Stories of the past

A family home carved from the fabric of a Victorian-era warehouse in Melbourne’s Fitzroy North is both a celebration and inspired re-imagining of the building’s historical narrative.

Photos: Sharyn Cairns | Styling: Swee Design

Author

Gabrielle Chariton

Built in 1894 and converted into a row of townhouses around a century later, the old Moran & Cato grocery store and warehouse is a typical example of Victorian industrial architecture: dignified and structurally imposing; its brick facade softened by arched window frames and elegant mouldings. However, much of the building’s character was lost during the townhouse conversion, when its ancient timbers, sooty fireplaces and vast hardwood structural beams were concealed behind layers of plasterboard, packing and lightweight infill. 

The Three Stories North project was seeded when a young family, who had lived in one of the townhouses for around a decade, purchased the adjoining residence on the corner of the building – the original grocery store. Enamoured with the building’s history and hidden potential, they set out to transform the two residences into a single home; adapting the space to twenty-first century living while paying homage to its storied past. 

To help articulate this vision, the family enlisted Chris Stanley from Melbourne architectural firm Splinter Society, and Ben Koster of Birdsmouth Constructions. ‘The clients’ brief was to celebrate the beauty of the old home and for the family to be connected but have their own spaces as well,’ Chris says. ‘The whole concept was about revealing the history and industrial quirks of the building.’

Unencumbered by any planning or heritage restrictions, Chris’s design created spatial cohesion and visual drama within the brick envelope. The two homes, which featured a typical Victorian-style arrangement of small rooms, were bisected by a monolithic masonry wall, punctuated with openings and floor levels emerging at different heights on either side. Chris used this wall as the connection point: a central backbone from which rooms and spaces weave in and out of each other via existing openings. A bespoke metal staircase, which seemingly floats off the raw brickwork, physically links the home’s three levels and underpins its robust industrial aesthetic. 

 

A nine-metre-high glass-fronted, skylight-capped void, spliced into the front elevation, creates a showstopping entrance and unifies the spaces along the vertical plane. Comprising a quarter of the home’s volume, the void frames views of the tree canopy outside and brings light into the interiors. While visually and functionally unconventional, the finished layout is also practical and future-proof: children’s bedrooms and a home studio on the lower floor; common living areas and kitchen in the middle; and a luxuriously private parents’ retreat on the third floor. 

Ben Koster, a long-term HIA member who established Birdsmouth 16 years ago and works exclusively with architects, describes the 12-month construction period as ‘probably the hardest build I’ve ever done in my life’. While the original building was solid and the Birdsmouth team didn’t encounter any nasty surprises, he says it was the logistical challenges that kept him awake at night: the nuts and bolts of getting materials in and out, sequencing demolition works, and the sheer physicality of constructing the void. (Each panel of glazing, weighing ‘hundreds of kilos’, had to be carried in by hand. The skylight, at 201 kg, was craned into position.) 

In the end, he says, ‘we had to build the place upside down’ – first installing the metal framework for the skylight, and the third-floor ceiling and framing, then cutting away a section of the floor to open the top of the void, before moving down to do the same on the middle level, and so on. 

Throughout the interiors, the structural components of the old building take centre stage. Ben and his team uncovered low bluestone-lined doorways, long-forgotten joinery, pitted and aged brickwork, fragments of render. At every turn, these treasured vignettes reveal the richness of the building’s past. 

‘There were a lot of unusual techniques that the builders had to employ, different painting and plastering techniques to work with the texture and the quirks of the old building,’ Chris explains. As the home morphed into its new shape, materials were retained and repurposed; new walls created from old bricks; timber beams refashioned into vanities, doors, cladding, jambs and steps; and hardwood floor joists were cleaned up, run through a thicknesser and used to construct the 4.5-metre-tall front door. 

 

While Chris says all these details ‘retain the memory of the original building’, Three Stories North is also highly forward-looking, its industrial rawness expertly layered with a rich selection of contemporary finishes. The rear wall of the void, which conceals all the services, sweeps up to meet the skylight in a gleaming swathe of steel cladding. Black perforated steel, reminiscent of Victorian iron lacework, plays with the light in the all-black kitchen. Meanwhile, the living room provides shading across a window. In the bathrooms, pockmarked brickwork intersects with pristine black penny-round tiles. This robust, dark palette creates pockets of intimacy within the home, counterbalancing the monumental spatial drama of the void. 

The contemporary insertions, all expressed with razor-sharp precison, are testament to the patience and skill of the building team. Being so old, the building was significantly out of square, Ben explains. With no architraves, skirting or quad to hide behind, the builders devised a range of solutions such as shadowline details and other ways of resolving the finishes to deliver the requisite aesthetic. 

Seamlessly traversing the intersect between old and new; light and dark; intimate and imposing, Three Stories North represents a beautiful new chapter for the Moran & Cato warehouse. Chris says the clients, who have been in their new home for about 18 months, love the lifestyle it affords. ‘The design retains a sense of connectedness,’ they told him. ‘We’re apart when we desire but never so far from each other as to feel lost in the space.’ 

Ben, who describes the finished home as ‘absolutley stunning’, credits the project’s overall success to the creative synergy between the client, architect and building team. ‘All my subbies loved the project and did an amazing job,’ he says. ‘It was a brilliant team effort from everybody, including the clients – that contributed to such an incredible end result.’ 

 

Three Stories North at a glance

Builder: Birdsmouth Constructions

Architect: Splinter Society

Location: Fitzroy North, VIC

Materials:

  • Flooring: Mountain Timber Products solid blackbutt with Loba matte finish; Forbo Resilient linoleum in black; Pavers Plus Brazilian slate; SuperTuft Escape Twist carpet
  • Panels: CSR Barestone; Lysaght panelrib; Tongue-and-groove wire brushed mixed species hardwood in smokey grey
  • Interior surface: Polytec thermo black natura laminate cupboards
  • Curtain: Fabrics by Lynch Window Fashions and Warwick Fabrics
  • Kitchen: Fisher & Paykel appliances
  • Bathroom: Ital Ceramics rock finish porcelain; Cerdomus black penny-round tiles, Par Taps Lugano tapware; Boyd Alternatives concrete basins
  • Lighting: Ross Gardam Nebulae Vertical pendant; ISM Grapho bubble pendant; Studio Italia strip lighting; Tommy and Arc barrel spotlights
  • Paint: Resene Karaka and Rascal
  • Decking: Mountain Timber Products solid blackbutt. 
 

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

Australian design through time: the colonial years

Take a step back through the ages with us as we look at the history of our homes. Welcome to the first in our series ‘Australian design through time’ – The Colonial Years.

Coastal cool

Combining the popular Hampton style with the American farmhouse, this striking property by Custom Coast Homes oozes sophistication and charm, and has made a strong impression in its NSW seaside suburb.

Changing perceptions

The 2020 HIA Australian Townhouse/Villa of the Year was awarded to Metricon Homes South Australia for this innovative example of spacious design on a small lot.

Every little thing

This award-winning home in Sydney’s inner west, constructed with creativity and flair, is the perfect articulation of its builder’s philosophy to ‘treat every little thing like it’s everything’.

Join more than 120,000 like-minded subscribers