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Split personality

This bold renovation/addition takes a time-worn heritage cottage right out of its comfort zone and back again, transforming it into a dramatic yet welcoming family home.

Photos: Peter Bennetts

Split personality

This bold renovation/addition takes a time-worn heritage cottage right out of its comfort zone and back again, transforming it into a dramatic yet welcoming family home.

Photos: Peter Bennetts
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Gabrielle Chariton

Author

Contributor to Housing

Reworking period homes for twenty-first century family life requires architectural integrity, inventiveness and a sensitive approach to construction – all of which are evident in the ‘Split House’ in Melbourne. In this inspiring renovation/addition project, a sweet heritage façade seamlessly morphs into a high-impact contemporary timber-and-steel extension, its roofline brazenly spliced in two to create visual definition and bring sunlight all the way into the interiors. 

The timeline for this project dates back to late 2018, when the homeowners contacted Fiona Dunin at FMD Architects, seeking a way to open the house up to the northern sun and gain a larger living, dining and kitchen space. The aim: to enhance family connectedness on a day-to-day basis and facilitate larger gatherings. 

Dome Building Projects, which had completed two previous projects with Fiona, came on board in December 2018. Directors Scott Wilcox and Andrew Crellin worked with the architect through the design and engineering phases. ‘We like to be involved from the early days of a project…it just seems to produce better outcomes because we’ve got a say in how all the details go together,’ Scott explains.
The bold, triangular geometry of the external roofline is carried through to the interior raked ceilings. Photo: Peter Bennetts
'Everywhere you look there are details that required serious workmanship to pull off’. Photo: Peter Bennetts
The existing double-fronted cottage, while dilapidated, was ideally situated with a north-facing backyard and rear lane access. Works commenced with a fairly intensive restoration process. ‘We stripped it back to its frame, pulled the roof off, ripped all the plaster out,’ Scott says. ‘We rebuilt the sub-floor, restumped the house, but maintained the period elements out the front.’

While Scott says ‘there are always challenges with Victorian [homes]’, the most demanding aspect of this particular project was interpreting the architect’s intention. Dome Building Projects work exclusively on architect-designed homes across Melbourne’s blue-chip suburbs, enjoying plenty of repeat business thanks to their exacting approach and high-level craftsmanship, and Scott says the team have become familiar with the ‘difficult detail’ that’s a signature of Fiona’s designs. ‘When we do her work, sometimes it feels like we’ve got a piece of abstract art she’s trying to translate into a home, and we’ve got to make it waterproof and functional, so it’s always a challenge.’

The two personalities of Split House – old-world charm versus contemporary flair – are beautifully resolved through the use of a consistent visual narrative: the bold, triangular geometry of the external roofline is carried through to the interior raked ceilings and replayed again and again, in windows, walls and joinery. Decorative finishes are secondary; the razor-sharp architecture, meticulously rendered by the Dome team, comprises the aesthetic focus of the home, inside and out. 

‘Everywhere you look there are details that required serious workmanship to pull off,’ Scott says. From achieving a flawless finish at each junction of the stepped, multi-angled ceilings and walls; painstakingly pattern-matching the timber veneers in the joinery; to ensuring no cuts in the bathroom tilework, every element plays out to precision. ‘All the angles, all the sharp edges, it’s all very unforgiving. There are no joinery fillers or soft surfaces, no architraves…nowhere to hide.’ 
Sharp lines are replayed again and again, in windows, walls and joinery. Photo: Peter Bennetts
The terrazzo slab features angled cutaway edges, and appears to balance atop two square orange pillars. Photo: Peter Bennetts
The kitchen, with its bold pops of colour and unexpected finishes, is intrinsically linked to the home’s historic roots, with the offset terrazzo island directly referencing an original terrazzo floor the Dome team unearthed during their restoration work. At 30mm thick, the terrazzo slab features angled cutaway edges, and appears to balance atop two square orange pillars, clad in glossy two-pack. A mirror set beneath the island creates the optical illusion. A yellow tap completes the pop-art feel, with a wall of pattern-matched cabinets soaring up to meet the steep diagonal line of the ceiling above. 

The exterior is a study in pared-back precision, the distinctive spliced roofline and broad steel eaves cutting a dramatic line across the sky. ‘There’s a lot of steel structure holding up the cantilevered eave linings, but it’s all hidden and tucked away,’ Scott says. ‘We ensured no welds were visible, it looks like the steel’s just been dropped in and fitted off.’ 

The walls are clad in a charred Australian native timber, sourced from Eco Timber. ‘The charring process naturally seals the timber and stops it from weathering. While we did put a sealer over it, it is low-maintenance because it’s been pre-aged,’ Scott says. ‘But you’re working with a material that’s now really rugged because it’s basically been set on fire. So as opposed to just putting up a nice, uniform prefinished product, every board needed to be adjusted and cut into the next board.

‘The end result is beautiful, but it takes a long time to get it right.’ 
The walls are clad in a charred Australian native timber. Photo: Peter Bennetts
The kitchen features bold pops of colour and unexpected finishes. Photo: Peter Bennetts
The clients were thrilled with the transformation of their home. ‘It’s everything they wanted it to be,’ Scott says. ‘It’s the feedback from the family that makes it all worth it. We’re tortured souls, you look at something and say, “God, that looks beautiful,” but you also think, “God, that was hard!” But we love it, we’re very proud of it.’

Based in Melbourne, Dome Building Projects was unavoidably affected by the recent COVID-19 lockdowns. But it was a time when its decade-long HIA membership came into its own. ‘HIA has helped us access the relevant information and…get through the tricky period,’ Scott says. Now, looking ahead, the plan is to continue working on ‘more complex and more beautiful projects’ and work towards sustainable growth.

‘Our ambition is to keep growing, maintaining our principles and the things we’ve been told people enjoy about our business’. 
The clients were thrilled with the transformation of their home. Photo: Peter Bennetts
The distinctive spliced roofline and broad steel eaves cut a dramatic line across the sky. Photo: Peter Bennetts

Split House at a glance

Builder

Dome Building Project

Architect

FMD Architects

Location

Melbourne

Materials

  • Roofing: Lysaght custom orb
  • Exterior: charred Shiplap Spotted Gum cladding, Eco Timber
  • Walls: acoustic panelling; James Hardie Scyon cement sheet cladding; Maxi Plywood
  • Windows: Viridian Thermotech double-glazed glass with low-E coating
  • Flooring: Tasmanian Oak timber; sealed concrete; Terrazzo Montecarlo stone tiles
  • Kitchen: Terrazzo slab Solid Collection in Zenith island.