renovation white exterior shingles

Preserving the past

Preferred Builders’ carefully crafted quirky extension of a single-storey home offers a sustainable solution to the renovation of a classic suburban Canberra property.

Author

Annie Reid

In today’s aspirations for a greener life, the residential building industry is facing big challenges. Demolish or rebuild? Renovate or detonate? Throw in heritage and history issues, alongside budget and brief, and it’s tricky to create highly considered and resolved projects that balance the above.

Step up Empire House. Located in Canberra, this multi award-winning project was brought to life by local construction company, Preferred Builders, partnering with Melbourne-based design rock stars, Austin Maynard Architects (AMA).

The easy option was to knock down and rebuild. But this property is in company with a culturally-significant group of houses part of Walter Burley Griffin’s master plan – the architect responsible for designing Canberra – and is representative of an aspirational time in Australia.

So, a better plan was hatched. To preserve rather than rebuild, and to create a respectful addition that was distinctly contemporary, but that retained and celebrated the existing heritage of the house.

‘Knocking down and replacing with even an eight star-rated building will never be as sustainable as retaining and re-using what was already in place,’ says Paul Kerr, director of Preferred Builders.

The owners were just as passionate about heritage and sustainable design. Their brief to AMA was to build a light-filled kitchen and dining space, and a new bedroom and ensuite for their original inter-war style bungalow.

‘We did not want large, we did not need grand,’ owner Lindy says.

Preferred Builders white shingles exterior renovation addition
The vision was to create a respectful addition that was distinctly contemporary, but retained the existing heritage of the house.
Photo courtesy Preferred Builders
Preferred Builders renovation addition glass walkway
Two new pavilions are set away from the existing cottage in a garden with glass corridors linking back to the old house.
Photo courtesy Preferred Builders
timber panelling
One contemporary pavilion is at the rear and contains the new kitchen and dining area.
Photo courtesy Preferred Builders
timber raked ceiling
Blackbutt timber lining on the walls and ceiling seamlessly conceal the joinery, airconditioning unit and fridge.
Photo courtesy Preferred Builders

Luckily, the original house was in a decent state, so there was no need to remove external walls or old detail, such as the original hearth and fireplace in the living room. These were retained with light fittings, windows, timber picture rails and skirtings, while the old walls and ceilings were repainted and floors re-finished. 

But the kitchen, laundry and bathrooms were in bad condition and poorly positioned, which called for new openings to clear site lines and to create better circulation paths. 

The striking result is two new pavilions set away from the existing cottage, in a garden with glass corridors linking back to the old house. In the corridors, the glazing frames are cut into the brick of the old part of the house. 

‘They appear to disappear altogether, thanks to the fine detailing from the architects at AMA,’ Paul says.

One contemporary pavilion is at the rear and contains the new kitchen and dining area. The internal Blackbutt timber lining on the walls and ceiling involved custom milling one-third of the boards to seamlessly conceal the joinery, fridge, airconditioning unit and recessed light fittings. 

A burnished finish on the concrete slab, containing hydronic coils, and a north-facing double-glazed roof light with adjustable louvres, allow for passive heating throughout winter.

‘All new works to the old house and additions aim to maximise available daylight and optimise passive solar gain in winter, while ensuring that the summer sun does not hit the glass, controlled by the operable louvres,’ Paul says.

Preferred Builders renovation white shingles exterior
the new rooms give light and space, and open to the house’s informal gardens – landscaped by Bush Projects. 
Photo courtesy Preferred Builders
sunken bath
The second pavilion is to the side, and houses a bedroom and bathroom; both highlighting old and new. 
Photo courtesy Preferred Builders

The second pavilion is to the side, and houses a bedroom and bathroom; both highlighting old and new. To get there, the floor floats in the form of a bridge, and crosses the garden under the eaves of the old part of the house. 

The ensuite is light-filled with a skylight over the shower and casement windows that open up the corner. There’s more fine detail with steel shelving between the mirror and splashback tile, housing the taps within a custom steel fascia.

Altogether, the new rooms give light and space, and open to the house’s informal gardens – landscaped by Bush Projects – while upgrading the accommodation to include four bedrooms, a study and two bathrooms, as well as the new kitchen.

For the architects, Paul and his team the major challenge was the detailed set outs combining multiple disciplines. More specifically, the architects’ use of intricate materials to create a point of difference between new and old, as well as make those connections appear seamless. A case in point is the wonderfully tactile Colorbond shingled facade, delightfully visible from the street. 

‘They form a snakeskin-like covering that merges roof and wall in one surface, contrasting with the white painted brick of the old part of the house,’ he explains.

The work involved setting out each shingle with mathematical precision, with the clean geometry the result of exact measuring, cutting, linking and hand-finishing, thanks to the break press that was set up onsite. Detailing the integration between the roof window, operable louvre roof structure, steel structure and shingles also took considerable thought, with various templates to achieve and only worked if the shingle grid was millimetre perfect. 

An innovative touch is the concealed box gutter with shingles ‘floating’ over the top, which required the team to suspend a scaffold over the roof to install the shingles so as not to damage them with foot traffic. 

‘Brothers Tim and Andy spent four very patient months working on the shingles, and the last shingle was a very welcome sight,’ Paul laughs. 

white shingles roof
The Colorbond shingles form a snakeskin-like covering that merges roof and wall into one surface, which took months to complete.
Photo courtesy Preferred Builders
Preferred Builders renovation timber walkway glass facade
‘Knocking down and replacing will never be as sustainable as retaining and re-using what was already in place.’ 
Photo courtesy Preferred Builders

It’s little surprise Empire House has since won a stack of awards, including the 2018 HIA–CSR ACT/Southern NSW Renovation/Addition Project, with judges praising the fine hand of the experienced craftsmen.

For Paul, it was the strength of the client relationship that was the most satisfying, considering the challenges of working with interstate architects.

‘I can sincerely say the most gratifying aspect of the build was the relationship between the owners, Paul and Lindy, the project architects Ray, Mark and Andrew from Austin Maynard Architects and ourselves. It sounds a bit cliché, but I think the success of a project is reflected in the relationship bonded before, during and after the build,’ he says.

Preferred Builders renovation white shingles exterior

Empire House at a glance

Builder: Preferred Builders
Architect: Austin Maynard Architects
Location: Canberra

Materials:

  • Steel and timber frame
  • Colorbond shingles
  • Steel plate
  • Steel and aluminium sun shading
  • Floors: Blackbutt polished timber; pine polished timber; burnished concrete
  • Walls: Blackbutt timber V joint; custom steel plate
  • Ceilings: Blackbutt timber V joint

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