Forever House

Quick Facts

Location: Surrey Hills VIC

Structural Engineer: RCL Consultants

Builder: Latrobe Building Services

Architect: WoodWoodWard Architecture

Bricklayer: JT Bricklaying

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A young architecture firm puts a contemporary spin on an old architectural “discovery”

Back in the day when firing bricks in a kiln was more art than science, clinker bricks were the bane of a brickmaker’s life. Their random, deep, mottled colours and (frequently) distorted shapes were the result of very high temperatures that caused the ceramic body to vitrify, that is take on the characteristics of glass.

Hence their name: knock two clinker bricks together and they make a distinct ringing sound. Once consigned to landfill, clinker bricks were “discovered” early in the 20th century by architects who valued their unique colours and random textures.

Times changed and clinker bricks largely dropped out of fashion in new building by the 1950s. That and the advances in brickmaking technology means they are now all but impossible to buy new. But that didn’t stop WoodWoodWard Architects from making their own contemporary interpretation of clinker brickwork.

The affluent Melbourne suburb of Surrey Hills is well known for its leafy streets and well-established quality housing. The owners of this 1938 example moved from a cosmopolitan inner suburb, drawn by the excellent educational options. Typically of the area, their home is solidly constructed with clinker bricks. Untypically, the interior was largely in original condition.

A passing comment by the owners gave the home its name. “When we first met them they were saying that they really want this to be their Forever House and the name just stuck,” says Scott Woodward of WoodWoodWard Architects, known less tongue-twistingly as WOWOWA. “It had to have everything they imagine they will need for the future,” adds Monique Brady-Ward, the Ward of this creative partnership. Jen Wood, currently studying in New York, completes the trio.

The existing house occupies a triangular corner block. Awkwardly, it isn’t aligned with any boundary and is pushed to the back of the sloping site, leaving a large front garden. The challenges were to introduce light into the house, bring the accommodation and internal design up-to-date and appropriate for the ever-evolving needs of a young family, and extend the building’s footprint.

The extension cranks off the existing house and is aligned with the side street boundary. It projects into the only large space available, namely the front yard. This placement also articulates movement through the house from the front entrance. A few steps in and to the right is a rumpus room; further along are a study, four bedrooms, two bathrooms and a laundry, all in the existing house. Or alternatively step forward and down into the kitchen/living area that occupies the extension. The polished concrete floor is on trend and very practical for a young family. A large picture window opens out to a deck and the front garden.

The owners of this property “loved the clinker bricks” but were keen to establish some “inner-urban cool” in the largely conservative neighbourhood. The extension’s pixellated external walling is a contemporary interpretation of a clinker brick wall.

The extension’s dominant walling colour is red, with Nubrik pressed bricks constituting 39 percent of the wall. .“Within clinker bricks you get those nice glassy little dark bits of glaze on the surface,” says Scott Woodward who chose to scatter 30 percent of the wall with bright red fully-glazed bricks, similar to Austral Bricks Burlesque® Luscious Red™. Elements Mercury semi-glazed bricks continue the glazed theme, making up a further 15 percent and Austral Bricks Dynasty, a softly-glazed brick in Karrington Silver, just one percent. The final 15 percent is Elements Graphite semi-glazed clay bricks, mainly used in the base brickwork, around reveals and at corners.

With the exception of the latter, Woodward and Brady-Ward left the final blend to the bricklaying team. “The bricklayers picked up 10 bricks at a time,” says Monique. “They’d have one of those, three of these, two of those and just lay them randomly. We didn’t prescribe where they went, it’s just that they were very good bricklayers.”

Scott adds that the “the percentage thing seemed to work really quite well, it created the feeling of pixellation that we wanted. As soon as you dictate a specific pattern I think it makes it more difficult for everyone, especially when you want it to be this random.” From the distance the new street wall reads like clinker brickwork but up close it takes on another, more pixellated, scale and texture.

WOWOWA describe their approach to design as “radical conservatism.” They question the current paradigm of designing an extension that is very clearly different to the original fabric, “particularly on a corner block,” Scott contends. “We love to celebrate the existing condition and address it,” says Monique who adds that “It’s on the edge of being radical and conservative and we really like that point.”

Brady-Ward describes bricks as “a diverse material. You can achieve a lot of interesting effects with them. It’s a basic suburban building block, it’s the language of the suburbs. It seems like we always come back to brick”

Scott Woodward: “Those materials that just have a paint finish have no character, it just makes for a very flat, unengaging sort of surface. You want a bit of fun and pattern and texture in materials.”

Both commend their clients who they say were “decisive and they knew how they wanted the house to operate. They understood how they lived which makes it very easy to tailor something to those needs.”

Architecture, like all the design arts, is continuously discovering, rediscovering and developing materials and techniques. WoodWoodWard has paid its respects to a previous architectural standard and given it a contemporary spin to breathe new life into this family home.

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The Elements series are an impressive architectural range.

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