10.10.2023

Helvetia

The name ‘Helvetia’ is formed onto the original parapet at the front of the building and also printed on the toplight above the front door. Originally home to the Duscher family in the late 1800’s, Helvetia is the Latin word for Switzerland.

At the foundation of environmental sustainability are ‘the three R’s’ – “Reduce”, “Reuse,” “Recycle”. Too often people attempt to buy their way to a sustainable solution. Solar panels, ERVs, heat pumps, grey water systems are purchased as a means to finance an escape from climate catastrophe. All of this tech is important and vital, however, no building can be truly sustainable if a functional structure was demolished in its place. The capitalist reflex, to buy our way out of the problem, simply won’t work.

In retaining the bricks, concrete and steel at Helvetia 17.7 tons of embedded carbon, equivalent to 321,970 Balloons worth of C02 omissions, were negated.

Helvetia is an examination in ‘Reuse’, and also in ego restraint. Helvetia is an exercise in making the most of what you have, before spending money on sustainability tech. Helvetia is one of the most considered, detailed and dynamic ‘before and after’ projects Austin Maynard Architects have completed so far.

THE WHAT

Helvetia is the alteration and renovation of a double storey Victorian terrace in Fitzroy, Melbourne. The residence had been separated into two dwellings in the late 1960s to operate as a boarding house and reconfigured again in the mid 1980s into a three bedroom apartment at ground level and a one-bedroom with large studio at first floor.  Muddled, confused, dark and in a sad state of disrepair, the challenge was to resurrect Helvetia. In removing two rooms (above and below) from the dilapidated centre of the building and utilising the side laneway, Helvetia has been transformed into a light-filled family home, with multiple gardens, a flexible floor plan, central entryway and dramatic sunlit atrium.

THE WHERE

Right on the edge of the CBD, Fitzroy was once a low-rent suburb, gritty and urban with small workers cottages, cobbled laneways and a smattering of slightly grander double fronted homes. When the artists, in search of cheap rent, moved into the area so too did bohemian chic and steady gentrification, bringing with it a rise in desirability and property prices. Fitzroy’s history and its progression is visually evident as strict heritage overlays abut areas of minimal restrictions, creating a strange juxtaposing of sites protected adjacent to sites developed. Fitzroy retains its gritty character and within this urban environment our clients dreamt of an oasis, light filled, green and joyous.

THE BRIEF

The owners of Helvetia wanted to convert their house back into a single dwelling and to make the dark and awkward home more liveable. They asked for an environmentally sustainable home that would be practical, functional and aesthetically pleasing; filled with natural light and surrounded by well-designed green spaces and a productive garden, with strong visual connection to the outside. They asked for three modestly appointed bedrooms with built in robes “but no ensuites” and lots of creative and defined storage space to house and work on their hobbies and display their travel collections. The living/dining area would be open plan, with a galley kitchen that continued out to an external bench top with BBQ and wok burner. The owners professed a love of vertical spaces and a desire to have an inbuilt fish tank.

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SMALLER FOOTPRINTS

When working on a project with a heritage overlay the standard response is to retain the frontage in accordance with policy, and demolish everything else beyond. At Helvetia we discovered some serious issues at the core, but no cracks or structural damage to the solid 1960s rear extension. Rather than allow our architectural vanity to prevail by tearing down and replacing the (albeit it uninspiring) 60s built form, and encouraged by the owners to limit the carbon footprint, we thought ‘why not use the existing brick fabric and work with the skin we’ve got?’

Like most Victorian terrace houses, Helvetia was gloomy with dark corridors and internalised rooms. The resurrection required major surgery, from the inside out.  One of the rare occurrences where the client was happy to take away floor area, we removed two rooms completely and created a substantial lightwell through the centre of the house. The vertical expanse of open space introduces a flood of natural light. Fixed timber awnings control the western and northern sun and, along with the oblique steel blades of the entry gate and the light reflected off the fish pond, cast beautiful shadows throughout the afternoon.

Internally most of the dividing walls were removed to open up the areas with sliding doors and curtains to offer flexibility of use and function. All internal finishes were renewed throughout, a new concrete slab with hydronic heating was poured into the open plan living/dining/ kitchen and all exisiting windows were replaced with thermally efficient double glazing.

Upstairs the original large bay window in main bedroom, overlooking the rear garden, was retained and restored. Built in cabinetry with concealed sliding bedside tables and a hidden sliding door, forms the division between the bedroom and the walk in robe /desk area.  Some inclusions were also made to the studio, already a large multifunctional space, facing north and overlooking the street. The addition of two windows let in light and provide a visual link to the rest of the house, while a curtain creates a cosy TV lounge, or extra guest bedroom when required.

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AN INTERNAL OPERATION

At Helvetia we inherited a resilient building, not pretty, but structurally stable. The house however, had a problematic area in the middle; a recurring leak in the roof causing water damage, rot and mould to the upstairs bathroom and down into to the dining room below. Unlike another of our projects, Newry House, which underwent keyhole surgery (minimal invasion for maximum results), Helvetia had a tumour that needed to be cut out. Instead of a scar, we left a beauty spot, the atrium.

THE ATRIUM

The owners, both medical professionals, dreamt of an inner city “sanctuary”- a home that would exist in stark opposition to their “sterile work environment.”

Addressing one of the primary issues of a terrace house, whereby guests enter at the front of the home and have to pass by private bedrooms to reach the entertaining zone, the side laneway was utilised and the front door re-sited. The new entry creates a stark contrast between gritty cobblestones and lush garden. Step through a soaring white metal screen into a green oasis, cross a steel blade bridge over a pond streaming with fish and lilies, and arrive at the new front door, right in the centre of the house.

The size and scale of the atrium exists in the area that used to be the dining room and bathroom above – the once diseased part of the house. The two-story high steel screen precisely replicates the original external form and pitched roof line of the Victorian terrace.

The metal screen blades are strategically placed to appear solid at oblique angles and open when viewed straight on. The angled blades provide complete privacy from the main street, whilst affording passive surveillance in the laneway.

THE CENTRAL ENTRY

Having relocated the front door to the side the new central entry ensures all the circulation is condensed into one spot. Turn right for entertaining/ living, left for private bedrooms, or straight up the stairs to the studio/study and main bedroom. The staircase, formed as a sculpted piece of furniture, has been specifically designed for display and store with lower treads opening as drawers for shoes removed at the door. The volume under the stairs is maximised for larger items while the balustrade is open shelving, lining up perfectly with the steps. At the top of the stairs the landing is constructed of perforated metal to further enhance and celebrate the abundance of natural light and voluminous space afforded by the atrium. The contrast between the old entry and corridor – once dark, closed in and always requiring artificial light, is fundamentally different.

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GRAPHIC

A study conducted by Bernard E. Harcourt in the Michigan Law Review explored the social influence conception of deterrence known as ‘broken windows theory.’ –  ‘A core tenet of broken windows theory is that a poorly maintained environment inspires criminal behaviour and explicitly that graffiti attracts more graffiti.’ *

The side wall at Helvetia is high and long and runs alongside a busy alleyway, constantly in use. A large, exposed expanse, in an urban side street setting, the wall was potentially a very inviting blank canvas. The approach to deterring probable defacement lay in the broken window theory. The design of the graphic is simple, clean and, ensuring the owners had enough surplus paint, easy to maintain.

The graphic has been designed to be part of the architecture, almost shadow-like, simple shapes referencing the curves and pitched roofs of the building.

AN URBAN FARM ON THE ROOF

Typically in high-density urban environments green open space is a rarity but at Helvetia we maximised all possibilities to create five gardens. From the landscaping at the front of the house, to the central atrium, the back garden, to the large balcony terrace off the main bedroom, and the sizeable vegetable garden over the carport at the rear of the block. The urban farm on the roof is practical and sculptural and brings, according to the owners “life and beauty to the heart of a very dull laneway.”

Barrel vaulted wire mesh keeps out the possums while allowing attachment for creepers and climbers. The cylindrical spiral staircase is enclosed in translucent polycarbonate to ensure the shed beneath is kept dry. In amongst all the mesh and bountiful produce it has the look of a sci-fi tube elevator.

The east facing balcony garden was existing, part of the 1960s renovation, and had held its charm. The original external staircase from balcony to back garden was replaced by a less intrusive spiral stair.  Curved steel mesh covers and encloses the terrace, a framework for deciduous creepers which will soon to cover the balcony, providing privacy and shading in the summer and eastern light in the winter.

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