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‘70s Reboot

This article appeared in Green Magazine vol.44 June 2015

Savvy and sustainable design solutions transform a compact 1970s townhouse in Prahran, Melbourne, into an expansive, light-filled home imbued with a subtle nod to mid-century style.

The modernist makeover of Wrights Terrace is the work of Thomas Winwood McKenzie, Principal at Thomas Winwood Architecture, who ably met his clientsvision for a calm, light-filled space with creative thinking and refined detailing. 

McKenzie took the modernist character of the existing building as his starting point, drawing this out with new features like timber batten ceilings, box frame windows and a stunning brass handrail on an exposed staircase. The refurbished interior feels uncluttered and spacious. McKenzie achieved this by implementing some savvy design solutions and creating an additional 21 square metres for the floor plan. 

His biggest challenge was scale. Despite being two-storeyed, the existing property gave him just 110 square metres to work with. As with many houses of its era the structure dates to the 1970s the internal spaces were small, and separate, yet did not manage to distinguish public and private space. Take the bathroom and laundry. The original design sandwiched a shower, toilet, hand basin and washing machine between the two bedrooms, meaning that residents had to do their laundry upstairs, and guests had to trek to use the bathroom.

McKenzie spotted an opportunity in 8 square metres of unused space at the rear of the ground floor, and installed a downstairs toilet, hand basin and laundry area there. This freed up space for a more considered bathroom upstairs, where a skylight over an open shower now provides view to the sky, and a highlight window over bath fills the otherwise windowless bathroom with gentle light.

Wrights Terrace demonstrates how small houses in Melbourne can be designed to feel spacious and be highly functional, yet still delight and inspire with their aesthetic and integration of the outdoors.

For example, he managed to pleasantly surprise his clients by finding room for an entirely new outdoor space on top of the new enclosed garage, which was originally a carport. McKenzie achieved this by designing a timber lined west-facing roof-deck, accessed by a door at the top of the stairs. It has 180-degree city views, and is the perfect place for a sundowner. 

Reimagining existing spaces with design is a sustainable approach and plays an important part in the development of inner city environments,says McKenzie, who has lived and worked in Milan, Amsterdam, New York, Berlin and Hamburg. He returned to his hometown of Melbourne to found his own firm in 2010, and works on a mix of residential, educational and commercial projects.

The clients were keen to green up their home with as many passive design solutions as possible a desire McKenzie was only too happy to fulfil.

I believe that architects have to set the example when it comes to sustainability in design and construction; it should be a given on any project.

So he re-used the split face concrete blocks from the demolition of the rear wall for the walls of the new downstairs bathroom and laundry, and rear courtyard. All the timber used thats oak for the ceiling, silvertop ash on the walls and blackbutt on the stairs was sourced sustainably. Other materials, like the slate flooring, were selected for their durability. 

Performance was also a major factor. The slate floor sits on top of a concrete slab and generates thermal mass. Insulation was placed between the ground floor and the first floor, and energy efficient appliances and fixtures were installed throughout the house. LED lighting was also prioritised like the strip light that replaces a batten in the kitchen ceiling, and looks, says McKenzie, beautiful at night.

The windows were upgraded to double-glazing, while a new western facing window opens onto the roof-deck. It invites more light into the centre of the house and optimises cross ventilation.

There are the technical aspects of sustainability, then the more conceptual aspects,says McKenzie. Sustainability in design is about performance, but also about function and durability what the space is actually like to be in, day on day, year on year so the project has longevity. Here, there was no room for compromise; every millimetre had to work.

McKenzie paid attention to the finest of details, right down to the size of the boxed window frames. At 380 millimetres deep, they give the walls an impression of thickness. They also push the glass further away from the circulation space on the interior, and add a bit of extra space and a useable surface in each room.

“I like the idea that a small home can be a joy to live in and work well because it is carefully designed. You can still spread out and make yourself at home.