Winner - HIA 2018 Project of the year for Empire House
“Our new living space improves our wellbeing beyond anything we had imagined.” Lindy, owner of Empire house
Against the current Australian trend - to build large, fast and cheaply, Empire Canberra is a relatively small, hand-crafted home. Located on a beautiful, wide, tree-lined street, in a culturally significant and important part of the capital, Empire is unapologetic in its architectural detail and craftsmanship, as this is what the area deserved.
Canberra is home to some of the best examples of post-war and modernist architecture in Australia. Empire house is located in a culturally significant and important area of the city, on a ring-road that forms part of architect Walter Burley Griffin’s masterplan. The houses here are a product of an aspirational time in Australia. As architects we felt an incredible sense of responsibility to protect and preserve the original modest cottage, rather than following the trend of demolishing Canberra cottages and replacing with large mcmansions.
The owners of Empire Canberra are well-travelled professionals with fantastic and diverse taste. They had previously commissioned acclaimed architect Enrico Taglietti (an Institute Gold Medalist) on a project in the 1990s. Like us they are ‘lefties’. It was our polemic project, the Styx Valley Protest Shelter - a literal platform for environmental activists, that led them to contact the Austin Maynard Architects office. They owned a modest, inter-war style bungalow in an amazing location and wanted it to become their permanent base. They asked us for “a longterm family home that catches the sun.” The result was two added pavilions, sympathetic to the existing post-war house, but distinctly contemporary in detail.
AN EXERCISE IN RESTRAINT
Empire House is an exercise in considered intervention and restraint. It would have been easier, and a lot less fun, to knock down the existing cottage and start again. The two new pavilions sit comfortably adjacent to the existing house and place the inhabitants in a beautiful, established garden that is characteristic of this Canberra suburb. The aim was to retain as much of the existing character of the site as possible and avoid the common trend of knocking down or adding a dominant and unsympathetic addition. The two biggest issues were - how do we have a conversation with the original building without attacking it or infecting it? And how do we create sunny spaces when the steep site levels and orientation of the house overshadows much of the garden.
The answer was to go in with a scalpel, making some big moves, without damaging too much. We cleared the site lines and created a corridor straight through the house, allowing still spaces and activity zones. We opened up to the outdoors and celebrated the exterior, giving clarity and creating a discussion between the old and the new.
A TALE OF TWO PAVILIONS
The house was in fairly good condition overall, though the kitchen, laundry and bathrooms were oddly positioned and in poor state. The original hearth and fireplace in the living room had a great feel and were retained, along with the light fittings, windows, timber picture rail and skirting. The kitchen was relocated and seperate living and sleeping zones, or pavilions, were constructed.
The new living addition is a pavilion in the garden that maximises passive solar gain, connected to the existing house via a corridor ‘link’. A large north facing roof window spans across the pavilion, and is protected by operable louvres. The master bedroom pavilion is a similar approach of addition accessed via a link. This pavilion is visible from the street, so it was important to respect the character of the existing house, but create a distinctly contemporary piece of architecture. The white shingle form rests on a datum of red brick, responding to the materiality of the existing house.
The craftsmanship of the white metal shingles, each one hand-finished and hand fixed with mathematical precision, is the distinguishing feature of Empire House. The material creates a relationship, a language and a discussion between the two eras, while making it incredibly transparent where the old and new elements meet.
Preferred Builders took great care in executing very refined details - particularly the concealed box gutter and the oversized shingle ridge capping. The detailing of materials externally are reflected internally, as the builders approached the inside with the same skill and care - most evident in the Blackbutt timber lining.
Cars are always a massive issue - typically visually dominant and taking up valuable living space. In light of an automated future on the horizon, which will radically reduce car ownership, it make obvious sense to have other uses for a garage or carport. The car port at Empire House serves as an outdoor space to inhabit by humans, rather than a space entirely dedicated to a machine.
Canberra has more defined and extreme seasonal climes than other Australian cities. It’s a lot colder in winter here, so there was a lot of emphasis on insulation, thermal mass and thermally broken windows. Throughout the colder months the sun streams in through the north facing window, heating the concrete slab which continues to warm well into the night.
The large garden increases the permeability of the site and also radically reduces heat sink in the area. Passive solar principals are maximised by the design.
All new work aims to maximise available daylight and optimise passive solar gain in winter, while ensuring that summer sun does not hit the glass. All windows are double-glazed. With active management of shade and passive ventilation, demands on mechanical heating and cooling are drastically reduced. A large water tank has been buried within the garden. All roof water is captured and reused to flush toilets and water the garden. Where possible Austin Maynard Architects have sourced local trades, materials and fittings. Solar panels with micro-inverters cover the old roof.
The real sustainability of Empire comes from saving and working with the original build. Knocking down and replacing with an 8 star building will never be as sustainable as retaining and re-using.
Andrew Maynard, Mark Austin, Ray Dinh
House area: 233m2
Total site area 941m2