Architecture

Vader House

December 1, 2009

Behind the dark exterior of Andrew Maynard Architect’s Vader House lies a paean to space, light and adaptability.

Architect’s Statement
Vader House’s distinctive form interrupts the symmetrical roofline of Fitzroy, breathing new life into this Victorian terrace. This framed steel skeleton reclaims the unusually high existing boundary wall for its interior. It then responds to site setbacks resulting in a subverted answer to ResCode, producing high folded internal planes, double-height ceilings, a mezzanine level and spacious interior.

There is no formal zoning in plan. Instead, a flexible space is created where programs can symbiotically co-exist. The elements that compose Vader also possess this versatile principle: the sculptural staircase doubles as storage space, the shield of louvers serves as sun and privacy screening, the timber flooring opens to reveal a cellar deep beneath Vader and the external deck retracts to unveil a spa. This versatile and flexible character allows this extension to respond to client needs and means it does not risk becoming static.

Strategic placement of the courtyard at the centre of the design ensures the entire site is utilised, and allows abundant natural light and ventilation to infiltrate the terrace and the extension. The operable arrangement of louvres on the east and west façade is designed to minimise summer solar gain, and maximise winter solar gain to ensure a comfortable internal environment.

The modest material composition of Vader House is completed with a refined colour palette, carefully splashed with a bold red that instils the environment with a dynamic energy.

Review
“One thing we try to resist in the office is this idea of plugging on some new stuff to the back of an existing house as if it’s some sort of tumour growing off of it,” says Andrew Maynard. Instead, at this terrace house site in Fitzroy, two eras face off across a courtyard. This creates visual contrast and keeps the embedded history. “I reckon you leave the old, you don’t polish it too much,” says Maynard. “Let them have a nice conversation together.”

The renovation makes the most of its small site. Maynard employed a strategy of inserting boxes and functional elements between existing walls. A simple roof plane is bent in response to the ResCode planning envelope, and clipped on to 100-year-old party walls. These raw brick walls were left after the demolition of termite-ridden lean-tos, and form the internal lining of the pavilion. Four metres tall, they fortuitously lift the ceiling height above what is normally allowed under ResCode.

The insertion strategy at the site began years before, with the construction of a new bathroom/ensuite pod inside the master bedroom – immediate work required to make the old house liveable. A sliding door leaves you with two options – cover the glass shower screen for privacy or open the door to leave the red-tiled bathroom exposed. The second stage began after the client got the rest of his finances together. “It feels like this was a design I did when I was a different person,” says Maynard.

The fundamental decision was to make a green space in the centre. Essentially a courtyard house, the outdoor space can be expanded and merged with the interior when all three bi-fold walls are open, making a small courtyard seem large and a modest ground floor area seem enormous. Maynard describes it as the “lungs”of the house. Adaptability is key: the timber deck slides on tracks, to conceal a fake-grass lawn, and reveal a spa.

Absolutely every space was utilised, including areas on iffy legal territory. A walkway leads from an upstairs window to the roof. “I like the idea of pushing the boundaries between what is legal and what’s not,” says Maynard. “If a couch ended up staying up there, I’d be stoked.” The mezzanine volume of the new pavilion is considered too small under the regulations to be a habitable space (the client had to sign a letter stating he was happy to use it, to obtain a building permit). A surprisingly large wine cellar has been dug into the ground, creating what is in effect a three-storey development, within the planning scheme’s tight restrictions.

The pavilion was also designed to be viewed from above, both from within the site and from the neighbouring block of flats, “so it was really important to get the roof plane right,” says Maynard. Privacy, and light, are controlled by operable louvres, painted black, that from the outside give the project its Darth Vader/stealth bomber look. Maynard also used the vantage point from the client’s upstairs windows to play with colour – red planes are revealed, when from the ground floor the palette appears neutral.

 

Despite copious amounts of insulation, this is not a solar-passive design. North is in completely the wrong direction – the only aspect facing the sun is a blank, inclined plane of roof, waiting for its solar panels to be installed. When it came to sustainability, Maynard and his client were “ideologically misaligned,” as Maynard puts it. “After a while I had to leave ESD alone. It’s just one of those things where in the end architecture is about compromise. We’ve got to have a really strong vision, but if it doesn’t come off we can’t cry about it, you’ve got to move on and try to do it better next time.” Andrew Maynard Architects tried to discourage the client from parking his four-wheel-drive in the carport, by detailing it as beautifully as possible. This has been moderately successful, with the client hosting a summer barbecue in the shaded south-facing space. The main environmental advantages of the house are its small footprint and inner-city location.

A lot of effort went into the detailing. “This is my steel house,” explains Maynard. “I’d finished two houses, and there was an article published which said, ‘There’s a new kid in town, and he’s the timber guy’ and I thought, ‘No I’m not! I just want to play with things!’ I’d never built anything in steel, so this one is a real exploration of steel details.” These include the folded plate stair, with its missing risers, and a thin balustrade that pays homage to the 1960s flats across the lane. The most startling detail is a hanging lintel above the courtyard doors, removing the need for a column in the internal corner. “And it was worth it in the end, because people would come and say ‘Holy shit, what’s holding it up?’,” says Maynard.

Maynard acknowledges that for architects, not much profit is to be made from renovations. But, he adds, “just playing between the new and the old is so much fun.”

Toby Horrocks is an architect and freelance writer. He recently started his own practice, Toby Horrocks Architecture, in Melbourne. He has abiding interests in architectural history, industrial design and environmental sustainability.

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