Architecture

Pitt Street House, Redfern

June 22, 2009

Far from your typical white box extrusion, this addition to a heritage listed house by Sydney practice Welsh + Major serves as a celebration of salvage and the sediments of time.

At the recent Australian Institute of Architects talk ‘(Re)Generation Housing’ at Tusculum, four offices presented strategies for the reinvention and reinvigoration of the suburban residential lot. A proposition put forward by Welsh+Major saw the utilisation of the rear boundaries of these lots, through the commandeering of a 1.6m sliver from the rear of two adjacent properties to form a continuous 3.2m wide inhabitable wall running through the centre of the block. This wall was then sliced into a series of studios and one-bedroom garden apartments. With only a minor sacrifice to the original landowners for a large gain in land usage, it was and is a neat strategy for generating residential density and encouraging multi-user housing models.

After visiting the Pitt Street House in Redfern and previously the Fleet St House in Summer Hill, it becomes clear that Welsh+Major’s proposal for the (Re)Generation Housing talk was part of an ongoing study into the occupation of rear property boundaries and the implication this has on the internal life of a house. In these projects, Welsh+Major exploit those emotionally torn planning controls that abhor building to boundaries but that see existing structures as sacrosanct, to thoughtfully reinvent outdoor dunnies and sheds as contained studio spaces opening onto inwardly focused landscaped courtyards.

The Pitt Street House is a renovation of one of the seven ‘Fitzroy Terraces’ – a row of NSW State Heritage listed Georgian houses built in 1846 and designed by architect James Hume. These terraces are set well back from the street with a deep common garden running along their front and present a stripped united façade to the street. To the rear they have been added to in the manner typical to terrace houses the city over. Prior to this project, the current owners carefully restored the front rooms of the terrace to its original detail. The work undertaken by Welsh+Major has been kept to the rear of the house where the later additions have been retained in the most part, with new openings made, a lightwell reinstated and a small weatherboard extension made to the second storey.

The two ground floor rooms in this rear section of the house have been left in their evocatively textured state, where possible, and stripped to the raw brickwork where not. The kitchen runs alongside these rooms, thickening and thinning around the columns as space allows. This joinery, clearly a contemporary addition, is grafted to its context by picking up on the colours of the fading paintwork adjacent.

Above, a bridge that led to an attic space over the rear of the house has been kept, and now leads through a bathroom that is also a stair landing to the new bedroom. The roof of the bedroom folds up to the sky at the rear of the house to form a clerestory window held in place by a slender steel rod.

Materials throughout are coded to display the rationale of how the existing and the new modifications to the terrace are treated. Existing openings are dressed with timber, new openings are left unadorned. The colours used are taken from the densely textured walls, and appear in the doors of the studio, the rear of the terrace and the joinery. New elements are painted, while existing elements are left unfinished. Where possible material has been salvaged and reused. This is most apparent on the balcony off the bedroom – and is the point where the language veers a little close to the shabby chic and distressed denim world of fetishised patina.

Fleeting details leave a lasting impression. A seemingly misaligned junction of skylight and joinery is in fact mirroring a small triangle of plaster where the doorway at the end of the original house does not quite meet the spectacularly curved underside of the stairs opposite. Galvanised steel posts lining one side of the courtyard have been sealed randomly leaving some of the tops to rust, and others not – a detail only visible from the upstairs bedroom. And the economic and cheerful light fittings made from off the shelf bulbs and a piece of folded colorbond.

The garden courtyard is the focus of the house and this internalisation of the terrace house type is intriguing. So often the strategy in converting row housing for contemporary living patterns involves ripping out all the internal walls and opening the house out onto a landscaped garden. The house finishes at the back wall and the garden begins and then there is a fence. Here, the internal walls of the compact rooms have been maintained, and through the positioning of the studio, the garden becomes a courtyard.

The benefits of allowing zero setbacks on boundaries is painfully apparent; no neighbours are disadvantaged and all of a sudden the rear of the property is usable as a granny flat, an office, a studio – lengthening the building’s lifecycle. Obviously these ideas have been a concern of the architects’ for some time, and with any luck we will be able to see this strategy repeated en masse throughout the suburbs soon.

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