Fitzroy North House by Figureground Architecture

In generations to come, I wonder what anthropologists might glean about our shifting domestic mores from the way that we reconfigure heritage houses. Opening and extending them to welcome more light and air; building in flexibility for varied use, such as work or study; and – common in Victorian terrace renovations – shifting living and dining activities away from grandly scaled formal rooms into more relaxed spaces, typically oriented away from the street.

That’s not to suggest, of course, that there is a formula for a good terrace renovation. Indeed, most navigate a complex array of parameters imposed by planning regulations, overlooking neighbours and limited space, not to mention the challenges of refreshing century-old buildings for modern life. There is plenty for future anthropologists to mull over.

This alteration and addition by Melbourne-based practice Figureground is a very good exemplar. At the outset, architect Matt Rawlins was presented with an unrenovated double-storey Victorian terrace. Like its neighbours in the leafy streets of Fitzroy North in inner Melbourne, the house had much to recommend it – an original dwelling in good condition, east–west orientation, and a block long enough to do something interesting at the rear.

The brief was to maximize space and functionality for the four people – a couple with two children – who would eventually occupy it. To this end, Matt devised a three-part strategy.

The first manoeuvre was to replace the existing lean-to structure at the rear with a full-width extension housing a new laundry and powder room, a galley-style kitchen and an open-plan living and dining area. Low and pavilion-like, it is a light and bright space, rich in tactile surfaces.

The transition from the original house to the dwelling is marked by a joinery-lined vestibule. The door to the laundry and powder room is discreetly concealed within the cabinetry, and the storage on the northern boundary wall angles subtly to funnel guests into the open-plan space beyond.

The kitchen is petite and highly functional. Sage-coloured 2-pac overhead cabinets are paired with a marble splashback and benchtop, while the fridge is housed in a joinery-wrapped column that also conceals culinary detritus from the living room beyond. A timber joinery unit along the northern boundary wall houses a foldaway breakfast station – another neat gesture to manage kitchen clutter in a busy household.

With a strong background in hospitality design, Matt recognized that a freestanding dining table surrounded by chairs was not the best solution for the compact space. Instead, he installed an upholstered banquette along the northern wall, paired with Thonet dining chairs on the opposite side.

The utility offered by in-built furniture continues in the living zone, too – an east-facing daybed captures morning sun through a large, pivoting window alongside a low, marble-topped plinth that stretches the length of the southern wall, displaying family artefacts and a much-loved record player.

The architect’s material choices bring a sense of craft and tactility to the interiors. Eschewing plasterboard, the ceilings are finished in pine lining boards, and the walls combine subtle ivory-hued brickwork and American oak wall panelling. This commitment to fine detailing ensures that every element contributes to a rich and thoughtfully resolved whole.

Beyond the living and dining zone, the second part of the strategy comes into play. Matt envisaged the lush courtyard garden as more than just an exterior space; instead, it was designed to act as another room, intimately connected to the house proper and available for everyday use. The space is divided into two – one half is paved while the other has grass underfoot. Low-maintenance shrubs add texture to the southern boundary, while brick walls and timber battens extend the architectural language of the house into the exterior.

The final part of the strategy to maximize the house’s space was bookending the courtyard garden with a compact standalone building on the site’s eastern boundary. It houses a workshop on one side and a music studio on the other – one of the clients is a musician who still finds time to record at home.

For acoustic control, the music studio’s interior is encased in perforated plasterboard, and a pair of cavity-sliding doors limits sound outside. During pandemic times, the studio has been requisitioned as a home office, but I’m sure the family is keen to return it to its intended use as soon as is practicable.

Figureground’s focus on craft is evident in this structure’s exterior, too. Where a secondary building like this may end up blocky and purely functional, here it is graced with a distinctive roof form that rises above the brick and timber-batten exterior, effectively blocking sight lines from the house’s eastern neighbour.

Matt says that what has surprised him most in the completed house is its sense of calm – which is a little unexpected in a family home occupied by two young children. Perhaps it’s the product of the rigorous planning that shapes every volume, the assiduous detailing that squeezes value from every element, and the lush courtyard garden that brings serenity and greenery into the heart of the home. In this house, everything has its place.