Tempered Balance – Netherby by Neil Architecture and Megan Hounslow

Words by Bronwyn Marshall
Architecture by Neil Architecture
Photography by Tom Blachford
Build by Dovetail Carpentry and Constructions
Interior Design by Megan Hounslow

Netherby brings a sense of clarity and resonance to its storied past, with Neil Architecture and Megan Hounslow combining to craft the foundations for the home’s coming chapters. Throughout the restoration and addition, careful intertwining of history with a contemporary relevance carves the ideal tempered balance between preservation and transformation.

Channelling some 140-years of history, Netherby sees the expansion and restoration of a stately Victorian home, imagined through a respectfully modern lens. Situated amongst similarly scaled grand homes of its era in Hawthorn, in Melbourne’s east, its current custodians are a young family whose own spatial and living intricacies shaped the brief. The Victorian period afforded many a decorative and delicate ornamentation; integrating this layered charm amongst a contemporary and animated life called for a unique approach. Joining forces, Neil Architecture and Megan Hounslow carefully attuned both the architectural and interior responses, respectively.

“I felt a responsibility to preserve the home’s character by engaging traditional craft techniques and hand-honed trades.” (Megan Hounslow)

Originally built in 1880, Director of Neil Architecture David Neil explains that Netherby is an important example of heritage architecture of its period. “Netherby contributes to the significance of its precinct as a stately Victorian-era house and sits within a relatively intact precinct of beautifully ornate Victorian and Federation homes.” Connecting to its past, a time when elements where predominantly handmade and brought together with an artisanal touch, a similar philosophy inspired the latest iteration. “I felt a responsibility to preserve the home’s character by engaging traditional craft techniques and hand-honed trades,” Megan Hounslow says. “While original features were celebrated and restored, all new elements were designed and selected to match existing quality, aiming to deliver a sequence of thoughtfully curated spaces composed of timeless fixtures, furniture and lighting.” With the existing and original formality of the home restored, the new insertions are formed as a continued evolution and imagined from a similar ethos. “This home is a homage to beautifully crafted details, material and spatial exploration,” David reflects. “It’s well and truly the sum of its many dedicated trades, craftspeople and artisans.”

While the generous allotment afforded an open connection with the site, the adjacent multi-storey residences and their subsequent overlooking required consideration. Extending both outward and upward, the key to positioning the new addition on site was to avoid imposing on the original scale and proportion while also creating a new presence and purpose. “The contemporary addition is setback behind the existing house,” David says, “giving enough breathing space so that the existing and the new can stand on their own, creating an orientation that allows for the creation of a secluded north-west facing outdoor sanctuary.” Through an extensive study of sightlines and shadowing, the placement along the eastern boundary ensures the original sense of privacy and enclosure is then returned to the site.

“Light and shadow play a critical role in our work – we’re really interested in how the quality of light can affect the mood of a space.” (David Neil)

Choosing to express the connection between the existing and the newly introduced, “we’ve used the threshold between the old and the new to give the journey through the house a sense of drama, where a two-story high volume containing a suspended staircase sits at the end of the existing hallway, with high level windows flooding the space with light,” David says. The experience within the space and sightlines that connect zones became important parts of that journey sequence. He adds, “light and shadow play a critical role in our work – we’re really interested in how the quality of light can affect the mood of a space. Standing at the front door, one is able to glimpse the staircase against its fluted concrete backdrop, framed through a series of ornate arches, with the light from the stairwell bouncing around the polished plaster hallway.” As Megan explains, “spatially, Netherby is arranged with more intentional designation between parents’ rooms in the heritage section and the children’s bedrooms and study upstairs. A double-height stair void creates a progression between old and new volumes, where these more intimate private quarters transition into a generous shared kitchen, living and dining space.”

Moving from old to new and from the ornate to the robust, elements from the original are then reinterpreted into the contemporary. “A new design language was developed to complement Netherby’s built heritage, restoring its integrity while embedding it firmly in a contemporary aesthetic,” says Megan. With the rooms contained in the existing part of the house inherently more formal in nature and darker and moodier due to their more traditionally sized windows, David explains that this existing condition has been reflected in their functions and material treatments. Architecturally, the solid masonry concrete and timber masses along the eastern boundary respond, therefore, to the language of the adjacent flats while the dark copper connects to the red brick of the original home, made more refined in detail. When it came to the interiors, “our overall approach combines the luxurious with the approachable,” Megan says, “and focuses on abundant detail that invites an intimate experience within each of the spaces.” The same shared philosophies on tactility and depth and warmth carry intentionally from inside to out. “It was crucial to show respect to the home’s Victorian charm,” she explains, “the richly layered materials and details that could be centuries old. Our vision was to create a robust and welcoming space, exuding a natural warmth through its many hand-finished elements.”

While the formality of the old remains and is celebrated, the new insertions offer a counterbalance and open generously to engage with the curated landscape by Eckersley Garden Architecture. “Netherby’s elegant courtyards serve as relaxed outdoor rooms, extending on adjacent entertaining space to encourage a meaningful connection with the garden,” Megan says. An overwhelming sense of transparency and openness defines the ground plane – David describes how “we’ve tried to mediate this sense of openness through the cantilevering of the upper floor, so that spaces are bright without being overly saturated. The new living spaces are designed to direct your view outwards towards the surrounding garden spaces.” Throughout, a focus on connecting beyond the bounds of the home is expressed through the curious moments conjured within the garden.

Through a heightened study of the original practices and techniques, Netherby sees both Neil Architecture and Megan Hounslow richly layer contemporary and long-wearing moments, as the existing structure intricately transitions to the new. Extending the experience of the home out beyond the built edge into the living garden rooms, the entire site becomes crafted and considered, connected through an honouring of the past.