A Renovation Sheds New Light on a Cookie-Cutter Home in Sydney

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By Michele Koh Morollo
Strategically located skylights brighten and modernize this renovated 1950s bungalow.

In the suburb of Castlecrag in Sydney’s Lower North Shore, developer-driven, suburban sprawl has resulted in homes that lack personality and connectivity to their site. One such residence, however, was renovated to liberate it from the constraints of its original, cookie-cutter design.

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The site is located within the Australian bushland of Willoughby Council's Griffin Heritage Conservation Area, which added another level of complexity to the approvals process and design. 

The site is located within the Australian bushland of Willoughby Council's Griffin Heritage Conservation Area, which added another level of complexity to the approvals process and design. 

Approaching the remodel with a less-is-more philosophy, Downie North did minimal alterations to make the building's existing 6,782-square-feet footprint more efficient and intuitive.  

Approaching the remodel with a less-is-more philosophy, Downie North did minimal alterations to make the building's existing 6,782-square-feet footprint more efficient and intuitive.  

According to Dan North and Catherine Downie of Sydney studio Downie North Architects, the challenges that mass-produced stock houses pose include being "insular and claustrophobic, referring only to their own internal mechanisms, ignorant of family relationships. Landscape, natural light, cross ventilation, and site specific conditions are secondary, arbitrary, or irrelevant." 

When they took on the renovation of one such home for a family of five, they reconfigured the internal layout to bring more natural light deep into the common living areas, and better connect them to the surrounding landscape. 

When they took on the renovation of one such home for a family of five, they reconfigured the internal layout to bring more natural light deep into the common living areas, and better connect them to the surrounding landscape. 

Along the edge of the outdoor deck, reclaimed red bricks complement those used in the neighboring houses.

Along the edge of the outdoor deck, reclaimed red bricks complement those used in the neighboring houses.

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The spotted gum veneer pays homage to the variety of local gum tree species.

The spotted gum veneer pays homage to the variety of local gum tree species.

The owner had a modest budget and a tight timeline, so the architects had only six months to design, document, receive approvals, and complete construction.  

The material and color choices—spotted gum, and clean white and gray—were inspired by the environment of Castlecrag.

The material and color choices—spotted gum, and clean white and gray—were inspired by the environment of Castlecrag.

"With these financial and time constraints in mind, the design was quickly distilled down to its architectural imperatives: how to capture sunlight, curate views, create meaningful connection and a sense of place. The solution was predicated by the constraints but surpassed them," says North.

Key pieces of joinery were used to visually distinguish the thresholds defining the foyer, living and dining areas, kitchen, butler’s pantry, and study. 

Key pieces of joinery were used to visually distinguish the thresholds defining the foyer, living and dining areas, kitchen, butler’s pantry, and study. 

North-facing skylights were cut out from the roof to brighten the interiors and establish a visual connection to the bushy site.

North-facing skylights were cut out from the roof to brighten the interiors and establish a visual connection to the bushy site.

"Conceptually it is simply a ‘coming together’ space—both of people and site. The program is open and robust, offering space for families to share, enjoy a good meal, and discuss the day," says Downie.  

The ceramic tiles were created with irregular glaze, which mimics the reflections of the harbor nearby. 

The ceramic tiles were created with irregular glaze, which mimics the reflections of the harbor nearby. 

"The design focused on removing what was unnecessary in order to determine a natural place for each space, whilst elevating those functions and creating an awareness and connection to place," says North.

"The design focused on removing what was unnecessary in order to determine a natural place for each space, whilst elevating those functions and creating an awareness and connection to place," says North.

"The new architectural composition is highly efficient, dynamic, yet serene. It has transformed the occupants’ everyday experience, yet sits lightly within the site, demonstrating the value of simplicity," says Downie. 

Floor plan before the renovation

Floor plan before the renovation

Floor plan after the renovation

Floor plan after the renovation

Project Credits: 

Architecture and interior design: Downie North Architects 

Builder: BCM Aust 

Landscape architect: Emily Simpson 

Furniture supplier: Great Dane Furniture 

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