Atma Builders

Storybook style

Bold ingenuity and master craftsmanship characterise this unique Melbourne property, built with precision and patience by long-standing HIA member Atma Builders.

Photos: Shannon McGrath

Author

Laura Valic

A new addition to a tree-lined street in Melbourne’s Fitzroy North has all the charm of a fairy-tale storybook, its elegance rivalling the more established grand dames of the neighbourhood, with their deco waterfall edges, roof terraces and grand entryways. 

Characterised by robust circular turrets and metallic cladding, the Merri Creek House as it is known, draws the eye for its contemporary, distinctive features but, according to its designers, enters into the ‘contextual romance’ of its location, with a street-facing cocktail deck above the garage and receding brick veneer curves.

‘These monumental turrets reference geometric farm relics and tall brick water structures, an obsession shared by both WOWOWA and the client,’ says Director Scott Woodward, of Melbourne-based WOWOWA Architecture. The practice endeavours to create colourful, playful and flexible spaces for its clientele, a mission that clearly spoke to the homeowners. They themselves, a young couple with two children, were interested in exploring innovative ideas for their family home and were evidently happy to push the boundaries in the process. 

 
Atma Builders
Merri Creek House is made up of two brick turrets.
Photo: Shannon McGrath
Atma Builders
The turrets feature accents of coppery-toned Colorbond cladding (in Aries).
Photo: Shannon McGrath

To turn an ambitious, fanciful concept into a brick and mortar reality requires a deftness and understanding that comes with decades of experience. HIA member Atma Builders, a building firm that has been producing highly detailed architecturally-designed housing since 1976, was a clear frontrunner for the job. Founder Julian Barlow is a craftsman and a traditionalist; someone who loves the enduring European homes of old and has a strong respect for the purpose of architecture in construction. He cut his teeth on residential projects for prominent Victorian architects in the 1970s and 80s – at the time all of them young, talented and eager to make their mark.

‘We basically brought each other up,’ Julian says. ‘They taught me about architectural design and in a way I helped them understand how to build things.’

Leading a team of trusted carpenters and subcontractors, many of whom have been with him since the start (‘if I employed their fathers, I now employ their sons in a lot of cases’), Atma Builders has a solid reputation amongst the architectural community for achieving the difficult and the exacting. All over Melbourne the business is supported by ‘highly specialised little elves’ who make a lot of its projects’ componentry by hand, such as door handles, joinery, flashing or gutters. 

Julian’s wealth of knowledge and ability to customise for the unique was an important asset for the complexity inherent in the Merri Creek House’s design. In fact, there wasn’t much from the house plans that he didn’t end up suggesting some alteration for. ‘But I’m extremely mindful that the architect and the client want it to look a certain way,’ he explains. ‘If someone saw the original drawings and then the final product they’d say it looks the same; however there have been multitudes of details and finishes that have been fine-tuned. If there’s a way of doing something better I will communicate that.’ 

 
Atma Builders
Receding brick veneer curves.
Photo: Shannon McGrath
Atma Builders
The 'jelly bean' ledge.
Photo: Shannon McGrath
Atma Builders
The house is mostly built with conventional materials, such as polished concrete flooring or timber joinery, but expressed in unconventional ways
Photo: Shannon McGrath
Atma Builders
Pink marble was incorporated into the visually striking kitchen.
Photo: Shannon McGrath

Merri Creek House is made up of two brick turrets. The front structure, embellished by a fluted vertical timber facade, is split into a rumpus below and study above, while the middle double-height turret includes the dining table and the timber ‘paddle pop stick’ staircase, crafted by the Atma team. The third turret, with its accents of coppery-toned Colorbond cladding (in Aries), is akin to a deconstructed ruin, appearing to dissolve as it approaches the creek at the home’s rear.

‘The circular turrets were a nightmare to build,’ Julian reveals. ‘They had their own individual roofs which had their own individual gutters. To make a round gutter and flash it is extremely difficult, everything had to be handmade.’ 

But the outcome is arresting. The tones add to the drama and the refined contours belie the challenge of contorting a brick’s straight edge into a circle. According to Brett Ward, General Manager of International Marketing at Brickworks Building Products, the architects chose a combination of Daniel Robertson Traditional bricks in Buff and Austral Bricks Allure bricks in Ariana specifically for the site.

‘Working closely with WOWOWA, it became apparent that the materiality needed to reflect the masculine design of the project, whilst being robust enough to withstand the temperature and weather extremes synonymous with the site’s proximity to Merri Creek,’ he says. ‘[Their choice] not only achieved aesthetic and structural benefits for the project, but environmental advantages too. Being carbon-neutral certified under the National Carbon Offset Standard, the manufacture of these bricks resulted in zero net emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, lowering the carbon footprint of the home.’

 
Atma Builders
The timber ‘paddle pop stick’ staircase was crafted by the Atma team.
Photo: Shannon McGrath
Atma Builders
Bright blue grout was chosen for an ensuite to tie in with the vivid blue ceiling.
Photo: Shannon McGrath

Internally, the house is mostly built with conventional materials, such as polished concrete flooring (with hydronic underfloor heating) or timber joinery, but expressed in unconventional ways, with curved forms repeated throughout in the walls, windows and joinery. For example, bright blue grout was chosen for an ensuite to tie in with the vivid blue ceiling, while pink marble was incorporated into the visually striking kitchen. 

Julian says they plastered the ceilings in a lime pin board material – the first time he had ever used the product. ‘It was very difficult to do because we didn’t want external fixings, but as a soundproofing material and an insulator, it works extremely well and enhances the feeling of the building.’

The other unusual product application was concentrated to the walls of the circular stairwell. The team used a lime putty, which Julian adds is commonly found in old homes in the Mediterranean. ‘It’s a really old technique for plastering,’ he says. ‘The colour isn’t completely consistent, we didn’t paint it just applied it, but you get this lovely finish as a result.’
Completed in 2019, the build took 15 months in total, a respectable timeframe given the complexity of the home’s design and preliminary issues with the footings that required the building team to insert steel screw piles nearly seven metres into the foundations. The collaborative outcome is one that Julian is deservedly proud of. 

‘We all put a lot of effort into it and as a project it was very successful,’ he says. ‘That to me means a client loves their house; I really want the person who lives there to enjoy it.’ 

 
Atma Builders

Merri Creek House at a glance

Builder: Atma Builders

Architect: WOWOWA Architecture

Location: Melbourne

Materials:

  • Roofing: Colorbond
  • Cladding: Colorbond metallic range in Aries
  • Bricks: Brickworks Daniel Robertson Traditional in Buff, Austral Bricks Allure in Ariana 
  • Stairwell lighting: WOWOWA Architecture
  • Windows: timber-framed and double glazed
  • Flooring: polished concrete with hydronic underfloor heating 
  • Kitchen: Miele appliances.
 

Not an HIA member yet? By joining Australia’s largest national association for the residential building industry, you’ll get access to a range of member benefits, as well as industry products and business services designed to help you manage, operate and grow.

Related Articles

Urban oasis

Designed with a focus on liveability and built with meticulous attention to detail, this verdant, secluded retreat defies the constraints of its location.

Creative corner

With a striking design offering an inspired response to a tricky canal site, the Corner House is already on its way to becoming a new landmark in Broadbeach on the Gold Coast.

Things of stone and wood

Constructed almost entirely from timber, glass and stone, Apollo Bay House both defers to, and celebrates, the windswept beauty of its wild, coastal location.

Resort-style living

This impressive family home built by SX Constructions on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast perfectly captures the laidback beachside lifestyle of its location.

Join more than 120,000 like-minded subscribers