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An Architect’s Reworking Of Sir Roy Grounds’ Former Balmain Home

Architecture

In the early 1970s, a young architect named Stuart Whitelaw was engaged by Marr Grounds – a sculptor and lecturer in architecture who Stuart worked with at the University of Sydney – to design his personal home.

Upon seeing the proposed design, Marr Grounds’ father, famed architect Sir Roy Grounds, decided to buy the house next door, that Stuart was also designing. 

A long and complicated history ensued (which Stuart has extensively documented), but today, the latter of these two heritage-protected homes belongs to architect Conrad Johnston, director of Fox Johnston.

Conrad recently re-engineered the house for contemporary family life, turning what was originally  a two bedroom home into one with four-bedrooms and an additional two-bedroom granny flat. The updated home offers stronger connections to landscape and place, while maintaining the integrity of the heritage structure.

11th June, 2021

Sahara Cushion by Greg Natale. Gubi Collar pendant light from Cult. Banquet upholstery by Atelier Furniture. Acacia Rug (Galapagos) by Armadillo and Co.. Cesca Vintage Cantilever Chairs available at @retrofurnitureamigo. Sculpture Counterbalance No.27 by Odette Ireland available at Curatorial and Co. Roger McLay Kone chairs. ‘Macleay’ Cushion by Greg Natale. Artwork on banquet is ‘Poke’ by Stefania Reynolds. Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

Built in furniture was designed to maximise the home’s narrow plan. Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

The house wraps around a wild internal courtyard which can be viewed from all three levels through extensive glazing. Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

‘The Flume’ side table available at Blu Dot. Sculpture available at Planet Furniture. Acacia Rug (Galapagos) by Armadillo and co. Table sculpture: ‘Intersction’ by Kate Banazi available at Curatorial and Co. Ming’s Heat arm chair from Cult. ‘Flume’ round coffee table available at Blu Dot. Wasirir 321 Cushion from Missoni Home. Spence and Lyda Joaquim Side Table by Tacchini available at Stylecraft. Plateau side table available at Blu Dot. Marble bowl by Greg Natale. Aquarius cushion by Greg Natale. Lampe de Marseille available at Cult. Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

Pinks, caramels and chocolatey browns make up the warm, rich colour palette. Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

The house opens up to the world outside via sliding glass doors. Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

Ceramic bowl form Planet Furniture. Large resin horn by Dinosaur Designs. Fruit bowl by Dinosaur Designs. Ceiling lights by Est Lighting and Tovo Lighting. 750 black high stools by Grazia and Co. Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

Blonde timber, charcoal ceilings and grey concrete create a dramatic interplay between light and dark in the kitchen. Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

Andora – Terrazo Rug by Armadillo and Co. Theia P by Marset at Est Lighting. Muse Velvet Ottoman by Sarah Ellison. Everett side plate available at Planet Furniture. Black and white vases by Alexandra Standen at Chalk Horse Gallery. Tidal chair cushion High Back by Tait. Outdoor Volley Chair, Frame Colour Dark Bronze Electro, Rope Colour Grey by Tait Outdoor. Volley Dining Table Mesh, Frame Colour Dark Bronze Electro by Tait Outdoor. ‘Muse’ velvet couch by Sarah Ellison. Windhoek #160 Pouf by MISSONI HOME at Spence and Lyda. Coffee table book from Oscar & Friends. Resin bold pearl vase by Dinosaur Designs. Terracotta Vase by Garden life. Wasirir 321 Cushion by Missoni Home from Spence and Lyda. Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

LA vibes with these washed white surfaces, smooth concrete, and low plush furniture. Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

Pockets of landscaped garden intervene the architecture at every opportunity, here overshadowed by an enormous existing tree! Photo – Anson Smart.

Perfect sunny light filters through the top sitting room. Pillow cases by Cultiver. Coffee table books available at Oscar & Friends. High vase available at Dinosaur Designs. Ceiling light by Est Lighting. Modernist armchair with fur hide by Great Dane. Plateau coffee table available at Blu Dot. Throw available at Saarde. Smaller vase available from Greg Natale. Upholstery by Atelier Furniture. Large Resin ‘Beetle Bowl’ by Dinosaur Designs. ‘Sequence’ round table available at Cult. Summer Swivel chair by Grazia & co. Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

The view from the pool! Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

The view out over the bay catches neighbouring palms. Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

Pillow cases by Cultiver. Bedside table by Hans J. Wegner. Bedside at Great Dane. Voltra by Est Lighting. Armchair Dark by Great. ‘Drane’ pillow cases by Cultiver. ‘Kadir’ linen cushion by Saarde. Olive flat sheet by Cultiver. King fit sheet by Cultiver. Vintage vase available at Rudi Rocket. Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

Blonde timber and magenta tiles characterise the main bathroom. Inax Yuki tiles by Artedomus. Terrazzo tiles from Onsite. Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

A view down the corridor showcases the feast of muted colours and textures in the house. Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

A shower wedge! Inax Yuki tiles by Artedomus. Terrazzo tiles from Onsite.Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

Luxe vibes in this rich red bathroom. The tiles are offset by the skylight and pastel terrazzo. Inax Yuki tiles by Artedomus. Terrazzo tiles from Onsite. Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

The views across Parramatta River feel close enough to touch. Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

The pool juts out to the edge of the property, almost hanging over the water! Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

Perfect Sydney light bounces off the house and the water. Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

The street frontage betrays none of the delihts that lie beyond! Custom brass sign made by Simon Bethune at 175 Design. Photo – Anson Smart. Styling – Stanwix Studios

Amelia Barnes
Friday 11th June 2021

‘It has been transformed from a two-bedroom home that was very difficult to live into a four-bedroom (with an additional two-bedroom granny flat) family home that connects with the landscape.’ – Conrad Johnston

Director of Fox Johnston architects, Conrad Johnston, knew this 1970s Balmain home was not fit for his young family… yet. The property had a predominantly south-facing aspect and only two bedrooms, but the general location and architectural challenge of reinvigorating such a compelling, historically signficant home proved too intriguing for Conrad to pass up.

‘The qualities of the house which attracted us were the materiality, the large glazed sections, the siting and the rawness of the expression,’ he says. ‘The primary sense of the house was texture and natural light – these are the two ingredients which are key to residential architecture in my view.’ 

The house was originally designed by architect Stuart Whitelaw for one of Australia’s most renowned architects, Sir Roy Grounds, and his wife Lady Alice Bettine Grounds.

Built at a 45 degree angle to the street, the home zig-zags along its southern boundary to accommodate existing side-step trees and sandstone outcrops. Its three-storey concrete pillar and slab construction was infilled with floor-to-ceiling fixed glass. 

Except for a 1980s garage addition, the original design remained largely intact at the time of Conrad’s purchasing. That being said, the timber cladding and windows were beyond repair, and much of the original interior had been covered up and painted. 

There was also the issue of an uninsulated roof, and the house having no openable windows to the south and west facades, resulting in extreme heat gain in summer and loss in winter.

Given the home’s heritage significance, a series of clever yet sympathetic updates were devised to overcome these issues and improve liveability.

Conrad’s interventions focused on restoring the superstructure; better connecting the home to the landscape; converting lower-ground space (previously housing an air-conditioning plant) into two bedrooms; replacing the ‘80s garage with a new structure and apartment for multigenerational living; and softening the geometry of the original grid design. 

The pool is a new addition offering prime views across Parramatta River, while the internal courtyard was planted with rainforest species. 

The most challenging element of this project was enlarging the feel of the rigid 3.4 metre wide house, which has been achieved via a new ground floor plane. ‘The other device was to build in all the furniture and to treat the fit out as one would fit out a narrow boat.  The furniture is built in and pushed to the perimeter, creating the illusion of extra space and maximising the narrow floor plate,’ says Conrad. 

While from the outset the home appears relatively unchanged, Conrad says the impact of the changes for his family have been dramatic.

‘It has been transformed from a two-bedroom home that was very difficult to live into a four-bedroom (with an additional two-bedroom granny flat) family home that connects with the landscape, performs very well environmentally, and offers a robust and textural home that will be suitable for the extended family into the future.’ 

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First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email bea@thedesignfiles.net