A 58 Square Metre Brunswick East House That ‘Never Feels Small’

Backhouse by Tan Architecture began with a simple question from the clients: Was it possible to build a small house for their elderly parents in the backyard of their existing Melbourne home?

Thanks to some innovative architectural problem-solving, the answer was ‘yes’. On just 69 square metres, they successfully created a highly functional 58 square metre residence, with its own living, dining, and kitchen spaces, one bathroom, and two bedrooms!

And while the light-filled, two-storey house is almost invisible from the street front, it never ‘feels small’.

Christina Karras

Backhouse by Tan Architecture is built in the backyard of a Brunswick East family home.

The modern timber kitchen.

Tall ceilings also help make the most of the small footprint.

Below the stairs is cleverly utilised for storage.

‘This project demonstrates the ethos of “quality over quantity” that I think is needed to make our cities more sustainable for a growing population.’

Jos Tan, Tan Architecture principal

The rear lane access to the home.

Sliding doors allow the living room to extend into the garden.

The house’s orientation offers plenty of natural sun.

‘I love the bath with its openable window upstairs,’ principal architect Jos says. ‘That little nook was carefully designed to let in fresh air and natural light without overlooking the neighbours.’

Inside the spacious main bedroom.

Christina Karras
31st of October 2023
Structural Engineer
Building Surveyor

Brunswick East, VIC/Wurundjeri Country

Melbourne’s inner-city streets are lined with rows of compact houses, but this one in Brunswick East designed by Tan Architecture is especially unique.

‘The brief was to design a small, modern, and energy-efficient home at the rear of an existing property for my client’s parents to live in,’ Tan Architecture principal Jos Tan says.

‘Although the family wanted to live near each other, a degree of privacy and separation between the two houses was desirable.’

Australia’s modern-day homes aren’t exactly optimised for multi-generational living, and Jos knew the house would have to be a ‘bit quirky’ in order find space for the usual amenities of a two-bedroom home — a laundry, bathroom big enough for a bathtub, and enough storage for a downsizing couple — on just 69 square metres of land.

‘While devising a solution, I envisioned a private and peaceful retreat, taking inspiration from Australian verandahs and courtyard houses in Malaysia and Singapore,’ Jos adds.

‘From a design perspective, one major challenge was [figuring out] how to insert a two-storey building into the backyard of an existing home without it being too visually imposing — while also providing internal spaces that felt generous.’

The new building was placed on the south boundary to maximise outdoor space and natural sunlight. To make the most of the ground floor, the kitchen, dining, and living zones were combined into a single open-plan space, with north-facing sliding glass doors that allow the living area to ‘borrow’ space and spill out into the garden.

‘The upper floor cantilevers over the lower level, which not only increases floor area upstairs, but also provides shade and shelter for the living areas beneath,’ Jos explains.

All the materials were selected for very practical reasons, as the client’s father (a carpenter) built the house himself. This lead to dominant use of warm timbers across the built-in joinery and the frame, however they decided on concrete terrazzo flooring for its minimalistic appearance and its thermal mass, helping capture and store radiant heat from the sun in winter. Solar panels are also hidden on the sloped roof of the new home.

Getting the design for a second dwelling approved by the local council was another crucial piece of the ‘puzzle’. ‘This other type of problem-solving is a somewhat less glamorous aspect of an architect’s work that’s not often talked about,’ Jos says. ‘In addition to the council-mandated path leading to the main street, we provided an alternative entry via the south-side laneway, which proved to be very useful.’

The biggest feat is how the house manages to balance the needs of the brief with these requirements, to create something homely, welcoming, and functional that Jos’ clients say ‘never feels small’.

‘This project demonstrates the ethos of “quality over quantity” that I think is needed to make our cities more sustainable for a growing population.’

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