A Grand Victorian but with a sense of lightness - Armadale House by Neeson Murcutt Neille

This large Victorian home in a leafy street in the Melbourne suburb of Armadale has an elegance and grace. As with the neighbouring homes, all built around the same time (late 19th century), traffic tends to slow down when passing. For the architects, Neeson Murcutt Neille, the house provided an opportunity to create a sense of lightness within its substantial brick walls.

While the Sydney-based practice was given a substantial home to work with, it felt there was no need to add much more to its footprint, creating a mere seven square metres of additional floorspace in the process. “The main problem was the home had been added to in the 1990s, with little thought about the garden or how the house connected to it,” says architect Stephen Neille, a director of the practice, who worked closely with landscape architect Fiona Brockhoff.

Fortunately, the original part of the four-bedroom house had been left fairly intact, complete with open fireplaces, wide skirting boards, decorative plaster ceilings and original leadlight windows. And while the original timber staircase remained, it literally took over the main passage. “It felt quite heavy and it also created a barrier to seeing through to the back garden,” says Neille, who replaced the turned timber staircase with an ethereal white powder-coated steel design – complete with open treads and turns that have a considerably lighter feel.

One of the strategic moves made by Neeson Murcutt Neille was the removal of the ‘90s wing (orientated to the north-east) and replacing this with a considerably lighter and more transparent brick and glass pavilion. Cantilevered steel ‘hoods’ on the wing’s northern elevation offer protection from the sunlight, while at the same time frame the kitchen garden that’s now been established. And on the east, there are large floor-to-ceiling glass doors and windows, with some of these frames constructed in timber and others in steel. “This idea was conceived by looking at the fusion of the past with the present – the thickness of the Victorian walls with the finer frames referencing a lighter and more contemporary side to the way people choose to live today,” says Neille, whose practice received an architecture award from the Australian Institute of Architects (Victorian Chapter) for its endeavours.

Designed for a professional couple who have three children, two who have already left home, the brief to the architects was to create a place where they could regularly return as well as having friends over. So, it was paramount that rather than creating two homes, one being more formal (Victorian) and the new wing more casual, the two would feel as one. Whether it’s enjoying a game of billiards in what was formerly the dining room, or gravitating to the new lounge that’s slightly elevated above the kitchen and dining area, the spaces feel warm and inviting rather than sterile or precious. “We elevated the new living area to create a sense of intimacy – given the home’s original lofty ceilings.”

Like the home’s façade painted in pristine white, the interior is neutral with white walls and timber floors. There’s just enough detail in the contemporary additions that make one look twice rather than feel like a heavy-handed addition just for the purpose of making an architectural statement. “We are obviously inspired by the Finnish/Scandinavian aesthetic, with the work of architects such as Alvar Aalto and Gunnar Asplund. But the renovation was driven by making rooms and spaces that the family would enjoy using, as much as responding to the garden rather than, as before, turning its back on it,” adds Neille.

Find out more about Neeson Murcutt Neille on their website or Instagram. Words by Stephen Crafti. Photography by Tom Ross.