A Sydney Cottage Conversion Influenced By Traditional Japanese Architecture

Machiya are traditional Japanese wooden townhouses, and part of Japanese vernacular ‘folk dwellings.’ They are mostly concentrated in Kyoto… but Sydney architects Downie North have re-imagined this traditional Japanese home in a distinctly Sydney setting!

This two-bedroom cottage in Balmain has undergone a bright and cheerful renovation, that cleverly balances public and private realms through a mix of Japanese inspiration, and response to the local context.

Miriam McGarry

From the cottage front view, you wouldn’t notice the renovation to the Machiya House by Downie South architects. Photo – Katherine Lu.

The staircase in this house was designed within 1 millimeter of precision to fit. Photo – Katherine Lu.

A renovation that lets light in, but protects privacy. Photo – Katherine Lu.

A bright and fresh family home, renovated before the arrival of twins! Photo – Katherine Lu.

The history of the home is revealed through the pained interior brickwork. Photo – Katherine Lu.

Simplicity and serenity. Photo – Katherine Lu.

The shuttered windows trace the line of the roof. Photo – Katherine Lu.

A Balmain cottage gets a Japanese inspired addition! Photo – Katherine Lu.

Miriam McGarry
13th of May 2019

The Machiya House by husband and wife architect team Catherine Downie and Daniel North of Downie North is a renovation of a two-bedroom semi-detached cottage in Balmain. The brief was to transform the home into something more spacious, to accommodate the imminent arrival of twins, while respecting the constraints of Balmain’s Iron Cove Heritage Conservation Area overlays.

The original home followed a typical layout of its era, with poor flow between rooms, and lack of connection between the living and outdoor spaces. The clients wanted a new kitchen, living, dining, bathroom and laundry, as well as the addition of a master bedroom with ensuite and private study. To accommodate all of this, within a tight L-shaped corner site, the architects looked to international examples of small footprint living for inspiration.

The outcome draws upon the design of traditional Japanese wooden townhouses through layering, screening, ladders and semi-screened stairs to balance private and public spaces within a constricted site. Architect Catherine Downie explains ‘to ensure privacy for the clients, while engaging positively with the public domain, we used “curated openings”’. This brings daylight into the deepest corner of the home, without forfeiting any privacy for the family.

From the front street view, the home retains its cottage façade, but turn down the laneway at the side, and the full extent of this inventive extension is revealed. Daniel North explains that the industrial heritage of the Balmain area has been intentionally retained, ‘we deliberately left traces of the past in terms of form and materiality.’ Original brickwork is still visible, and the use of galvanised steel in the new addition offers a gentle nod to the site’s past.

The relatively small space necessitated precision and incredible attention to detail to make the densely layered home feel polished and resolved. Daniel highlights that the stunning steel staircase was fabricated with millimetre precision to float flawlessly between the ground-floor concrete slab to the first floor. The home also utilised new technologies in 3D modelling, drawing on traditional Machiya design – a brilliant mix of past and present. It isn’t surprising that this home was shortlisted for both the AIA NSW Architecture Awards and 2019 Houses Awards, Alteration and Addition under 200sqm!

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