Project: Terracotta House
Architects: Austin Maynard Architects
Project Team: Andrew Maynard, Mark Austin
Builder: Spence Construction
Engineering: OPS Engineers
Location: Fitzroy, Australia
Area: 255 m2
Photo Credits: Derek Swalwell
Living in bustling, vibrant Fitzroy, our client asked us to help her with a tree-change, without changing postcode. Her priority was to have a big veggie garden and a farm house, while remaining in the city. With our help, she found an inner suburban cottage with a huge backyard in a community-spirited enclave. We built a new home for her at the rear of the block and renovated the original house at the front for her son’s family to live in. Between the two cottages is a communal pavilion and a large productive garden. With the subtle mix of shared and private spaces, this is a multi-generational home like no other.
A dramatic rise in life expectancy is considered one of the great achievements of the twentieth century, but there are certain ramifications caused by an ageing population.
In the Australian housing market, already facing pressures of affordability and the shortage and cost of child care and aged care facilities, the changing demographic structure has driven demand for intelligent design response and resolution. There has been heightened interest in ‘multigenerational houses’ – homes that can adapt to a families changing demands; “Fonzie” flats (self-contained, usually built above garages); and perhaps most enduring and iconic – granny flats.
Beyond its simple definition – ‘self-contained accomodation suitable for an elderly relative’ – a Granny flat has proven to be hugely beneficial in terms of local planning and sustainability, particularly within high density inner city areas. Encouraging infill, maintaining and utilising local amenities and infrastructure and helping retain character. With many families relying on their parents to assist with young children, a granny flat ensures help is close by, with future potential as an autonomous space for teenagers or rental income for empty nesters.
Terracotta House is no ordinary ‘granny flat’. Architectural, highly detailed and beautiful – it is multi-generational living, but acting in reverse. Where typically a young family look to accomodate and care for their retired parents, at Terracotta House it is the parent, Belinda, who is helping her son and his wife; allowing them the opportunity to live in a house in a vibrant inner-city Melbourne suburb, close to their work, they would otherwise be unable to afford.
Walking around Belinda’s original home she illustrated why she wanted to leave it. A small dark courtyard was her only outdoor space, with a few well-cared-for plants in terracotta pots huddled in the brightest corner. “That’s what I want,” she said, gesturing to the much-loved but struggling pot plants. “I want to stay in my community, and have a thriving veggie garden. How can I have both? Help me find the right block.”
The brief to us was clear. Whilst her kitchen, bathroom and bedroom needed to function well, her priority, the soul of her home, was to be her garden. We kept the scale small and rational, to maximise outdoor space. The home spills into the garden, while the recycled brick and terracotta tiling creates a sympathetic background to her flourishing garden.
Far more than a granny flat at the end of the garden, Terracotta House is, essentially, a communal-living family “compound.” It comprises of two separate houses, a shared pavilion and a productive garden, sited on a long block in Melbourne’s inner north. At the front is the original cottage, now renovated with two bedrooms, a bathroom and an open plan kitchen/dining and lounge. A shared building is centrally located, a demilitarised zone with laundry and toilet, functioning as a library, guest room, writer’s studio, music room and general social space. At the back, with independent entry from the rear laneway, is Terracotta House itself. Built boundary to boundary (East/West) filling living spaces with northern light, it comprises living room, kitchen dining, bathroom and study/guest room on the first floor and main bedroom and ensuite upstairs.
TRUE AND TESTED
At Austin Maynard Architects we always aim to maximise space, relate internal spaces to the garden, embrace the street and make the most of laneways. The site that Belinda purchased offered potential to achieve all of these ideas and more.
The original house, a timber clad Victorian workers cottage faces the street. With a thoughtful internal renovation and some maintenance, the existing character was retained and enhanced. The layout was internally re-arranged, moving the living zones (kitchen/dining/living) from the rear of the house to the front, looking out onto the street and front garden, and facing the sun. Walls were removed and a new kitchen and bathroom installed, creating a simplified circulation. Though the front garden and verandah didn’t change in form too greatly, it changed in function – rather that purely ornamental it’s now a productive, working and recreational space that connects to the life on this friendly, community-rich street. The two bedrooms and the bathroom are now located in the rear of the home, a quieter and more private location.
“WELCOME TO THE COMPOUND”
The owner, Belinda, always held a fascination with common shared gardens and linked adjacent houses but opportunity and cost meant owning neighbouring properties was impractical and elusive. At Terracotta House, we discovered another way to achieve communal living. By creating a type of village square, or what Belinda jokingly calls a “compound”, she and her son’s family reside individually, in separate homes, on a shared block. With enough distance and enough garden between each cottage they both have privacy and space, but also the reassurance of help and support close by. This factor particularly resonates with Belinda, who moved to Melbourne from the UK and faced the struggle of working and raising two children without any family support.
FORM AND MATERIALITY
Belinda found inspiration in our 2015 project Tower House, which broke down the bulk of a large family home into five smaller components – reducing scale and introducing garden.
“I saw that and I thought, of course! You don’t have to build up, you can spread around, and it can be beautiful.” She says. “I wanted my house to be beautiful. That really mattered.”
The beauty of Terracotta house derives from the materials. Earthy red tiles, that respond in tone to the light throughout the day, spill down the walls to meet reclaimed brick. Beautiful and emotive, a nod to Belinda’s love for gardening, the application of terracotta tiles as a wall cladding came from exploring the possibilities of using materials in an unexpected way.
The roof form pop-ups respond directly to siting and sunlight. The main bedroom upstairs faces east, allowing for morning sun, whilst downstairs in the kitchen, dining and lounge room, an Eastern facing skylight captures the same early sun, with operable louvres to help with regulation throughout the seasons.
The three elements of building at Terracotta house each relate to the context of the suburban area. The existing house at the front, sitting within the existing streetscape, was left untouched externally, to retain the street’s character and amenity.
The library pavilion is located on the western boundary, abutting a sizeable built form on the neighbour’s side, and opening directly onto the garden, to maximise the width of external space.
Terracotta House, at the back of the block, has a direct relationship to the rear laneway and sits in amongst neighbouring garages and outbuildings.
THE VILLAGE HUB
An important element of the brief from the very beginning was the library building. Located along the western boundary, in the centre of the block and facing out onto the shared garden – this freestanding, flexible pavilion, serves as the village hub. A light-filled, multi-purpose community room, with a pull-down Murphy bed (also used as a projector screen), a laundry and a toilet, it functions as guest accommodation, library, cinema, writer’s studio, music room and social space.
COMIC BOOK DETAILS
Architects spend a lot of time detailing the connection between materials. It’s important. Not only does it create a resilient and robust structure, it also makes the architecture legible. We spend a lot of time concealing flashing and capping so that the materials and form are coherent, without the waterproofing details dominating. However, finely crafted details are also, often, time consuming to construct, which has a direct effect on the budget. At Terracotta House, where the budget was tightly fixed, we decided to do the opposite detailing strategy. Rather than hiding the flashings and capping, we accentuated them. Like the thick outlines of a comic book, each form is captured within lines of black steel of various thicknesses, framing and accentuating the tiles and the recycled brick. Reviving the dying art of line weights, Terracotta House is a comic book illustration brought to life by developing pragmatic details designed to drive down construction costs.
WILLIE WESTIN WALLPAPER
A major interior feature of Terracotta House is the beautiful wallpaper, supplied by Willie Weston. – a local business run by two non-indigenous women in partnership with Indigenous artists, through indigenous owned art centres. Two designs were chosen by the owner for the walls in her kitchen and lounge: Jilamara ‘Stone’ and Pandanus ‘Stone’ adds a sophisticated and artistic delicacy to contrast with the earthy, exposed reclaimed brick.
“I came to Austin Maynard Architects with just an idea. I wanted to buy a block on which it would be possible to have two houses, plus a shared building and a productive garden – but not in the outer suburbs. I loved their Tower House project, the fact it wasn’t built up, but was spread around and it was beautiful. I wanted my home to be beautiful. That mattered.
Now I have a beautiful house and the grandchildren love coming here, it’s like a little village for them. We’ve found a new way of achieving communal living.”
As with all our projects, sustainability is at the forefront of design with Terracotta House. As well as incorporating a large productive garden and maximising space on this inner city block, Terracotta House embraces many passive energy design principals. The majority of the home’s heating and cooling is passive, through design, materials, and window size/placement. Operable windows facilitates cross-flow ventilation as well as exhausting off air throughout the hotter months. Glazing is designed to capture the winter sun and keep out the summer sun and the choice of external fabric maintains a comfortable internal temperature.
Fixed awnings and screens are located on northern and eastern windows to protect against the sun with vertical screens to the western face where the summer sun is lower in the sky and harsher. The concrete floors contains hydronic coils that heat the slab from within, radiating the warmth throughout the day. Northern orientation, utilising as many full height windows as possible, allows the slab to be heated by the sun also, reducing the reliance on the heating system.
The highest quality insulation available – made using recycled glass, was also used throughout all internal walls, floors and ceilings. Windows are powder coated, thermally broken aluminium frames with double glazing throughout.
Recycled bricks, cleaned by hand, were used extensively throughout the house, and the left-over supply was used to build the raised garden beds.
High quality materials such as brick, concrete, aluminium framed windows, metal roofing and terracotta tiles were selected to construct a home that will last and reduce ongoing maintenance.
Ceiling fans are installed in the living area, library and kitchen to provide efficient cooling during summer. Rainwater from all roof areas is harvested and directed to two above-ground colorbond steel slimline water tanks, for toilet flushing and garden irrigation.
The design utilises low-energy LED lighting throughout and low energy usage appliances.
A photovoltaic solar power system has been connected to supplement electricity use, with the capacity for future connection to storage batteries. Panels are located on the roof of the old part of the house.
A large, and well tended, productive garden forms the centre of this communal home. Every endeavour was made to ensure the growing of fruit and vegetables was made easy. Visible from all parts of the house, tending and harvesting is a part of daily life.