Platform Sequence

Review of house at Alexandria by David Boyle Architect, HOUSES Magazine, Vol. 44, 2005

The brief to architect David Boyle for this project included his clients requirement for a ‘wow’ factor when they arrived home. Their rationale was that if they were to spend a truck load of money on the alterations and extensions to their home, they wanted to really see something for it. True enough, when this writer visits, ‘wow’ is his first comment. What has been produced in the rear extension of this house is a surprise and displays the way an architect can transform space. The surprise comes from the fact that what appears as a flat site from the front of the house conceals a dramatic height variance as one moves through the house. A simple split level has created a series of different yet inter-connecting spaces, each with its own material treatment.

For many years, the suburb of Alexandria in Sydney’s south has had a bad rub. It has been the home of industrial waste lands, poor quality housing and low lying flood lands jammed in between the airport and the city. However the last decade has seen a velvet revolution with canny gentrifiers moving in and buying up the cheaper housing stock. This house is located on a quiet residential street of old one and two storey dwellings in varying stages of renovation, demolition and completed polite urban infill.

The owners, Ian and Debbie, and their rabbits, had moved from a flat in Glebe in search of more space. Respectively they had their own agendas for the new house, Ian wanted a wine cellar and Debbie wanted a hutch for her rabbits. And they both wanted the wow factor.  The sloping site falling from front to back and side to side presented an opportunity for the architect. By stepping down the back of the house and creating a split level that runs parallel with the side boundaries, he has used the natural topography of the site to inform the building’s levels.

The front of the house has been retained complete with original timber flooring and accommodates the three bedrooms. These rooms were simply painted and given a new lease of life. The main bedroom on the eastern side of the house steps up to a new en suite in a split level arrangement that allows sufficient height for the new kitchen underneath.  The ensuite sits in what David refers to as the ‘beacon’, a small tower element with a pop-up roof that has high level windows all around that let light in while maintaining privacy. At night, with the lights on, it glows like, well, like a ‘beacon’. This structure is clad in compressed fibre cement panels with a clear paint finish which continue down through the roof into the dining room space below.

The bathroom and separate WC are concealed behind separate pivot doors though combined neatly in a single frame. In the wet areas the architect has used a layering of different colours to create a series of planar differences.  Moving past the bathroom towards the rear of the house is where the excitement begins. Stairs lead down from original floor level to the new living room which is an intermediate level. Suddenly the space widens to the full width of the house and a large volume of space opens up. It leads out to a timber deck and stairs that connect in to the study which is at the rear of the site. The living room with Blackbutt floors overlooks the kitchen and dining area below and leads out to a deck and then up to the studio at the rear of the site which has a single garage below. The living room has a blue feature wall with recessed shelf and in-built concealed lighting.

Stepping down from the living room to the lower level kitchen and dining space. This is an exposed concrete slab which flows out to the rear courtyard through a big sliding timber door. There is also a sliding timber window that forms the kitchen servery.  From the courtyard a view back to the house shows a variety of roof forms, each expressing the spaces that they enclose below. There are slit roof light windows which allow light to permeate down into the middle of the house. A large canopy extends across in front of all the roof forms and visually ties them all together and works as a sun shading device to the spaces beyond.

The whole rear of the site is organised in a loose horseshoe plan with the opening facing north. This enables the maximum amount of sun exposure to the internal courtyard whilst remaining fully private. The studio at the rear works as a visual barrier in blocking the view from the adjacent block of flats to the internal courtyard. The studio has been built as a curvaceous timber pod. In its organic shape and black stained textured timber finish it is reminiscent of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.  It was the architect’s intent to treat this as a tactile experience with green vines growing all over it. When viewed from the rear lane the black box works in contrast, hovering above the white painted fibre cement panels that form the sliding garage door.

Having occupied the house for over a year, including a full summer, the owners have realised they don’t need air conditioning due to the good passive solar design and cross ventilation through the house. Small timber shutters are located on side walls which open up and let the house breathe.

David’s briefing period is an important phase of the project. He instigates an intensive early briefing then comes back with another briefing with stimulus images. The solution fits their brief exactly. The favourite thing for Debbie is the home for the rabbits which has been concealed below the deck and opens on to the courtyard. Ian’s favourite thing is the wine cellar which has been built under the house. He was so keen on it that he even got in under the house himself to measure and locate the existing piers. He now loves the house so much that he has started working from home. On the day we visit, David has presented his design for the RAIA architectural awards and we can only hope that the jury will visit this house to fully experience the ‘wow’ factor.