Melbourne couple Nathan and Iman initially approached RARA Architecture to renovate a small Edwardian home in the inner-city suburb of Footscray. The plan was to restore the front of the house and construct a rear addition. Due to limited site access, however, it was impossible to construct a cost-effective rear extension and builders advised that it would be simpler to demolish and rebuild.
Both the client and Council were unhappy with simply building a copy of the existing building. So, RARA Architecture owner Wesley Spencer proposed a modern interpretation of the Edwardian dwelling, taking inspiration from a cuckoo clock.
"The Council planner was apprehensive that we would be able to execute this well, but agreed to give me a chance to present an idea," says Spencer. "Likewise, the clients were disappointed to lose the charm that came packaged with their delightful Edwardian house. After circulating the concept, however, we received rave reviews from both the client and Council."
RARA Architecture is named after the latin word for "rare"—a term that is often used when referring to a rare bird, or rara avis. "All of our houses are therefore named after birds," says Spencer. "The tall pitch of the gable-ended roof at the rear inspired the cuckoo clock reference for the Cuckoo House. When we developed a design for the front section, it made sense to carry on the theme."
The studio was obligated to carry on the Edwardian neighborhood character, and so it maintained the original proportions and building footprint of the 1,162-square-foot home, which is set on a 2,475-square-foot site. Spencer incorporated a graphic arrangement of simple, geometric windows on the front facade to introduce an element of playfulness.
Due to the limited footprint, it was important not only to create a feeling of space and bring natural light into the interior, but also to create distinct living zones with abundant storage. The solution was found in high ceilings and extensive custom joinery throughout.
"We were able to convince the client to allow us to spend a little extra on a soaring raked ceiling in the living space," says Spencer. "We justified this by placing a small mezzanine—which will be used as a study—above the laundry in this spot. We also had to be very strategic in our spatial layout by minimizing traffic paths and any unnecessary rooms."
The new home has a simple layout, similar to that of the original Edwardian. A long corridor runs from the front door past two bedrooms to the dining/living space, and a small plywood-lined vestibule creates a quiet junction between the more private space at the front and entertaining space at the rear.
"We have gone to great efforts to develop different zones," says Spencer. "This helps it to feel as if you are experiencing multiple different spaces within the home, rather than creating a single uniform space, which can become tiresome quickly."
A vibrant color palette also helps to divide the home into distinct zones. The hallway is a dark space with little natural light. Instead of attempting to compensate for this by painting the walls white, the designers chose a rich sky blue. This creates an ambient refuge that is in stark contrast to the living room’s orange walls—a color which was chosen to draw people into the space.
Similarly to the hall, the master bedroom has no window and is painted midnight blue. "I wanted it to feel as if there was no roof when lying in bed at night," says Spencer. "I was inspired by Egyptian tombs, which had a midnight blue on their ceilings. They also had gold stars that reflected in the candlelight, which we have replicated with the brass feature light. It’s very seductive."
These bold colors are balanced by more neutral finishes, including a light-colored stone feature wall in the living/dining area that works to soften the space.
The original Edwardian "bull-nose" veranda has been reinterpreted as a minimal, pastel pink structure. "It is an excellent complementary color for the gray fiber cement sheet," says Spencer. "It’s also one of my favorite colors, but I rarely come across a client brave enough to commit to such a bold statement."
The house’s exterior design at the rear is a modern iteration of the Edwardian that preceded it. One half is fully glazed, with deep timber eaves that offer privacy, and the other half is partially clad in cedar. "We wanted to play with the push/pull effect by using different finishes for different planes," says Spencer.
The budget for Cuckoo House was $500,000 AUD (about $336,800 USD). As the project evolved, the budget stayed the same, and became a significant constraint. "Throughout the negotiations with the builder, however, we managed to find some simple solutions without sacrificing elements of the design, so we were happy with the outcome," says Spencer. "This project came in with a soaring joinery cost of about half the entire construction cost—I think people underestimate the cost of cabinetry."
"Seeing the house finished and looking exactly as we designed it was the most rewarding aspect of this project," says Spencer. "I’ve also heard people mention that they drive past and wonder what it looks like inside, which is really flattering."
Builder: Grand Maison Construction
Structural Engineer: Z.S. Consulting
Interior Design: RARA Architecture
Building Compliance Consultant: BDC Building Design Compliance
Photographer: Nicole England