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Rathgar House, one of the historically significant mansions gracing the affluent suburb of Hawthorn East in Melbourne, has had a varied life. Built in 1886, the ornate Italianate villa, with two levels of sweeping verandas and set within 1600 square metres of landscaped gardens, was once the residence of the Consul for Belgium before it served for a time as the Woodhouse Grove Girls’ School. Today, it is home to a couple hailing from New Zealand and their two teenagers, its hallowed halls gleaming with new life following a comprehensive restoration and contemporary addition project.
After a rocky start with their first architect, the clients decided to engage a project manager to oversee the elaborate remodel. It was then that emerging practice Star Architecture was brought on to redesign the plans and award-winning HIA member Visioneer Builders was chosen as the nominated builder.
Experts in high-end, bespoke construction, Visioneer helped with preliminary budgets early on in the design process and value managed the project so it was viable for the clients to proceed.
‘With these types of homes, a client generally engages [various consultants],’ says Director James Gooley, who, following a restructure several years ago, shares the firm’s leadership with Founder Michael Schuurmans and Director Nick Spargo. ‘Visioneer sees itself as an extension of this consultant team. We’re not just a builder, we wear a lot of hats and coordinate many aspects to assist the project along, in addition to construction.’
Operating from the pre-commencement stage is different to pursuing competitive tenders he says, but Visioneer has found the architecture firms it has worked with see the value in involving the building team during the design period. ‘We bring our subcontractors on board to assist with coordination of services, and it means during the pricing stage we’ve built the project in our head and can hit the ground running once construction begins,’ James says. ‘We can be working on a project for two or three years before we even start building.’
Given the scale and grandeur of the plans for Rathgar House, which included a spectacular three-level rear addition and an enormous underground basement (connected by a glass lift no less), the project was always going to be a complex and lengthy undertaking. The difficulties were multifaceted too, with each stage and area of the home providing Visioneer layered challenges to address.
From the outset, the clients desired a sensitive response to the original heritage home, one that would honour, and allow them to enjoy, its history. This meant a simple facelift to the frontage: fresh paint, roof resurfacing and new spouting. Internally, however, painstaking paintwork in moody tones was required for a swanky cocktail lounge and a master study, while in-fill patching of existing decorative wall panels necessitated an ingenious solution. To replicate the panels (rather than removing and replacing them all), Visioneer meticulously made a silicone mould to create new plaster mouldings.
‘It was a complex process, but we’re really proud of the outcome since it maintained that original look and feel which the clients wanted,’ James says.
Hauling heavy New York marble stone to the second storey master ensuite without any casualties was also ‘no mean feat in itself’. Each piece was book matched for the veins to run seamlessly along the walls and around the double vanity – and the effect is explosive. The room borders the edge between the old and new section of the home, and with the swirling stone patterns, black granite floor tiling and a black Kaldewei Centro Duo bath, it continues the dark, opulent tones consistently found in other parts of the original structure.
James says the clients wished for the transition between old and new to appear flawless, yet full of contrast, so as you step into the contemporary addition you’ll find refined finishes with a ‘New Zealand coastal feel’. Constructed with black steel, the extension houses an expansive kitchen, dining and living space on the ground floor plus several bedrooms above stairs. Ensuring a connection is maintained to the outdoors, large swathes of glass and bluestone flooring open up onto the courtyard and pool area, the hard, cold materials softened by French Oak and American Walnut timber joinery.
The terrace features a fully-equipped pool pavilion that serves, besides an outdoor dining space, as a transparent thoroughfare between the pool and tennis court. James says the court was helpful for cranage and site amenities while completing the extensive and complicated excavation work required for the underground basement concealed beneath the pool and pavilion.
‘It was a huge undertaking once we removed the existing extension,’ he explains. ‘We had to completely underpin the back of the house which included an existing cellar that we managed to maintain. The concrete slab to house the pool was a huge engineering challenge as well.’
The basement, complete with a bar, restored cellar and home cinema, operates as one of the homeowners’ main hubs for entertaining, a place where they can hold parties without disturbing the neighbours. Here everything was thought of, including a car lift and turntable for the seven-car garage.
‘Land in Melbourne is so expensive people want to put in basements but a ramp for entrance takes up a lot of space. We’re finding these car lifts are becoming more common as a way around it.’
Completed in 2018, this entertainer’s utopia took nearly two years to finalise once construction commenced, but the clients are beyond thrilled with the outcome. The breathtaking combination of materials, expertly applied, ensure they can enjoy and share the multitude of spaces with each other and their friends for years to come.
Visioneer’s efforts were rewarded with a number of accolades, including the 2020 HIA Australian Renovation/Addition Project, the first national award for the business.
‘Visioneer’s project team, along with the clients’ consultants, and our subcontractors and suppliers did an amazing job,’ James says. ‘We’re extremely proud of the result. It was a difficult build, which presented huge engineering feats, but it’s beautiful to go back and see the fruits of our labour. The owners have been very generous in opening their home to allow our other clients to see our work, but it just goes to show how proud they are of their house.’