A Dilapidated Victorian Cottage Shines After a Sustainable Retrofit

A Dilapidated Victorian Cottage Shines After a Sustainable Retrofit

By Lauren Jones
Zen Architects revitalizes an early 1900s home in Melbourne.

Operating in Melbourne for the last 30 years, Zen Architects has always combined science and art to produce sustainably minded projects. The firm’s latest work, "an exploration in reuse, recycling, and restoration," was no exception, says architect Luke Rhodes.

Brunswick, a suburb of Melbourne, has a strong manufacturing presence, and vibrant art scene, and strong Mediterranean ties with many Italian and Greek residents.

The home, an early 1900s Victorian in Brunswick, hadn’t been touched in 50 years, and it was riddled with asbestos and marked for demolition when the clients purchased it. They were hoping to find an architect willing to engage in a difficult renovation that would introduce local materials, recycled timber, and room for an art studio.

The foyer features original Baltic pine floorboards, which were hidden beneath carpeting, while the high window bathes the space in light.

"Our clients watched as the neighborhood character changed dramatically, so when this house came up for sale, they jumped on the opportunity to purchase it," Rhodes says.

There are no historic controls in the area, so over the last decade many Victorians have been torn down to make way for new builds and townhouse developments, which the clients felt were insensitive.

The conversation pit provides an intimate view of the garden and backyard art studio. 

"They didn’t want the typical black-box extension approach—instead, they wanted something that respected the form and detailing of the original cottage," he adds.

The project took nearly three years to complete, with 18 months of design work and documentation and 14 months of construction—but the long process was well worth it.

"It was a careful process to demolish what we didn’t need, but keep everything we could of the original cottage," Rhodes says. The builders took extra time to make sure everything was perfect, as the clients are sensitive to external elements like mold and dust. All of the paint and finishes are VOC-free.

The design team’s first task was to save the original structure by completely restoring its weatherboard exterior, original timber flooring, and charming Victorian details. They also took down the interior plaster, reinsulated the walls, reglazed all of the windows, and raised the eastern portion of the roofline to allow for higher ceilings. "To keep the heritage value of the property, we recessed all of the new work back behind the original chimney line," Rhodes says.

The study at the top of the stairs allows access to the first-floor deck, and it’s one of the most unique design features in the home. "The raw brass swinging arm light can be rotated off the wall and positioned as required when sitting at the desk, while the light can be swung against the wall when accessing the deck," Rhodes says.  

Recycled timber shelves stretch from the front hallway into the living areas, linking the old and the new.

Zen Architects reconfigured the front four rooms of the layout. Now, two serve as bedrooms, one is a bathroom, and one is a front living room with a wood-burning fireplace that utilizes the original chimney. The owners can now walk from the light-filled foyer to the kitchen, double-height dining room, and sunken conversation pit, which all provide views of the garden.

As Brunswick is known for its manufacturing history, Rhodes and his team went local whenever possible. "We had custom lighting made out of solid brass, and a lot of the internal recycled timber details (like the shelving) were made by local furniture makers," he says. The bathrooms feature custom handmade tiles from a South Melbourne ceramicist, and all of the fixtures and fittings are local as well.

Custom brass plant shelves and custom tile adorns the master bathroom.

Recycled veneer coats the cabinetry, custom plant holders bring the outside in, and stainless steel provides a modern touch without seeming stark.

The kitchen includes a unique element that keeps the homeowners from spending too much on heating and cooling. The solid, concrete island counter warms up during the summer—and a black heat panel, which is concealed beneath the slab, absorbs heat and releases it over the day in the wintertime. The adjacent art studio, which enjoys ambient diffused light from the south-facing windows, is an ideal spot for painting, sculpting, and making textiles.

Overall, the project is a testament to how Victorian homes can be respectfully transformed to fit modern-day life.

More from Zen Architects:

A 1960s Melbourne Warehouse Is Turned Into an Energy-Efficient Family Home

A Sleek Addition Lets a Melbourne Home and Garden Freely Merge

Project Credits:   

Architect of Record: Luke Rhodes,  Zen Architects / @zenarchitects

Structural Engineer: OPS Engineers / @opsengineers

Landscape Architecture: Eckersley Garden Architecture  / @eckersleygardenarchitecture

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