The Steampunk House


Location: South Melbourne VIC

Bricklayer: Greg Saunders, John Agnoletti, Tristan Walker

Builder: Greg Saunders

Architect: McAllsiter Alcock Architects

Photographer: Michael Laurie

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Greg Saunders is a brick tragic. It’s more than the fact that he has been a bricklayer for 20-plus years. He took a few years off to set up and run a successful cafe but recently installed a manager and went “back on the tools.”

“It’s just in me,” he says simply.“Brickwork doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. It’s honest and solid and if it’s done properly it will be there forever.”

The truth is that Greg is more than a bricklayer, he’s a true artist. Not the type that displays in galleries, his latest work of art IS the gallery and all it contains.

Greg and his partner Emma Calverley, an arts administrator, lived in a tiny, one-bedroom brick cottage in a narrow inner-Melbourne street for about eight years. It was a fun house for this sociable couple. However, when son Archie came along – he’s now seven – its limitations quickly became clear.

Greg was planning the changes from the day they purchased the cottage.“I think it was always in the back of my mind.” He saw the potential of the narrow site bound by a 10 metre high wall on the left and a cobbled laneway to the right.

The final trigger was the decision to accommodate Emma’s parents. How does a cramped site, one that couldn’t accommodate a couple and a growing child, cope with another two adults? Greg and Emma turned to architect Karen Alcock who formulated the basic design concept and floorplan while allowing Greg to flesh out the details. Her answer was to go up.

“It was a true collaboration,” Karen says.“We brought our technical skill and then Greg really took the role of the artist, creating the joy in the building.”

The building has three levels. Emma’s parents have a self-contained two-bedroom apartment on the ground floor, with its own street access. The upper floors, Greg, Emma and Archie’s domain, are accessed from the lane. The middle level has two bedrooms and two bathrooms while the top floor has an open plan kitchen, diner and living area. A glorious, custom-made, electric-blue spiral staircase connects the levels.

With Greg as the owner/builder it’s no surprise that the walling is brick. Even less surprising, it is cavity brickwork, with foilboard insulating the space between the two brick skins.

Greg carried out the bricklaying, assisted by his former apprentice master, John Agnoletti. “John’s an old school Italian guy, he’s really cool,” says Greg, who all these years later is still in awe of his old boss. Completing the team was Tristan Walker, who was Greg’s former apprentice. Three generations of bricklayers, three mates.

The internal brick face is simply painted white; no plasterboard please! The real treat is the three storey wall on the laneway, which is a demonstration of Greg’s artistic abilities in its colour, texture and functionality.

But first, we need to go back to Greg’s high school days when he finished a small clay pot with a blue glaze. It’s still proudly displayed and this striking glaze became the basis of his colour choice for the laneway brickwork.

No one makes bricks that colour so Greg determined to glaze them himself, all 10,500 of them. By hand. That’s quite a challenge so he went to Richard West at The Brick Studio in Richmond who offered Austral Bricks’ technical assistance and access to production facilities. But the hard graft of hand-glazing thousands of individual bricks was down to Greg.

Working with Austral’s technical staff, three glaze formulas were devised after a lot of trial and error, and a process developed.A kiln car, a giant trolley used to transport bricks through the brick factory on Melbourne’s northern fringe, was stacked with thousands of green (unfired) bricks.

These were unloaded one at a time by Greg. Each brick face was brushed with a thick glue-like liquid and a small baker’s sieve sprinkled the glazing powders over the face. The more powder, the more intense the colour.

Each brick was then reloaded onto the kiln car and the process repeated 10,499 times. The bricks were then fired at over 1200 degrees Celsius to a rock-like hardness. This high temperature also triggered a chemical reaction in the glaze, giving each brick face its distinctive, original colouring and pattern.

“For such a massive company to be into such a little project like this, it’s just cool,” says Greg. “I owe Richard West and the Austral Bricks technical staff so much.They were so good to us.”

Even this glazed brickwork is not quite straightup-and-down. On the two storeys above the entry off the laneway, the architect had originally proposed openable windows to catch the breeze off nearby Port Phillip Bay. Greg replaced this with a breezewall made from hand-glazed bullnose bricks laid on their side with operable windows inside. Ingenious.

In the house there are more quirky yet practical touches that could only come from Greg.A four metre by one metre plunge pool cantilevered over the front (“replacing Archie’s old plastic pool”). A life-size Star Wars Stormtrooper illustration hidden in a shallow recess behind a wired glass door. Finely fluted edges on the concrete slabs. Concreter’s formwork repurposed to make trusses. A workbench curved around the spiral staircase at the second level; the bench top was Greg’s father’s.A massive riveted iron beam (very Steam Age) rescued from the demolished Myer Lonsdale Street store.

(You will need to watch the Grand Designs Australia episode to learn Greg’s unique method of patinating a copper downpipe.)

So how was the Grand Designs experience? “It was just like blokes talking about a house,” says Greg. “They were really respectful and just into it as well. Peter (Maddison) really liked it because it was all handmade.” He believes that as an architect, Maddison had difficulty in coming to terms with the lack of detailed plans, but he eventually “really liked the fact that it was all in my head.”

From the street, this unique project presents almost as a single-fronted cottage. Inside it looks like a renovated warehouse, an assumption often made by visitors. For Greg it’s a “twenty-first century interpretation of the Arts and Crafts architectural style that flourished in the late 1800s.”

To this observer it has more of a grunge aesthetic, a homage to the Industrial Age of the 18th and 19th century with its tiles, wired glass, glazes, riveted beams, polished concrete, steel and timber. Karen Alcock describes it as “flamboyant” and admits that Greg “probably pushed it a bit further than we anticipated in some areas. I think it is always interesting seeing people who are coming from a different design perspective and seeing what they come up with.”

For Greg Saunders it is more simple.“To me this is like a homage to my friends who believed in me,” he says modestly. Greg includes his in-laws in that tribute but more especially his partner, Emma, whom he describes as an “all round good chick. None of this would have happened but for her.”

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