Skylit House by Downie North Architects
Castlecrag, NSW, Australia
With a conscientious and ambitious spirit, the process of extraction from form sees Skylit House as a cleverly moulded approach to domestic down-sizing. Catherine Downie of Downie North Architects speaks to the process.
Bathed in sunlight, the Skylit House is affectionately (and quite literally) named after the resulting effect of purposely subtracting forms from each space to invite the natural light effortlessly inward. Recently completed, this alteration is a “discreet, robust and light filled renovation to a mid-century house for a family of five” with a clear emphasis on infusing a contemporary and modern sense of life back into its weary bones. Built by BCM Australia, the design by Downie North Architects encourages a contemporary dialogue around what the modern home should encompass.
Catherine Downie says the brief was centered on creating “a coming together space – both people and site”, necessitating a a considered approach the project. As commentary on the mass of ill-conceived developer-driven suburban built form, Downie North’s approach was to consider the house’s relationship to site as the primary driving force around which all interventions were based. Through a myriad of approaches, this was achieved “by simple gestures of internal reconfiguration without requiring enormous expense of increased building fabric”, says Catherine.
Through a series of studies centering around working with the existing structure, the priority was to maintain as much of the footprint as possible, and, while infusing with additional amenity, avoiding contributing to the “suburban sprawl (which) has generally given rise to houses that have little or no relationship to their site and are a product of market driven forces; built to sell, objects that have landed indifferently on terrain”, says Catherine. As a response, “the new architectural composition is highly efficient. It has transformed the occupants’ everyday experience, yet sits lightly within the site, demonstrating the value of simplicity”. She adds, “the solution was predicated by the constraints, but surpassed them”.
The palette is a subtle and timeless injection, whilst still connecting to the mid-century elements of the prevailing materiality. As a series of carved out light, white volumes, the combination of warm timber floors, select joinery and hand-made ceramic tiles further only add to making each of the spaces feel voluminous. Located close to a shopping centre, the key was to direct light and focus inward with “a clean palette of white, grey and spotted gum veneer (referencing) the various species of gum dotted through the headland of Castlecrag”, Catherine explains. Through “building less, not more”, the process of downsizing from a large family home was made easier for the client where “the design focussed on removing what was unnecessary in order to determine a natural place for each space, whilst elevating those functions and creating an awareness and connection to place”. The alteration, therefore, was a focussed approach to creating one large open space (kitchen, living and dining) where “key pieces of joinery (where utilised) to create distinct zones and implied thresholds”.
Although challenged with a tight and time-poor program, Downie North say the success was attributed to the fact that “the design was quickly distilled down to its architectural imperatives: how to capture sunlight, curate views, create meaningful connection and a sense of place”. From this prime starting point, the rest was revealed. Skylit House is an exemplar of how inherent value can be found within the constraints of the original, achieved through a process of analysing and reviewing the strengths of the standing bones, understanding and listening to the needs of its occupants, and being open to seeing the opportunities that lie therein. Added amenity, updated materiality and carefully carved out openings in the vertical, horizontal and sloping planes all allow for a transformation of place, injecting a new life throughout.