18 years ago, I designed and built this addition to an existing house in Bexley in Sydney’s south for Donna & Khalil and their one-year old son Jack.
Last month I got a call from Khalil out of the blue. He was at a soccer match with his now 19-year-old son and was calling to say he had just read an article on one of our latest projects. He let me know how much he and his family still loved their home and that it was a joy to see the design principles that underpinned his home become increasingly refined over the decades.
Donna & Khalil were my third client and really the first client where there was no prior existing relationship (my first two projects were for people I already knew).
The Bexley project was really the first test of my skills to design and build a project on a commercial basis. A few years after graduating from two degrees in architecture at The University of Sydney I had finalised my Cert IV qualifications to become a fully-fledged, licensed builder. I had worked under several exceptionally talented Architects and Builders during my studies and in the years that followed.
Donna & Khalil had invited several Architects to meet with them to discuss their project. Some didn’t return their calls, and another sent them some pro-forma to fill out which included questions like what school they went to and how much they earned. When I arrived to meet them, they were understandably a little disillusioned with the process and the conduct of the Architects they had approached to date. What they really wanted was someone to listen to their needs and interpret their long term aspirations. They spoke about their history with the existing home, the way they wanted to live, entertain and grow as a family. Donna was the third generation to live in the home (her grandfather built the original federation period house and their son Jack was the fourth generation) so the existing fabric, including the parts that needed to be demolished, had a meaningful connection to their family history. For this reason, during construction we carefully removed and cleaned the bricks from the original rear addition and re-used them in the design, leaving the layers of paint exposed that different family members had painted on the walls over the past 80 years. The original bricks found a new home in expressed walls to the new pedestrian entry and outdoor living spaces.
The idea to butterfly the roof was a simple response to compliment the gable form of the original slate roof, to provide a simplified means to collect rainwater and to provide outlook and sunlight to the living spaces on a site that was overlooked on both sides by neighbouring dwellings. Using the sky as the view on sites where there is limited outlook is a common theme in our work.
Donna absolutely loved to cook so the kitchen became an altar to the living spaces with dining, living, study and sitting rooms surrounding the centrally focused kitchen space in almost a subservient planning arrangement.
The main bathroom, located in the footprint of the original home, was quite experimental in many ways. A bathtub was formed on site and completely tiled, the walls were finished in colour backed glass, the basin had a custom stainless-steel support and cleverly detailed Western Red Cedar was used to connect the materials of the new works to the original home.
The advantages of being both the Architect and the Builder became very clear during the course of this project. The lack of detailed drawings was compensated by an extremely supportive client and a hunger to make the most of my opportunities at the tender age of 26. Looking at these images I can still recall the trades I worked closely with, the numerous questions I asked more experienced industry peers, the extensive research undertaken to ensure the details would not only work but last and the experimental craft of detailing ‘on the run’ that we continue to do to this day (although with a lot more detailed documentation thankfully ?)
Although I grew up in and around construction sites I was a very green builder at the time we started the Bexley project and given the warranty on every project we build is 6-7 years, getting things right the first time has become critical to building an unsurpassed reputation for quality and for future proofing our projects. In some ways one might expect our design work to become more conservative given we are liable for defects in the built outcome. However, the opposite evident in our approach, as we are responsible for the built outcome we push the boundaries further. Our projects tend to stand the test of time with respect to construction quality and aesthetics.
It is my opinion that architecture and building are not competing interests, they can be delivered harmoniously with the right people involved. Whilst there are only a handful of people who are both Architects and Builders there are many good Architects and good Builders around. What I have learned during my time in practice is that listening to a client and understanding their long-term aspirations, is the greatest skill an Architect can attain.