Grand Design

This Grand Design Packs a Punch, But it’s Below Deck Where the Magic Really Happens


The expression “good things come in small packages” has perhaps never felt so apt for a new build as it does for this four-bedroom, two-office, four-bathroom home in Hawthorn, Melbourne.

As a passer-by, you would be forgiven for mistaking this abode for a pokey one-storey city dwelling, albeit with a very contemporary exterior. But you would be gravely mistaken. Behind the pocket-sized, stoic exterior of this metallic masterpiece unfolds a home of depth and detail, filled with space-enhancing sophistication that reveals itself slowly throughout the journey of the residence.

“The clients’ brief to the architect was that they wanted ‘a little, modern house’,” explains Fiona of Fiona Drago Architect, mastermind of the design. “They were planning to downsize from their large family home to a more compact house in a central location, which could be shared with their children as they became adults.” Translated into a living breathing home, this brief swiftly evolved to a call for ample space, light and lots of storage. No mean feat for a 189sqm block with a dilapidated skeleton.

The plot has some unique features of note. It’s located on the corner of a quiet street and a laneway and therefore sits comfortably on a site that is slightly wider than a standard terrace house. For Fiona’s team this provided the opportunity to design a double-fronted home and create a cool tandem arrangement tucked behind the double-fronted exterior. “The two masses are separated by a courtyard,” Fiona explains, “which allows natural light into the centre of the house and down to the basement.”

According to homeowner David, the house is “like an iceberg house on steroids”, which makes complete sense given how much space is hidden beneath the peak of this masterpiece. In the basement sits a spare bedroom, gym, wine cellar — capable of housing 1000 bottles of wine — office, bathroom and subterranean courtyard.

The basement allows its inhabitants to live in harmony with each other, with each person having their own space, something that was particularly relished during Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdown. “Everyone set up their office work areas,” says homeowner David. “It was amazing. We would come together in the kitchen/living area at night and for a change of scenery we would rug up and head to the rooftop for a cocktail.”

Inspiration for the new design came from what was already here, and it was also important for the new home to align with others on the street. “The design takes inspiration from the neighbouring terrace houses,” explains Fiona, “reflecting their single-storey scale and pitched roof forms. The house appears to be single-storey from the street. The zinc cladding and grey masonry blocks reflect the brick walls and metal roofs of the neighbouring homes, and their grey colour reflects the bluestone laneway. The zinc cladding wraps up the wall and over the roof, a simple gesture that highlights the building form of a typical terrace house.”

Creating this masterpiece did not come without its challenges, though. The previous home on the site had been gutted in a 1970s renovation, meaning original walls and structures were removed. When Fiona’s team got to it, it was totally dilapidated. Additionally, an unstable adjoining house was a serious cause for concern. “There was trepidation for us as owners and for Vivian, our neighbour who shares a boundary wall, during the excavation period,” explains David. “Vivian’s house was sitting on poor-quality 100-year-old lime mortar mix foundations. Everyone was fearful of Vivian’s house collapsing into the huge hole that ran along the adjoining boundary and the full length of her house.” Extensive underpinning tackled this problem, securing the neighbour’s property without catastrophe. 

And given the proximity of Vivian’s home, sound retention was also of utmost importance. “All the service rooms (bath, kitchen, laundry, stairways etc) are between the corridor and the neighbour’s wall,” explains Fiona, “while all the bedrooms and living areas are located on the laneway side to benefit from the available natural light”. The resulting grand design is magnificent in so many ways. It’s a truly well-considered masterpiece that faced a real challenge for space. But with some incredibly clever design strategies, and some seriously exceptional Tetris-like thinking, the space reveals itself both above and below deck.

“From the moment you open the front door and start walking through the house, you discover a series of light-filled spaces that are such a surprise considering the house looks like a single-storey terrace from the street,” concludes David. “The seamless connection from the main living area to the garden is also wonderful. Our son and daughter have their own zones within the house and they say that they won’t ever be moving out!” This house really is that good. 

This article originally appeared in Grand Designs #10.2