A renovation that re-discovers outer space
ARCHITECT Andrew Maynard is standing in the grassy garden of a newly renovated house in Ilma Grove, Northcote, explaining why his design blurs inside and outside space.
“If you invest in a big block, then you’re investing in outdoor land. Don’t feel like you need to fill it all up with building,” he says. “But you have to make your house connect with the backyard, otherwise you won’t use it.”
As if to prove the point, his littlest client, three-year-old Harvey, barrels through the very wide backdoor and demands a game of cricket.
“Australians talk about growing up in the suburbs with all the space,” Maynard continues, while bowling to Harvey. “But we’re building these big homes and renovations, which are empty most of the time. Going small is really important environmentally – and also, in terms of design, it’s so much fun.”
When the young cricketer’s parents, Anna MacWilliams and Cameron MacDonald, decided to renovate their heritage California bungalow, they had three main objectives: to create an open plan living area, to use passive-solar design principles and to retain their garden.
“We didn’t want to build a mansion. We love having a backyard,” MacWilliams says, as she steps out from the kitchen to visit the compost bin.
The rear of the house faces north, but the couple rarely used the old dining room, because it was dark and pokey. The sun was blocked out by a lean-to laundry and toilet.
“It was all brick wall, with a tiny little window,” she says. “We used it as a storage room and had visitors in the front room. The backyard was segregated. You had to make an effort to get outside.”
Today, MacWilliams is cooking a vegetarian shepherd’s pie in the open, blue and red kitchen. “We get beautiful light coming in here now. In winter, the low sun definitely penetrates into the living space,” she says.
The northern wall of the Ilma Grove house’s new living area is comprised of large double-glazed doors. Among other eco-friendly attributes, the extension is clad in recycled bricks and all the timber was salvaged or harvested sustainably. All paints and finishes are either low- or no-VOC, and a rainwater tank is plumbed into the toilets. Up the space-saving spiral staircase is a spare bedroom and a roof-terrace boasting a solar array and views to both the Dandenongs and the CBD.
“I love opening up the doors,” MacWilliams says. “We’re always going in and out, to the vegie garden or the herb garden. Harvey can be in the backyard and I can still do what I have to do.”
Maynard used a number of design elements to make sure the yard was not only preserved, but also, used regularly. The first step was to demolish the rear laundry and toilet. The new laundry lives in a cupboard.
“Over time, people tend to add wet areas to the back of homes, and they dislocate living spaces from the outdoors. We knock them down and build them in the middle of the house, close to the bedrooms,” he says.
The broad double-glazed doors mean that the garden is always in view. “Visual connection is fundamental,” he explains. “And then you try to pull away the edges.”
He blurred the border between inside and out by retaining sections of exposed brickwork inside, and extending the light blue shade of the indoor cupboards to the external service area. A small patch of garden protrudes into the home, planted with basil and lettuce.
Beyond the broad doors, a narrow deck doubles as bench seating. “It means the edge becomes a social space, not just the line between inside and outside,” Maynard says.
“You’re always going to have some people who want to be inside and some who want to be outside, especially in a climate like Melbourne’s. Don’t force people to choose: instead of ‘either-or’, give them ‘both-and’.”
In de-fence of the backyard
WHEN Anna MacWilliams and Cameron MacDonald bought their Northcote home, they were already considering a renovation. Their real estate agent gave them clear advice: keep your backyard and you’ll do well.
The agent, Grant Leonard, a partner at Nelson Alexander in Northcote, says oversized renovated houses are a turn-off for many buyers.
“You can devalue the property if you don’t leave any backyard. They’re harder to sell,” he says. “Sometimes I see really large houses where they’ve taken up most of the land. Big houses suit families with kids, but generally, those families will want a backyard for the kids to play in.
“When people are renovating, the main thing is to get the balance right between the size of the backyard and the size of the house.”
In his recent book, The Life and Death of the Australian Backyard, Professor Tony Hall argues that the balance has been lost. He found that the proportion of an average suburban block covered by a new residence has increased significantly since the 1990s. “The cause is bigger houses, not smaller blocks,” he says.
Professor Hall, an urban researcher from Griffith University, believes planning regulations should require less block coverage and houses should be designed with more windows looking out onto gardens. He says vanishing backyards not only stop children from playing outdoors, but also reduce the biodiversity, natural drainage and cooling effects previously provided by trees and vegetation.
To Kirsten Larsen, from Melbourne University’s Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab, existing backyards present an invaluable resource for food production. Larsen says the city’s food security is threatened by a number of constraints, including water, oil, energy and agricultural land. Backyard vegie gardening must be part of the answer, and for that we should limit house sizes.
“It makes sense to produce some of our food in cities. We have a lot of the resources here that we need – water, nutrients, space and sunlight,” she says. “We need to increase urban density if we’re to stop encroaching on agricultural land, but we need to do it in a way that allows people to continue to grow their own fruit and vegetables.”
Indoor amenity need not suffer for the change. Whenever clients ask Andrew Maynard to design a modest building on a large block, the architect’s mind starts to race. For the addition to be small, the concept must be inventive.
“Doing something small on a big block is really exciting. When you have to put a number of functions in a confined space you’re forced to think differently,” he says.
“One of the reasons houses become big and horizontal is because people just line up functions next to each other. The moment you’re forced to overlap them is the moment something strange and beautiful will happen.”