Renovation Remix: Phoenix House | ArchitectureAU

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Sometimes things happen for a reason. While Byron Bay architect Harley Graham’s work is more associated with Modernism (an architectural style he is drawn to), changing personal circumstances led to his sole ownership of a small Queenslander he owned before the had saved demolition.

The original plan was that c. Renovate 1910 Brisbane frame home into a 500 square foot flat block owned by Harley in Byron Bay and then perhaps put it up for sale. But those plans went haywire and the house had to be converted into a home for Harley and his two teenage children. When he drove downstairs to look at the house – which had been “stored” in a sugar cane field in Ballina – he found that the protective tarps had been blown away and the house was soaked and rotting. After 18 months of exposure, the house was in a sorry state, its porch hanging by a thread.

“I watched it and burst into tears,” admits Harley. “I drove home and wondered what I would do.” He sought solace on the beach, and suddenly the way forward became clear.

“I thought, ‘Okay, Harley, this is your moment to rebuild, and this house is a symbol of that.’ It was my phoenix moment in a way, which is why I call it the phoenix house.”

The kitchen splashback uses the original casement windows turned on their side. Artwork (L-R): Caitlin Reilly, John Cottrell.

Image: Andy Macpherson

The building’s dilapidated condition called for a new approach. Instead of repairing and reinstalling what was missing and renovating the kitchen and bathroom, Harley came up with the idea of ​​taking the house apart, throwing out what was rotten and putting the remaining pieces back together in some other way—like one big, sustainable jigsaw puzzle.

“I realized I had to treat the project like a remix album,” he says. “And reusing everything we could.”

As each piece fell off, it was broken down and stored under the house. At the same time, plans were made for the rebirth of the house. What was once a simple two-bedroom cottage with a wraparound porch was about to be radically redesigned.

Central to Harley’s plan was capturing northerly views across the street to the large playing fields opposite and to the sea beyond. This meant moving the living area to the front of the house, with the kitchen on what was originally the western back porch. Three bedrooms are now off a central hallway that begins just past the living and dining area. On one side are the children’s rooms, each with doors leading to a second living room behind the kitchen. On the other side is Harley’s room and beyond that is a second corridor that leads past the powder room and main bathroom to a sheltered side porch where the laundry is located.

A skylight above the living area directs the view upwards.  Artwork (L-R): Micheila Petersfield, Dion Horstmans.

A skylight above the living area directs the view upwards. Artwork (L-R): Micheila Petersfield, Dion Horstmans.

Image: Andy Macpherson

“This house was an exercise in restraint,” explains Harley. “It’s a three bedroom house and yet it’s only 140 square meters. The main living room is only 3.6 meters wide. If I did this to my clients, most of them would lose it. But I wanted to show that you can have these small spaces and small houses that feel big.”

Two elements extend the living area. The first is a section of the original porch that spans most of the front of the house and overlooks the garden and a small but beautifully detailed swimming pool. For Harley, this “special place” where he often sits is an important way to connect with life on the road and the wider community.

The second expansive element is a skylight above the living area. Sharply framed in steel and clad in wood, it rises from roof level, following the same roof pitch to frame sky views and draw light into the interior.

The porch and skylight expand the living space and make the house look more voluminous.

The porch and skylight expand the living space and make the house look more voluminous.

Image: Andy Macpherson

“It’s one of the heroic moments in the house,” says Harley, “and it was about showing that this is a modern take on the Queenslander. Queenslanders always have a low porch to protect you from the elements, and you can never see the sky from inside the home. Capturing this triangle of heaven is really important to me. It is a joyful moment.”

Cutting off the east end of the porch allowed a second home to be squeezed onto the property: a narrow and tall one-bedroom studio—a prototype tiny home. Clad in black vertical boards and with windows salvaged from the old house, the tiny house’s dark form frames the newly renovated white cottage next to it. But it’s the wood of the old Queenslanders, not their breezy windows, that holds Harley’s greatest appeal.

“This house is one big, beautiful piece of carpentry,” he says, adding that it’s made out of “a pile of aged hardwood that’s almost impossible to come by these days.”

The Queenslander is one of the most famous typologies of the Australian house. This remixed version respects its form and honors its craftsmanship and materiality while adding a contemporary sensibility that is both relaxed and playful.

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