Architecture practice Sum named this project Palmette to show how the renovation and addition unfolds from small and enclosed to spacious and bright. The palmette, a decorative motif of stylized palm fronds, features in the interior of the original house—an 1885 terraced house in Melbourne’s Carlton—but Sum did not refer to it verbatim. Rather, the shapes extending into and out of the original front section are angular, abstract and minimal, not organic. But like the palmette, the design draws our attention to nature.
The spaces of the renovated house unfold at the top of the stairs, where a wood-lined cocoon opens onto a panorama of greenery: a borrowed landscape dominated by the neighbour’s silver birch stands. The drama is heightened by the fact that the floor stops a meter in front of the windows, extending the field of view to the garden on the ground floor. The void between floor and window is only covered by an open weave “hammock” at floor level rather than a balustrade, enhancing the sense of openness and spatial flow.
As with many renovations to nineteenth-century terraced houses, the main drivers of the design were to create a sense of spaciousness and ample natural light. “The idea was to have fewer, but larger spaces, to get the largest possible living space that would fit in. The clients didn’t want to squeeze into four bedrooms,” said Finn Warnock, director of Sum. The first step was to create the living areas. lifting them up and placing them on the first floor.Sum cut off the existing roof at the top, gapped between old and new rooflines and created a terrace off the kitchen.The hammock-covered loft on the west side of the living room gives light to the lower level turning the master bedroom into a partially double-height space.A wood-lined box on the ground floor hides the bathroom and powder room in the darkest part of the house.Walls have been left out where possible, resulting in liberating moments such as the freestanding bath, which has been placed next to the bed in the master bedroom to offer the bather a view of the garden.The backyard is small but green.Soon the boundary walls will cover t are with ficus creepers. Rather than using expensive masonry, Sum formed these exterior walls from ready-made concrete sleepers normally used in retaining walls, and erected them vertically, embedded in a concrete base. The same sleepers are used in place of decking outside the bedroom. If the neighbors ever decide to cut down the silver birches, the client’s own trees will have grown to take their place.
Finn and practice co-director Jaslyne Gan have responded with ingenuity to the site’s spatial and regulatory constraints. Regulations regarding the view from the first floor have been overcome through the use of the netted loft, which ensures that you distance yourself from the windows and thereby blink your eyes sideways. The roofline on the first floor violated council regulations, but was eventually approved on the basis that it would be invisible from the street. The storage room has been cleverly concealed in the existing roof space, accessible via the terrace, while a rainwater tank has been concealed under the tiled veranda at the front of the house.
The material palette is minimal and the interior is dominated by sustainably produced wood. Victorian ash is used as the structural framing and on the floors, stairs and worktops, and the wall and ceiling cladding is in smoked oak. The edge detail of the steps is repeated on the island bench, and a custom designed wooden bracket, jewel-like in its attention to detail, provides the transition from table top to table legs. Sheet steel provides a visual counterpoint, stained with a black patina finish. The custom linear hanger that runs the length of the living room is made of long flat aluminum that is fixed with double-sided industrial tape normally used in the curtain walls of office buildings. This one is also colored with a corrosion-like patina. Sum’s interest in fabrication and file-to-factory systems is evident in the design of a set of three small tables, made from laser-cut steel.
Palmette was a personal project, designed for Jaslyne’s sister and her family, and subtle allusions to the family’s Sino-Malaysian heritage can be found in certain elements of the house, such as the materiality of the terrace and the direct connection forged between the main bedroom and the garden. The house is shaped by a series of smart solutions for a challenging location, and the emphasis of the design on rich spatial experiences, rather than a preoccupation with creating more rooms, has resulted in a cocooning house that draws light in and at the same time draws our attention to nature.