The invisible extension: Elsternwick House by Clare Cousins

As Australia’s Edwardian homes expand to meet the needs of the 21st-century, architects step up to the challenge of balancing preservation and renewal.

Melbourne’s inner-bayside suburb of Elsternwick, sitting nine kilometres south of the CBD, is currently in the throes of an apartment-building boom, not unlike a number of other south-east Melbourne suburbs. While much of the older building stock is protected under local council heritage codes, such urban growth inevitably spars with the area’s Victorian and Edwardian residential heritage. For residents willing to invest in the retrofitting of their historic homes, there’s an inherent tension as planners, architects, and clients try to find the right balance.

It is in this context that Clare Cousins Architects was commissioned to extend a freestanding Edwardian to suit a growing family. “When looking at the house in context, it essentially was untouched since its construction as part of estate development around the 1920s,” says Oliver Duff, architect at Clare Cousins Architects. “The surrounding buildings were therefore almost all mirror images of each other, with about eight to ten with matching rooflines. For this reason the local council wanted to protect that sense of uniformity”.

As a house that had remained almost entirely intact for a century, it featured such historic artefacts as a lean-to kitchen and bathroom, which had to be demolished to make way for the extension. Compared to the rest of the houses on the street, Duff explains that this extension is one of the few two-storey houses on the street, making it necessary to keep things “almost invisible” from the street.

“There’s not a lot of two-storey development in the area, and the streetscapes of this part of Elsternwick are really quite well-maintained, with the council noting the street to be significant in its heritage overlay.”

Of course, this kind of extension isn’t exactly new. Other inner-Melbourne suburbs have witnessed similar precise ‘box-out-the-back’ extensions attached to the rear of homes on heritage-conscious streets. But for CCA, this didn’t mean playing safe and predictable.

“For us what was most important was creating a sense of contrast between old and new,” says Duff. “That meant using recycled red bricks for the top-story extension, while using white Bowral bricks below to show the relationship between old and new.”

Compared to the original structure, the extension opens up at the rear to celebrate the house’s verdant garden, providing generous views of it, as opposed to the enclosed layout of the old home.

“The only view that the client originally had was to the east, which is great when you’re capitalising on passive shade, but for us, we were trying to maximise views back out to the garden. Essentially we wanted to look out and see walls of greenery.”

Another way to sensitively play with the heritage qualities of the original building, notes Duff, was to invert material choices. Throughout the old house, there’s blackbutt flooring, which in some places climbs up part of the walls and onto the ceiling.

“We’ve really tried to create a subtle shift between the enclosed old house, and the outward-looking extension,” says Duff. “We wanted to instil a soft transition to blur the connections somewhat.”

Indeed, for a suburb as development conscious as Elsternwick, distilling the connections between old and new is always bound to be a careful dance – and this building proves it’s no different.

Find more about Bowral Bricks range here.

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