Curvaceous beauty

A creative response to the constraints of an awkwardly shaped site has resulted in an eye-catching curvilinear family home in inner Melbourne.

It’s easy to spot the True North House as you approach its small corner block in the inner Melbourne suburb of Kensington: visible from both streets, its sinuous double-storey form stands out from the heritage houses around it. Home to architect Tim Hill of Tandem Design Studio, his partner Victoria and their young son, the house is clad in a distinctive ‘pleated’ folded metal skin that emphasises its organic curved shape.

The house is placed in the centre of the 312 square metre block, and the facade is bowed in places to allow for a series of ‘pocket’ gardens on all sides. Inside, Tim has squeezed a kitchen, sunken living room and dining area plus a double-height atrium into the ground floor, and above, three pods containing bedrooms, bathroom and ensuite are accessed via stairs and a bridge. Curves are everywhere, from the custom-built brick island bench in the kitchen to the built-in dining furniture that’s reminiscent of a ship’s cabin.

Far from being a design conceit, the curves are a key part of Tim’s response to the challenging, wedge-shaped site. “The block is smaller than you think when you first look at it,” he explains. “There’s enough room for a traditional double-fronted house at the front, but only for one room at the back. A triangular footprint was the obvious solution, but acute corners are difficult to build and furnish, so I curved them off.”

The project involved a heritage renovation as well as a new build, as the block includes a heritage-listed 1880s brick stables at the rear. When their son was born, the couple were living nearby in the ‘Kensington Lighthouse’, designed by Tandem and featured in Sanctuary 11. “That house had the challenge of bringing in natural light despite a neighbour’s four-metre high wall to the north, and it was a very tight site. It was a great house for a couple, but not for young kids,” says Tim. For their next home, he wanted to do something quite different. Initially looking for a block they could subdivide, build on and sell one of the houses, the plan changed when they discovered the Kensington block. “It was really appealing architecturally, with its quirky geometry, the stables, its corner location that offers great north solar access, but on the other hand also gives a distinct urban quality – the site is open to observation from several sides.”

A triangular footprint was the obvious solution, but acute corners are difficult to build and furnish, so I curved them off.

They started with the stables, which were in bad repair, the double brick walls in danger of falling into the street. Constructing an internal timber frame braced with structural ply, their builder attached the masonry to the new frame to stabilise it. The brick floor was lifted, a concrete slab poured and the bricks re-laid. The roofline was raised to convert what was a loft into a habitable upper floor. The building now boasts a living room and compact kitchen downstairs, with a bedroom and surprisingly generous bathroom above. A high window in the living area admits north light without compromising on privacy from the street; all other windows and doors are on the west, which means the little space does get hot on summer afternoons, despite the double glazing. Tim is contemplating removeable shade sails, or perhaps a pergola planted with a deciduous vine, to help with this. The family lived in the stables for a year and a half while their own house was built; now it provides a self-contained place to stay for family and friends.

The main house is also partly of recycled brick construction. Bricks were chosen to tie in with the stables and echo Kensington’s history as a brickmaking centre, and to provide thermal mass. The rest of the structure is a highly insulated composite steel and timber frame, with a concrete slab floor and a Colorbond roof. Inside, walls and ceiling are timber-lined for a warm, textural feel. But it’s the pleated steel cladding that makes the biggest impression. “We designed it and had it custom formed,” says Tim. “It’s a nice solution for wrapping up a curving building and it provides diagonal bracing.”

Victoria describes the design as a little like a mediaeval hall: “One big room downstairs, with segregated, private nooks upstairs.” She says that the reduced privacy that comes with living in an eye-catching house on a corner site has had its challenges. “But it’s also nice to have the connection with the neighbourhood. We have had so much goodwill from the community. There’s something about this house that provokes people to talk about themselves, to ask about the house and garden.” The gardens around the house have become her domain: “Every section of the garden is slightly different in microclimate. There’s a lot more planting to do – everything will grow up, and improve our privacy.”

Tim describes being inside the house as like looking out through a water drop, or hiding inside a musical instrument. “The constraints create the shape. When you’ve finished dealing with the constraints, that’s when the opportunities emerge and you can start doing the fun stuff.”

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