the adjacent recycled bricks. The door handle is a simple full height vertical batten on the outside and overlapping battens on the inside, one to hold on to and the other to space a gap against the reveal.

Standard materials are used in an innovative way. Surfaces are largely left raw. Applied colour is used sparingly and to dramatic effect, as in the lime green door to the shower room. Here it is almost surprising to see this colourful outburst but really it just reinforces the notion that nothing in this house is predictable. In an otherwise excessive world of ‘styles’, this house is refreshing to experience. And as for Drew’s one regret, those bi-fold doors, well his clients love them.