December 21, 2015
I’m so interested in retaining character, retaining patina, showcasing a site memory or a weathered material. Recently I enjoyed the luxury of designing for my folks. Luxury because it is a real opportunity to experience the role of artist for patron… as opposed to agent for client. Artist to patron as a relationship rarely happens in everyday life except for the cult architect with global fans. Even so, the stereotypical architect is the commissioned artist and so architects are misunderstood and under-utilised.
Being the recipient of outright unabashed nepotism meant I had a chance to really be myself, and discovered just how far into my own theory practice can go. A very positive experience in risk taking.
The little house for my folks is an expose on Residential Adaptive Reuse. The block was spotted by dad and he liked the look of it because the run-down timber cottage on a tiny block very near the beach and cafes in urbane South Fremantle, Western Australia, exemplified worst house on the best street. Read my tips about that by clicking here.
Mum didn’t give it a second glance. Her criteria, far harder to meet, are self-contradictory, unachievable and confusing – like ‘I could live in a dog box’ and ‘I would like a custom splashback made to look like this cut through a Mandurah truffle'.
Her needs, I have found, are best met by ignoring her spoken criteria, and taking the well-educated guesses a daughter can take. All in all, being an enthusiastic, emotional and ebullient sort I worked with her to narrow every key intention down to a word which stood for her needs and would help us stay on target. We decided on VAST.
We talked about how she needed either a vast outlook or a vast amount of space. Having come from living at the vineyard in the Swan Valley for so long, she would feel quite hemmed in if there were no respite from form by way of nature. That narrowed the broadest criteria, being site selection, down to choices of either desert, or farm, or ocean.
She was surprised when I encouraged them to buy the run down cottage, retain the original rambling character, demolish the dilapidated rear half under a slumped skillion roof, and build a fresh new rear part with a lot of recycled materials and memory of what had been before. Confident that I could meet her functional and comfort essentials by way of brief (wish list) and material selection; location close to the beach with vast sky and horizon really became a key motivating aspect of the design process which helped locate windows, orient walls and ceilings and inform planning methodology.
Working for my own folks has shown me the importance of knowing your client deeply.
My favourite aspect of this project is that the new part is textured already, despite being brand new. So much of what is shaped into new forms is informed by the heritage that was there before.
I am fascinated by recordings on the land. The original and only survey available was a hand sketch on linen referencing markers no longer standing, from well over one hundred years ago. Our surveyor enjoyed the task of taking a virgin site and being the man to convert it into digital format. It happened to be the first site on the street to require surveying beyond the original sketch – and yet, with all that extant housing stock, the street is not heritage listed.
The old dunny well and truly crossed a boundary. Literally – it protruded more than two feet into the neighbour’s yard. Quaint and iconic, we took photos. I recorded its location and requested that we keep it on site as a folly. Dad, wanting his money’s worth and pragmatic at the same time, wondered why on earth I wanted to keep it. He could see the romance but not the point of letting romance get in the way of maximising internal space.
We didn’t argue, he is a pacifist even when I am evangelical. We just tossed ideas around for a while. The block is quite small and I conceded the demolition of the dunny in return for a fixed record of its location on site by way of painstakingly cleaning the bricks and reinstating them in the exact same spot. The outside edge of the original south dunny wall is now the outside edge of the new south living room wall. The wall is reverse brick veneer, meaning it is clad on the outside (in our case with weatherboards, also recycled from similarly old property in the same suburb) and on the inside is the leaf of brickwork; between the two materials is an air gap providing a good thermal barrier. I looked forward to working with the bricklayer to satisfy my eye with regard to mortar finish and colour – and was keen to lay the bricks such that they recorded the height and pattern of the original decorative holes in the arch - but no, nothing fancy, just a plain and truly recycled brick wall now stands there. The bricks have now been on site for at least one hundred years and will last at least another half century after the investment gone in this year.
The project is full of reuse and material recycling. The original zincalume from the old roof was removed and used to clad a long west-facing side wall. It is the side entry wall and bridges the still-standing original cottage front wall with the brand new rear part of the house. I like the way it does that – a continuous element, stripy, familiar, down-to-earth and Australian. Walking up that side entry feels comfortable and not showy, yet it is clean and interesting and decidedly smart against the brand new Western Red Cedar windows with recycled jarrah architraves.
The timber floor which was pulled up from the dilapidated half was gently separated and the 5 and a quarter inch tongue and groove old jarrah floorboards were reused in a part of the old house which needed a new floor. The project is still in construction and the floors are protected at the moment. I can’t wait to see random patchy pieces of Baltic pine amongst the old jarrah which I have kept entirely intact. The Baltic pine used in the cheaper old workers’ cottage floors came from ballast in the cargo ships which came to Fremantle harbour. Imperfect, cheaper and softer, the patchy baltic pine boards, testament to the story, remain.
The very old ceiling rose to the loungeroom in the front (retained) part of the house was dropped and kept in a corner in clamps. After a new ceiling went in the rose was reinstated and restored, the junction between new and old plaster a fine finisher's job. Carl was impressive standing on stilts and willing to take dust in his eyebrows and nostrils.
A blue canoe has hung from the verandah rafters throughout the works since before the project started.
The intention is to showcase custodianship of history, heritage and materiality.