The humble grey concrete block adds human scale and texture to a family home.
The ideal of a north-facing backyard to capture the sun is just that, an ideal. But what if your site faces the “wrong” way by a full 180 degrees? That was the primary challenge faced by architect Antony Martin in an established suburb on Melbourne’s inner fringe. His inventive response was inspired by the traditional Spanish hacienda which places an enclosed courtyard at the front of the house.
This addresses the street while allowing the family’s activities to flow effortlessly to and from the adjoining living, dining and entertaining areas. The arrangement preserves the privacy of the four bedrooms and study located to the rear, and allows the backyard to be devoted to the important things in life like kicking a footy. A new build on a substantial lot size is a rare treat for an architect these days.
The donor site in this case carried a Californian bungalow that was beyond salvation. This gave Martin and his clients a chance to start again and use the site and its orientation to full advantage. In keeping with the neighbourhood, the new house is single storey with a hip and gable roofline. The setback of the courtyard aligns with that of the immediate neighbours. Courtyard is possibly a misnomer, it is really an outdoor room, albeit without a roof or windows.
“When we developed this concept it was really important that the material of the outside walls extended inside,” Martin explains. “Using the same material gives the impression that it is actually a roofless room rather than an enclosed garden, a walled rather than fenced courtyard.”
The material he chose to foster this indoor outdoor flow was the humble grey concrete block. Martin says he has long been attracted to concrete masonry. “It’s always been a material I wanted to work with,” he says while admitting that concrete masonry is often viewed as a utilitarian material. His challenge was to impart a more residential feel.
Although concrete masonry is available in a range of colours and textures, Martin chose an unusual bond pattern as a key part of his response. “We used a Flemish bond which recalls more of a domestic brick type layout, scaled up to the block.” In traditional brickwork, this pattern requires laying the masonry units as alternating headers (displaying the end or short side) and stretchers (long side).
The external walls and the inner leaf of the courtyard wall utilise standard smooth-faced grey blocks. Internally, grey blocks with a honed finish were specified. The honing process lightly grinds the block face to produce a matt finish with exposed aggregate. Martin “really loved” the honed finish. “When you come inside there is a higher level of finish. It’s almost like the grey block is a raw material and you’re just adding that extra layer of finish. I love that refinement of the basic building block.”
The front or “public” half of the house is built on a concrete slab with a burnished finish. The blockwork is laid with a cavity but is not loadbearing. The superstructure is carried on a steel frame standing in the blockwork cavity. The 2.4 metre high walling is capped with highlight windows leading to cedar-lined cathedral ceilings which combine with timber joinery to add warmth to the regular grey of the masonry and the lively texture of the burnished flooring. That takes care of the Back-To-Front, Indoor- Outdoor and Hacienda aspects of this innovative house. So where does the Hybrid come in?
Linking the two halves of the house, the front living areas and the rear bedrooms, is an internal lightwell. In plan, the two sections of the house are mirrored around this central point which denotes the transition from public to private areas. The bedrooms wrap around the
lightwell, allowing views across from the master suite to the children’s bedrooms.
“The roof form and walls of the rear section are of the same geometry as the front section but the construction type is different,” says Antony Martin. And different it is, with timber framing on stumps, timber flooring, pre-engineered timber trusses and structural plywood cladding. The roof-forms over the two sections are mirrored when viewed in plan.
Not surprisingly the owners, a professional couple, and their three young children are delighted with the outcome. Thanks to its design and materiality, the courtyard is a natural extension of the living and dining areas.
The enclosure of the courtyard allows privacy while the openings encourage selective engagement with the street, including the children who frequently stop to play on the rope swing hanging from a tree on the nature strip! In the centre of the courtyard is a newly-planted Chinese elm, a slow growing tree which in its own good time will provide dappled shade and add natural character. That’s more than appropriate as the owners of this thoughtfully designed property see this as their forever house.
GB Honed demonstrates the subtle beauty of masonry by exposing its natural aggregate surface.
The go to magazine for architects!