A Gracious Host – Northside House by Wellard Architects
A home for a family of entertainers, with its legible form and honest material palette, Northside House embodies generosity and warmth. Placing the new additions in conversation with the original Federation home, Wellard Architects has created a place that is by its very nature inclusive and balanced. While providing a high degree of privacy and refuge befitting of its urban environment, the architecture is intrinsically approachable, welcoming friends and neighbours dropping by, hosting large social gatherings or simply embracing family moments with equal ease.
Occupying a corner in Clifton Hill – a neighbourhood in Melbourne’s inner north renowned for its tight-knit community – the original period home to the fore of the site is a familiar presence. This familiarity is not disrupted by the new additions, with one adjoining the original house and the other containing the garage and studio set on the other side of the backyard, clearly visible when turning into the side street. Without the new trying to emulate the old in any way, their gable roofs and en-masse use of red brickwork and terracotta shingles ensure they sit comfortably. Like newcomers welcomed to the party, there is a genuine rapport between the additions, the original home and the wider streetscape. It is a fitting testament to both the inhabitants’ connection to Clifton Hill, where they have lived for many years, and to their friendship with Huw Wellard, Director of Wellard Architects. “The client and his family are very close friends of mine,” he says. “We were best men at each other’s weddings, and we went to uni together, so it was just a great opportunity.”
Grounded in the trust that comes with over 20 years of friendship and a shared understanding of both architecture and construction due to the client’s profession as a commercial builder, the design evolved organically in response to the site’s conditions and the family’s lifestyle. “They’re avid entertainers; they open the doors and have the whole community over for lunch,” Huw explains. This was taken as a given in the brief; the challenge lay in balancing that sociable, outgoing quality with the need for a sense of protection and cosiness when not in ‘entertaining mode’. As such, Wellard Architects sought to gently mitigate the exposure that comes with a corner site, tempering it with a protective boundary wall to the north devoid of obvious openings, except for a narrow-slit window that demarcates the old from the new.
Yet, the house makes more of the community connection provided by its position on two street frontages than may first appear. For one, the narrow window aligns directly with the kitchen, providing a moment of connection between the social heart of the home and the neighbourhood at large. For another, the detailed timber batten fence hides two further openings. The largest of these is the garage door, which when closed simply reads as a part of the boundary wall. The garage has been designed to offer supplementary entertaining space; when the door is open to both the street and the screens are slid back, it provides a conduit between the house and the footpath and creates a convivial atmosphere for entertaining. “I was over there for a birthday party,” Huw recalls, “and there were probably 60 or 70 people there, children running in and out, weaving between the street and the backyard, so even though [the house] is private when it’s contained, there are still those opportunities to open up.” Meanwhile, a discreet door also set into the fence provides a casual side entrance where friends and family can easily come and go, circumventing the formal entry through the older portion of the house in favour of direct access to the living, dining and kitchen space. “It’s now almost become the primary access point for the building!” muses Huw.
The clients’ desire for a warm and cosy home is reflected in the carefully created zones – rather than one single big open space, the dining and living areas feel very much their own, whereas the kitchen is designed to feel more like an additional space for socialising and entertaining than a traditional food preparation area, despite it performing this function admirably.
If one does arrive through the front door, the entry sequence passes through the central corridor, past the private quarters in the original house before arriving at a double-height void. This landing is lit from above by the narrow window on the northern façade that wraps over the roof to become a skylight. Here, the path diverges. One can go upstairs to the mezzanine loft space or, more likely, continue on and step down into the kitchen, lounge and dining space. The clients’ desire for a warm and cosy home is reflected in the carefully created zones – rather than one single big open space, the dining and living areas feel very much their own, whereas the kitchen is designed to feel more like an additional space for socialising and entertaining than a traditional food preparation area, despite it performing this function admirably. While this main living-eating-cooking space flows out into the backyard through full-height glazed doors, an exaggerated threshold further emphasises the sense of interiority, with the structure of the building cocooning its occupants even as it opens to the outside world.
Within and without, the material palette is a major contributor to Northside House’s identity and atmosphere. From the first encounter with the new architecture, the tactile materiality of the shingled boundary wall is approachable and familiar though the application of the material marks it as unusually detailed and considered. The hit-and-miss brickwork that screens the studio above the garage talks to the pressed red bricks of the original home, as do the narrow stacked red bricks that line the threshold between the main addition and backyard. This brick is brought inside to form the hearth in the lounge, where the warmth is picked up by the blackbutt timber than lines much of the walls and ceiling. The warmth is then balanced by the black joinery in the kitchen, dark walls in the hallway and terrazzo-effect concrete floor. The wall treatments throughout were driven by the clients “extraordinary, quite vivid” art collection, Huw explains, with key artworks kept in mind when designing certain spaces. This deliberate approach also extended to the selection of materials for the older portion of the house. Creating a sense of cohesion throughout was important, but the custom travertine basins, dainty white steelwork, supple leather, sheer linen and delicate ceramic lights in the bedrooms and bathrooms embody a timeless, slightly more delicate quality appropriate to the era of the original building.
This sensitivity characterises the design through and through. Avoiding dogmatic responses in favour of a defined yet nimble approach to both the site and brief, Northside House always finds a fitting balance. It is, perhaps, the quality that Huw finds the most compelling. “As a studio, we developed a real responsibility with this project. We were so mindful of creating something that works for our clients – that gives them flexibility to entertain when they want to, have privacy when they want to and strike that balance,” he reflects.