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Set on a tiny laneway in Redfern, one of Sydney’s innermost suburbs, the dwelling now known as Chimney House was originally built in 1890. Positioned at one end of the longest intact row of heritage-listed terraces in the City of Sydney, it’s a significant part of the city’s architectural history.
By 2018, the house had become run-down and was showing pretty much all of its 100-plus years, with rising damp, a leaking roof and the dark, poky interiors typical of Victorian-era terraces. The owners, art enthusiasts who could see the untapped potential of the property, engaged architect Emma Rees-Raaijmakers from Atelier DAU and Grosser Constructions to oversee its transformation into a ‘forever home’ for their family – and for their art collection.
Grosser Constructions was established by Sam Grosser in 2006. Working exclusively with architects, the HIA member company specialises in high-end residential builds, mainly in Sydney’s inner and eastern suburbs. The 15-strong team complete around 10 homes/renovations annually, with all of their work coming via word-of-mouth referrals (Chimney House included).
‘We were involved fairly early on, working on costings over a 12-month period before we commenced onsite,’ Sam says. ‘At the stage we came on board only half the project was documented.’
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Although Grosser Constructions has built up a great relationship with many of Sydney’s leading architects over the years, it was the first time they had worked with Emma. But the team’s technical expertise proved well matched to her remarkable design vision, which incorporated a garage and self-contained apartment adjoining the existing home (utilising an adjacent parcel of vacant land that the clients also owned), its facade dramatically dressed in a perforated brass screen. Alongside this new structure, the existing terrace was restored and extended, the reconfigured internal layout weaving in and out of the new build.
The Grosser team have plenty of experience working on inner urban sites and were well-prepared for the associated challenges. Excessive noise and vibrations caused by jackhammers and power tools can become problematic when renovating terrace houses, thanks to the common walls and proximity to neighbours. However, Sam says in this case the neighbours were very understanding. By far the biggest issue was the logistics of physically getting materials in and out — the impossibly narrow, one-way street made access a nightmare. ‘All our deliveries went to a yard in [the nearby suburb of] Botany, which we then loaded onto our small truck and brought to site.’
Weighty, industrial, and so obviously divergent from the Italianate adornments of the surrounding terraces, the brass screen is the pivotal visual element of this project. Patterned with cut-outs and shadowy geometric shapes, it effectively conceals the new addition, adding an undeniable element of intrigue to the home’s street frontage.
And while it offers privacy and shading to the rooms behind it, Sam says its purpose is primarily aesthetic. ‘The clients are very art-focused…they saw the front of the new addition as a sculptural element to the project.’
At 3.6-metres wide and 6.5-metres high, Sam says the screen was ‘a 12-month work in progress from start to completion’ involving extensive collaboration between the architect, engineer and client. ‘It was fabricated by a contractor in Sydney, basically through a trial-and-error process to make it all fit and function properly.’
At first glance, it appears to be a single monolithic element, but it’s actually a series of openable panels, fixed over black-painted waterproof FC sheeting. At ground level, it’s attached directly to the garage door. The four panels above, which screen an entire wall of glazed sliding doors, swing open and closed on pivot hinges.
Council-mandated height restrictions and other heritage considerations for the new addition resulted in a highly complex roof design for the addition. With asymmetric lines and featuring a charming dormer and balcony, it sympathetically echoes the form of the adjoining terraces. The Grosser team framed it out in timber, and used a standing seam aluminium oxide brown material for the exterior cladding. ‘[The roof] was just a really interesting structure, and I enjoyed the technical side of it,’ Sam says. ‘Working as a team with everyone to bring it together was the best part of the project.’
The existing terrace was restored gently and respectfully, and extended towards the rear to create a two-level, three-bedroom home, offering a sense of spaciousness that defies its limited footprint. The restoration works happened in tandem with the new build, and some materials, such as floorboards and bricks, were repurposed into the home.
In the centre of the house, a curved timber staircase unfurls beneath a skylight, flooding the rooms with natural light. Constructing the finely-honed balustrade that wraps around the stairs required patience and ingenuity, largely due to the onsite space restrictions. Made from a single sheet of 6mm plate steel, it was bent up in a single piece off-site, then cut into sections, transported to the house and welded back together. ‘It was quite a mission,’ Sam laughs. Following installation, it was hand-painted in a tactile white two-pack.
As with the exterior, there is a clear delineation between old and new throughout the interiors, however they have been put together with a certain timelessness. At the end of the hallway, the original timber flooring gives way to polished salt-and-pepper concrete in the expansive seven-metre wide living area, which opens via two glazed pivot doors onto the rear courtyard. The volume and simplicity of the space – every joint and angle meticulously finished by the Grosser team – delivers a gallery-like ambience, making it the perfect backdrop for the clients’ art collection.
At the conclusion of the 12-month build, Sam says the clients were ‘well and truly ecstatic’ with their new home – which has also generated plenty of industry interest and picked up several architectural awards.
‘We’re passionate about what we do and it’s great to see the end product and everyone happy,’ he adds. ‘It was a fun project to build, with a fantastic client and brilliant architect.’