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.’