I have been mentally terming this post as "the box on the back of the house", because when thinking about what exactly constitutes a typical Modern Australian house renovation, that is what springs to mind. The typical Australian house has evolved over the past 40 years to really embrace casual entertaining and outdoor living. I'm not sure that there is anywhere else in the world that has so wholeheartedly changed their style of living so comprehensively in such a short period of time. A key feature of a modern extension or house in Australia is the open plan Kitchen/ Living/ Dining, located at the rear of the house with easy access and view of the back garden, some sort of outdoor entertaining area (often now with a built in outdoor kitchen BBQ area), and if you're lucky, a pool, as shown in the image above. Conversely, this has meant that less and less emphasis is placed on the traditional Formal rooms that are located toward the front of a house. In many houses, this has been done away with altogether, with the rooms changed to bedrooms (such as in the case of a small inner city cottage), or reduced down to just a single formal room or study/ library. Most often the formal dining room is not felt as being necessary. Australians tend to entertain casually, and the modern extension is a definite reflection of this.
The modern extension has also evolved into a statement of slick modernity though, rather than a retrospective heritage style as in the past. In line with current Architectural Heritage theory, Australian Heritage advisors and planning officers prefer a clear distinction between old and new. If you have an old house, the last thing the Heritage Architect will want to see is a faithful rendition of your homes original features in your new extension. Preferably, they like it to be a very modern contrast.
Front of house via
Back of house via
If you've ever watched "Grand Designs" on TV, you'll see that Kevin McCloud spends a lot of time talking about this topic. The extension that we've done to our house is what is considered a complimentary extension - it references the old front of the house (keeping the pitched roof, veranda elements), but still remains distinct from the old by not using the same stone wall material or sash window style, and by stripping back the detailing (so no cast iron lace on the veranda for instance). It was interesting that when I had one of the (many) pre-development application meetings with my local Council's Heritage Advisor, she stated she would have liked it to be a lot more 'modern' than it is, such as those above and below, but that it was distinct enough that it was fine to go ahead.
So now that I've put all of that into context, I'm going to tackle the fact that many people end up with a box on the back of their house. Some are done very well, some are very high spec, beautifully detailed and quite stunning contrasts with an old house. Others are... well... lacklustre.
So if you're looking at doing a modern extension to an older house, here are some ways of making a basic box a little more interesting, tricks that Architects frequently employ to create interest and manipulate space.
The Sunken Lounge of the 60's and 70's is actually still a very good example of this. Split levels work to break up and designate space into its function. In our extension we have a level change to the children's playroom, and this works well in separating their domain from the living area (this level change was purely due to function, as Mr AV's study is underneath, so it gave extra ceiling height in there).
But a level change can be in both directions - the other way to manipulate space is to change the ceiling heigh in different areas. There is no reason why you can't lower a section of the ceiling at some point to change the emphasis on a space (this could easily accommodate services, such as ducted air conditioning and is shown well in the last image in this post). In the first image above, there is a creation of a kitchen zone by stepping down the kitchen floor. The dining table pushed against the step is therefore at kitchen bench height. This is a very small house, in Albert Park- Melbourne, so a clever bit of spacial manipulation adds practical kitchen bench space, and breaks up the kitchen from the living area. The second image (from a different house) shows steps up to a small library space which separates it from the main open plan living area, creating a more intimate feel. In the house below, the double sided fireplace sits between the dining and living area acting as a focal anchor point, and also to divide up the functional aspects of the space. The steps down to the lounge area further emphasise this by creating a different spacial experience from the dining with the extra ceiling height this achieves.
Clear traffic pathways
Always have a furniture layout done before you start construction. Mentally walk through it thinking of the traffic paths - how people will walk to the back door (indeed, what will be your back door if you have a wall of glass french doors for instance), how people will use the living zone. You do not want a major traffic path to go through a seating area - it will always feel transitional. A living area with sofas should be an end point in the traffic pathways. Mentally take the rubbish out of the kitchen to where you will keep your bins outside. This sounds obvious, but if you place your living zone as the main thoroughfare through to the back door, it never feels restful. In the image below the traffic path has additionally been defined by the black slate path in the flooring.
The worse thing you can do is to make a space and then think you'll sort out where everything goes once its built. That's how you end up with everyone on a sofa facing a wall looking at a big screen TV, with the view behind them. When I was designing our back room, I had what I thought of as a 'viewing point'. It was what you'd see as you walked from the hall into the new extension and looked left and right.
You need something to draw the eye to - in our case the end focal point is the fireplace in the living area, which is an obvious and time honoured design device (and in times past, a purely practical one). I have mentioned before that Architects and Interior Designers generally don't like a focal point to be a giant TV screen, and this is because when it is off it is a big, black void on a (usually) white wall. If you're not going to have a fireplace (and in some climates this is not remotely practical) an anchor point of a large and special piece of furniture (and you could conceal a TV in this if it is a high armoire with doors, or has a mechanical pop up mechanism for something lower), artwork, wall of bookcases or something similar will do the same trick.
Natural and Artificial Light
Ideally, you want natural light coming from multiple directions. As the sun moves through the day, if you have a single wall with all your windows on it, you'll miss out on a lot of the direct sunlight throughout the day. Light coming from two or more directions adds a lot to the experience of a room - you'll get a play of shadow and light that moves around through the space through the day. You can do this with clerestory (highlight) windows, or from skylights (the ones where you can see the actual sky) if you can't fit windows on another wall due to the constraints of your site. I think the most obvious temptation currently done in modern living areas is to have a wall of bifold or sliding/french doors. I suppose the rational is that you want to maximise the connection to the outdoors, and maximise light as well. But framing a view with a window can be much more visually interesting in a space, and can also help to delineate spaces within a standard rectangle. The window seat below is a good example of this.
Regarding artificial light, a feature pendant light/ chandelier is a great way of separating zones in an open plan living area. Dining tables are ideal for this treatment by having a large pendant light fitting of some sort. They should be hung lower than a normal light fitting to create a sense of intimacy - if the light fitting base is about 90- 120cm higher than the top of the table it should look about right. If you have incredibly high ceilings you may need to raise it higher than that. The image below shows a large pendant light fitting anchoring a seating area. Without it the seating area would be 'floating' in the middle of the room.
Playing with scale
Overscaling things can be a great way of creating visual interest in a space. To emphasise space, you need to create a feeling of height. Going taller than standard off the shelf glass doors or windows will give a much more interesting, less builder -spec feel than the standard sliding doors or windows will. The image below shows how they go almost to the top of the high ceilings, which looks a lot more dramatic than if they had a meter of wall above them. Similarly, I will always make overhead cupboards in a kitchen much taller than the "normal" height overhead cupboards. It just doesn't look good to have a very large gap between your kitchen overhead cupboard and ceiling, and this also holds true for bifold/ sliding/ french doors.
You of course do not need to do a rectangular or square box shape for an extension, but this does seem to be the default. A lot of time people think that it is better to have the largest space they can possibly fit, so rather than making an extension L shaped, for instance, they'll just make it a giant rectangle instead. But funnily enough this doesn't always make a room seem spacious. Dividing up an open plan area into different shaped zones will definitely give interest to a space, and help it to work better without having to resort to spectacular Architectural trickery to do the same thing. The house below shows a dining and kitchen area in the same plane, with the seating area coming off the kitchen. The kitchen has a lowered ceiling height to differentiate it from the adjacent spaces, and the focal point of a stone fireplace anchors the seating area.
There is a book that is recommended reading for all Architecture and Town Planning students at University, and it's called "A Pattern Language". It was written in the 60's and is essentially a study of what makes a room/ a house/ a street/ a suburb and a city a good place to live. It's fascinating how accurate all of it is, if you reflect on the different places you've lived or rooms you've experienced in your life and consider that what has made them feel "special" or what has worked functionally it's usually exactly as described in the book . If you're looking to buy or build a new house from scratch, reading this will give you a lot of ideas about how to make a home seem welcoming, function well, and ultimately a wonderful place to live in, regardless of your budget. In the end throwing money at a house, or building something to be the biggest you can with your budget does not necessarily mean that it is successful or special or a great place to live in. It's about manipulating space, light and functional aspects to create something special.
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