Frank Melbourne renovation living room

Staying in character

Between the vermiculite on the ceilings and the breezeway blocks in the kitchen, there is a nod to its history on every level in this home. Retaining the building’s existing 70’s character proved a success, with the structure becoming the bones and the style providing a heart.

Photos: William Watt

Author

Sarah O'Donovan

From the moment architect-turned-client Drew Carling showed builder Wes Alfredson the 1970s office building he’d found, it was clear the pair shared an appreciation for the 50-year-old construction as it stood. 


‘Drew rang and said he’d bought what he called a “70s lemon” with some beautiful character to it,’ Wes recalls. ‘He asked me to go for a walkthrough so we could bounce some ideas off each other.’


Under different circumstances, this property – with its ideal location just minutes from the CBD and plethora of potential era-associated risks – might have faced a very different fate. But the duo were determined to enhance the existing design and pay homage to the era in which it was built, and so followed the age-old advice about turning lemons into lemonade. 
Frank Melbourne renovation kitchen
breezeway blocks add character
Photo: William Watt
Frank Melbourne renovation bedroom
Blackbutt Armourpanel hardwood ply doors
Photo: William Watt
Having worked well together in the past, Maddison Architects director Drew enlisted Wes, who founded his building company Frank nearly 30 years ago, for the builder’s creative vision and technical know-how for what would become a particularly important project close to heart: his very own home. 


‘We worked with what was already there – the garage door, the veranda, the shape and volume of the project – we didn’t change any of those features, we just re-clothed them,’ Wes says. 


The renovation works, which turned an old commercial space into a bright, modern-day residence, rarely consisted of sleek lines or white paint: ‘it’s quite a unique little building…it was important to us that we didn’t just minimalise everything,’ Wes says. 


Instead, inventive design transformed the former stale offices into unconventional homeliness. On the street-side facade, adding a round window to the tall curved brick wall softened the face of the building and brought light into the lower living area.


Upstairs, extending the balcony doors and creating a large, double-glazed skylight opened the space up to create a welcoming and liveable entertainment zone. 
Frank Melbourne renovation dining room
the dynamic design of the centrally-located kitchen brings an undeniable vibrancy to the space
Photo: William Watt
Frank Melbourne renovation kitchen
every element was up for review if an alternative idea arose
Photo: William Watt
Meanwhile, the dynamic design of the centrally-located kitchen brings an undeniable vibrancy to the space, with breezeway blocks used to construct the kitchen bench and patterned tiles creating a feature wall to be reckoned with. 


Although Drew and Wes had developed comprehensive plans for the building, they did not let the plans box them in once they got onsite. 


‘He would sketch something abstract – they love rice paper and sketch books – and flick it through to get my thoughts. There’s a back and forth, always,’ Wes says of the unique experience that is building a home for an architect client.


And every element was up for review if an alternative idea arose. This meant experimenting with the existing floors once the carpet was pulled up, and grinding the concrete down to envisage the final look. Similarly, where windows might otherwise have been replaced, they were retained with new hardware. 


This cohesion between builder and architect can be traced throughout this project from the initial design phase – which saw Wes and Drew exchanging ideas and hand-drawn sketches – through to the installation of a custom basin, fashioned from an offcut of remaining concrete pipe with brass inlay.


In addition to retaining the original character of a property, designing and building in this reflexive, iterative manner also helped to lower the footprint of the project, decreasing the overall environmental impact and cost. 
Frank Melbourne renovation home office
inventive design transformed the former stale offices into unconventional homeliness
Photo: William Watt
Frank Melbourne renovation bathroom gold basin
custom vanity using repurposed concrete pipe
Photo: William Watt
But as with any old building, there was a prevalent risk that some of the materials unearthed could be hazardous. Knowing this, Wes arranged to have all the necessary safety audits and tests carried out well before construction commenced. 


He recommends other builders do this too, to prevent complications when working with old buildings. 


‘You should tread carefully initially. Do your engineering checks and knock things out to ensure the building can cope with the structure first,’ he says. 


For this project in particular, the challenges came primarily from the age of the building rather than the site itself, plus there were the usual complications of working in a high-density, inner-city location. 


‘Access was an issue, as were the heights and fall protection,’ Wes says. ‘But also the chemicals and the testing of products that we were cutting into and working with.’


Adopting an extremely high level of planning and preparation is not unusual for Wes, who says his scopes and costings often span 40-plus pages of documents for any given project. 
Frank Melbourne renovation staircase
‘it’s quite a unique little building’
Photo: William Watt
Frank Melbourne renovation dining room
an old commercial space was turned into a bright, modern-day residence
Photo: William Watt
Detail-oriented and driven by excellence, it is possible Wes would have found success in any career he chose. In fact, building wasn’t something he gave much thought to until he found himself thriving in the industry. 


At 18, he was a self-described rebel on his way home from a surfing trip when his car broke down beside Box Hill Technical College in Melbourne. Happening across a pamphlet for a Certificate in Building Technology while seeking out a pay-phone, a young Wes saw a number of reasons to enrol: namely a training salon for hairdressers next door and a legitimate response to offer family on the topic of post-school plans.


‘That’s how it started, I had to convince my old man I was up to something,’ he laughs. ‘But once I got into it and put my mind to it…well, I tend to go all out.


‘Even at that young age I was driven to perfection and trying to do a quality job, no matter what it was. I continue that through my project managers, supervisors, and 30-40 carpenters – with all of them I try to inject this ethos of respectful, quality work. It doesn’t cost any more, it’s just an attitude: always care about what you’re doing.’
Frank Melbourne renovation front entry

design details

Builder: Frank
Architect: Maddison Architects
Location: Melbourne

Materials:

  • Roof: Colorbond flashing, Stratco downpipe
  • Flooring: Ardex self-levelling screed; Laticrete
  • Tiles: Classic Ceramics mosaic tiles
  • External cladding: white designaclad cypress 
  • Joinery and sliding doors: Big River Group Blackbutt Armourpanel hardwood ply
  • Timber stain: Quantum Quantec penetrative preservative and Aquaoil opaque stain 
  • Walls and ceilings: Dulux powdercoat non-toxic low-VOC paints
  • Lighting: low-energy LED lighting and Tullyspot track light system; customised fittings from Volker Haug Studio
  • Double glazing: Viridian thermotech low-E glass (windows) Alite Energilite type 3 double glazing (skylight)
  • Window furnishings: Clearview Sun Control manual roller blinds

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