R Bliem & Associates
Melbourne Brick & Block
The clinker brick houses built for the prosperous, post-war middle class are much loved for their solidity and character-filled facades. Less endearing are their frequently dim interiors and labyrinthine corridors.
This family home in a Melbourne middle-ring suburb was no exception.“The interior was a rabbit warren, there was no entry space, and the corridors were deep and dark with lots of doorways,” recalls Albert Mo, director and co-founder (and the “A”) of Architects EAT. (He freely admits that the quirky name has nothing to do with food,“except that we like to eat”, but it did help secure restaurant commissions when they were starting out in 2001!)
It has been dubbed the Three Parts House because, well, it’s in three parts.The rear half of the existing two-storey house was demolished and the interior reprogrammed to relieve the corridor and doorway congestion. It’s called The Lantern, for reasons we will come to.
To the back is a new build,The Brickhouse, which accommodates living, dining, kitchen and laundry facilities.
The three part harmony
With vision and skill, a classic clinker brick house is reborn for a new generation.
Linking the two is The Courtyard, an open yet private area underpinned by a three car basement.
Three parts.Three very different design approaches. So how does it tie together?
“By splitting the design into three we knew that was how we needed to arrange the spaces,” says project architect James Coombe.The design team, led by Albert Mo, also included Julie Sloane, Emma Gauder and James Taylor.
The looming presence of a five-storey apartment block, a recent addition along the eastern boundary, strongly influenced the design of The Courtyard and the placement of elements within it to reduce or eliminate oversighting.
Following demolition of the rear of the existing house, the remaining functions were largely retained but the convoluted corridors reworked to reduce wasted space and allow an uninterrupted sightline from the entry through The Courtyard to The Brickhouse at the rear, prompting the owners to quip that the new layout has “straightened the spine of the house.”
The brick walling at the entrance was also demolished and replaced with a glass and aluminium structure, the first step in bringing more natural light into the existing house.The bricks from this demolition and that of the rear section were reused to form new brick walling along the western elevation.“We made sure there were enough recycled bricks to reach the corner,” says Albert Mo.“There’s quite bit of history in those bricks, which came from the Auburn and Fritsch Holzer brickworks, both local”
Possibly the most startling change to the existing house, and the primary reason for it being dubbed The Lantern, are massive glass walls that separate it from the courtyard and also continue along part of the western elevation. No ordinary glass, these are U-section vertical panels imported from Germany that nest to form a pocketed double skin.They carry a variety of finishes from almost clear to subtly patterned and opaque. This exotic glass was also used in the new entrance. It is thought to be its first noncommercial application in Australia.
A three-car garage underpins The Courtyard, accessed by a staircase that doubles as a visual barrier to the neighbouring property. A tall gingko tree is strategically placed in The Courtyard for the same purpose.
The western wall flanking the staircase is where the brickwork innovation begins.“We wanted to create a functional facade and use natural ventilation for the garage rather than mechanical,” explains Albert Mo.“We were looking to use some sort of perforated brickwork.” One day he spotted a cored brick laying on edge on a colleague’s desk “and I thought why not go with that!”
The terracotta colour bricks were carefully chosen for their ten-core pattern, which allows ventilation while retaining privacy.“Because of the location it doesn’t need glass behind it or another screen for weatherproofing,” says Albert.“If the owner wants to ventilate the garage,” James Coombe adds,“they open a large pivot door and air pulls up through the bricks and they open a door on the other side. It works perfectly.”
We asked Albert Mo if the concept challenged their client? “As with any architecture project, you need a willing client to take that leap of faith with you. Fortunately they are those people.The only question they asked me was how do we deal with spider webs in the core holes!”A fair question but so far spiders and their webs have not been an issue.
An unexpected benefit of the core holes being horizontal is that they provide a convenient, hidden fixing point for a shade sail which according to James Coombes “works perfectly and is a little neater.”A blade wall of perforated brickwork supports an island bench in the new kitchen.
Unusually, all the new brickwork in The Brickhouse has been laid in stack bond rather than the conventional stretcher bond. (Only the staircase wall is laid on edge.)
Stack bonding threw a challenge to the bricklayers as the horizontal and vertical mortar lines must be perfectly aligned. Even more challenging was the corner line in the perforated wall which required mitering that cut through the core holes! As the photograph shows, the resulting line is perfect.
“At the beginning we thought the brickies are not going to be happy but it turned out they loved it,” says a relieved Albert Mo.“They were really happy to do this because it was something different and they really put in 100 percent,” he commends.
An interesting detail occurs at the corner of the brickwork flanking the rear entrance. It is finished with an inverted black steel angle that Albert Mo calls their “Miesian corner” a homage to the details that typified the work of Mies van der Rohe.
The owners lived in the house for over six years and seriously considered demolishing the entire house and rebuilding before committing to this major extension program. This was especially brave in light of the recent construction of the neighbouring apartments which replaced a handsome older house on the large corner block.
The owners’ determination and the vision of Architects EAT design team has come together to allow the retention of the building’s traditional character and street appeal with a newly functional interior that brings this family home well and truly into the 21st century.
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