Sydney architects Chenchow Little explain how they converted an introverted Victorian terrace in Sydney into a breezy and connected house design, using careful planning and innovative devices to bring space and light into a difficult site. Text Tony Chenchow and Stephanie Little. Photography John Gollings and Katherine Lu.
The Skylight House is located on 120 square metres overlooking the Parramatta River in Balmain. A dilapidated Victorian terrace house previously occupied most of the site; with a small frontage to the view, and a long site depth with a series of dark rooms stacked one behind the other, the original house had poor light and ventilation, introverted rooms, and little outlook. In addition, the structure was failing, the existing walls were showing signs of rising damp, and the floor was rotted through. The windows to the living room were small and narrow and largely obstructed the wonderful view to the water. The architecture of the old terrace house was intact externally, but difficult to live in internally.
The owner’s brief for the redesign aimed for a total contrast: a dwelling, filled with light and air, that captured cooling summer breezes and made the most of the riverside outlook. The redesign needed to incorporate openplan living areas, three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a new kitchen, all within the existing façade and envelope.
We considered many options, but none of them satisfied the requirements for light and outlook for the ground-floor living room. We finally worked up a solution that resolved the apparently contradictory elements of the brief and the existing house: if we flipped the original planning, the living room could be located on the top floor, where access to sunlight and ventilation was greatest, with the bedrooms on the ground floor where light levels and outlook were less critical.
And with the living areas now allocated to the top floor, we could use skylights to saturate the full depth of the floor plan with light. This change allowed us to explore the roof and ceiling planes as spatial dividers and south-facing funnels for light, providing a continuous level of illumination across the living, dining and kitchen levels, and into the rear of the site.
In the new design, the floor and roof read as two fluid horizontal planes inserted within the original party walls. The ground-floor plane steps up and along the site and mediates the changes in the natural ground levels; and the roof plane follows the original form of the dwelling, but is now sculpted and fragmented to define rooms and create sunlight shafts. The original Victorian boundary walls have been modified with large cutouts to register the ceiling line on the exterior.
The ground-floor plane has been ‘cut out’ to form a central courtyard with an endemic Banksia integrifolia tree. The floor steps and tilts, defining each interior, exterior and transition space. Pre-cast concrete steps continue seamlessly from the interior to the outside courtyard and float above the tilted floor plane to create a sculptural feature and blur the boundary.
We placed the main bedroom and its en-suite on a new, small third floor beside the branches and canopy of the courtyard tree. The tilt of its side walls increases light penetration into the dining room and kitchen below.
The holistic approach to sustainability in the Skylight House is integral to the design process and the outcome of the project. The two courtyards (centre and rear) allow cross-ventilation of rooms and enable natural light to penetrate. The living room is oriented to the north for maximum sunlight. Retractable louvres control solar access, and concrete slabs throughout provide thermal mass. Native planting was selected for its low water usage and ease of maintenance, with rainwater being harvested for use in the toilets and the garden.
We used a simple palette of natural materials: raw unfinished concrete to portions of the walls and the floor; white walls; locally endemic spotted gum for the timber floors, walls and joinery.
The natural materials have been highlighted with traditional Victorian paint colours, typical of the era in which the original house was built. The colours were chosen to complement the neighbours’ Victorian terrace wall, which forms the backdrop to the living areas and bedrooms of the house. The ground-floor bedrooms are painted in rose pink and blue, and a green wall frames the view to the river from the living room.
To reflect the age of the house we have continued the timber and concrete floor finish up the walls to the height of a traditional ‘dado line’. As an added benefit, this treatment increases the apparent height of the spaces.