Reimagining Heritage – May House by Neil Architecture

Words by Mitchell Oakley Smith
Architecture by Neil Architecture
Photography by Tom Blachford
Build by Neocon
Interior Design by Neil Architecture
Engineering by StructPlan

May House is the reimagining of an original 1980s family home by respected Victorian architect Max May. Tasked with the update, Neil Architecture builds upon the original qualities of solidity and permanence to reflect a more contemporary notions of work, life and family.

There is a tendency in Western culture to knock down an existing home that no longer perfectly suits contemporary needs, choosing to rebuild rather than to renovate. Trace it to a prevalent throwaway culture, but often it is cheaper to start from scratch than to reconfigure. With the surprises that can sometimes come with peeling back the layers of an existing property, it is little wonder that most home advice websites actively campaign for the former. “Quite often it is more difficult to renovate because you’re trying to work with an existing envelope that’s not necessarily something you’d plan,” concedes David Neil, Co-Founder and Director of Melbourne practice Neil Architecture. But with May House in Malvern, in the city’s south-east, bringing in bulldozers might have been considered tantamount to architectural treason.

May House is the reimagining of an original 1980s family home by respected Victorian architect Max May.

The early 1980s property, still very much in original condition, was designed by widely celebrated local architect Max May, perhaps most famed for his win of the Victorian Chapter Medal for House of the Year in 1974. Thankfully, for both Neil Architecture and for the house, there was no need for demolition. “It had good volume and good light, so it wasn’t that difficult to re-plan,” David says. The approach here was simple – Neil Architecture sought only minimalist intervention into the existing brick and concrete house, changing only what was necessary to rearrange a complex program of rooms and split-level voids into a single, rectangular three-storey framework. So, while the basement garage was converted into a retreat for the clients’ university-aged children, and the top floor’s series of bedrooms was opened up into a master bedroom, open plan study and guest bedroom, the existing structure and a large portion of its layout – primarily the ground floor living hub – was retained almost wholesale.

Larger openings were integrated into the rear of the house, better connecting the interior space with the garden, which was similarly overhauled with fast-growing trees that give the impression of the house being nestled into greenery. The house originally had a very steep driveway that ran down its west side to the base of the property, and with this space intended for conversion to two bedrooms, each with an ensuite, as well as a lounge room and laundry, vehicle parking needed to be relocated. Planning approval was difficult, given council’s aversion to carports in front setbacks, as well as the possibility of flooding in the lower points of the property. Yet the resultant minimalist open carport, coupled with the tri-level openings and use of transparent and opaque finishes, adds to the impression that the house unfolds as a series of interconnected spaces.

The early 1980s property, still very much in original condition, was designed by widely celebrated local architect Max May, perhaps most famed for his win of the Victorian Chapter Medal for House of the Year in 1974.

May House is situated within a heritage precinct of inter-war and arts-and-crafts style houses, the majority of them with established gardens, though in an unusual planning aberration, its immediate neighbours are a series of 1980s-built concrete-rendered houses in pastel tones. In an ingenious selection of material finishes, the renovation of May House is such that you might at first question in what era it was built. Through this eclectic selection, the building successfully obfuscates the period of its origin, helping it to sit organically within its street context but also to blend the original architecture with that of the renovation. “It’s something we’re proud of,” says David of the effect, achieved through a unique combination of stippled render, plank-formed concrete, perforated mesh and exposed steel trusses. “It’s been really well considered and is not something that’s going to date. It sits well on its own but also in its surrounds.”

May House is situated within a heritage precinct of inter-war and arts-and-crafts style houses, the majority of them with established gardens, though in an unusual planning aberration, its immediate neighbours are a series of 1980s-built concrete-rendered houses in pastel tones.

A similar approach was taken for the interiors in this fusion of styles, though the selections take on a richness in place of the exterior’s cleaner finishes, cork flooring, rusted crimson joinery, timber veneer and natural stone benchtops. “We tried to keep everything in sympathy with the era of the original house but to do so with a freshness – a modern take on what was popular in the 80s,” says David. “I think that when you walk into the space you get the sense that this feels right. It’s of its time, and we haven’t tried to change what it was, but instead it’s about respecting what was there and building on that in solidarity with the original, not in competition.”

Neil McLennan – the owner of the property, along with his wife, Mel – is an established residential builder and worked hand-in-hand with Neil Architecture on the development of May House. The family lived in the house for around a year – during the architectural planning before the nine-month renovation – allowing them time to get a feel for the flow of the space. “It can go either way in these situations, but I found Neil and Mel to be great and very trusting of our vision,” says David. He serves to illustrate the point by showing some of the earliest three-dimensional models, confirming the similarity to the finished product as a result of being able to easily bounce back and forth ideas of cost, practicality and buildability. “They really appreciated what we tried to do, and certainly followed through all of the design, losing none of the detail,” adds David.

Neil McLennan – the owner of the property, along with his wife, Mel – is an established residential builder and worked hand-in-hand with Neil Architecture on the development of May House.

A 2001 profile of Max May, unearthed from the depths of the early internet, describes the practice’s intent as being one of “no falsities, no whims; just pure, straight unadulterated building.” Much like May House, it is a statement that still resonates today, several decades later. As David says of the house, “it maintains the integrity and quality and intent of materiality, and it’s considered in its approach. It sits well in its context and will continue to do so.”