In one of his first solo projects, Brisbane born and bred architect Sandy Cavill took on a commission from the most exacting of clients: his own parents. Now retired, they divide their time between the beach and this home on Gibbon Street, in the leafy suburb of New Farm. Much more than a straight conversion, the renovation required an understanding of the city’s unique subtropical climate and the context of an ever-changing Australian suburban vernacular.
Thankfully Cavill had cut his teeth at renowned Brisbane architecture firms Donovan Hill and Richards and Spence. Here he learnt from architects known for seminal buildings that ward off Brisbane’s heat and promote an inner breeziness, while remaining easy on the eye. “I took away an interest in working on projects that have a real impact on the city and a certain civic-mindedness,” says Cavill.
Cavill, who is just 32, applied these skills to the renovation and extension of his parents’ prewar wooden worker’s cottage, a vernacular common to Brisbane. The particular housing stock on Gibbon Street had been occupied by postwar Italian immigrants who had set about adapting the wooden cottages to their own tastes. Their DIY efforts often involved covering the timber homes in concrete render and bricking up the lower part of the houses, which were originally built on stilts for ventilation and protection from the elements. These efforts to “Mediterraneanise” the houses have been derided in Brisbane, so when the opportunity arose to work on his parents’ house, Cavill decided that he would take his cue from these homespun upgrades. “We looked at the building next door and thought, ‘Why don’t we have a go at legitimising this process, and extending this Mediterraneanised architecture, and do it in a really considered way,’” he says.
The language of these upgrades is referenced directly in Cavill’s renovation: he added an extension of wood and concrete at the back of the house, replicating the rough-to-the-touch concrete render of the neighbouring homes while taking care to make the transition between the cottage and the extension as fluid as possible.
“The timber in the new portion of the building – native tallowwood and New Guinea rosewood – is intended to be expressive in nature, akin to the materiality and detailing of the original timber cottage,” says Cavill. The floorboards that couldn’t be saved in the cottage were used to create the texture of the new concrete ceiling, linking the heritage building to the modern addition.
The extension was conceived as a sort of ruin emerging from the tropical landscape, says Cavill, with walls often left looking jagged and incomplete, and plant tendrils snaking up walls and hanging down from the ceiling. “The overall effect is that the walls appear to have been appropriated from a former life,” adds the architect. The expansive sliding doors of the extension open it up to the elements, while an internal courtyard creates extra breathing space without sacrificing privacy. Here the sunlight bounces off the roughly rendered white walls, filling the space with dappled light that’s filtered through the courtyard’s crepe myrtle tree.
But the crowning glory here is the flat roof, planted with colourful shrubbery, which replaces the extra bit of outdoor living space that was lost to the extension. “It is like a podium for the landscape,” says Cavill. “The intent is that nature will eventually engulf it. And most of the external timber is unprotected so that its age and patina will enable the building to recede further into the vegetation.”
The home might seem a picture of simplicity but it is the finer details, such as a brass stand that supports a marble sink, that elevate it into the sphere of high-end design. A pre-renovation trip to Italy took Cavill to the projects of Venetian modernist architect Carlo Scarpa, whose graceful forms the young architect greatly admires. Scarpa, who built with timber, concrete and glass, was famed for his reanimations of antiquated public buildings, where he purposefully juxtaposed the old with his own modern interventions.
While thinking about his parents’ project, Cavill wanted to imbue the Gibbon Street home with the same sense of timelessness he experienced while looking at Scarpa’s creations. “With Scarpa’s architecture the outside world becomes erased and you’re left with a very introverted sense of tranquility. I tried to create this effect at Gibbon Street,” says Cavill. “You tend to forget about your agenda. When visiting I almost always end up staying for longer than I had anticipated and this is something that many other visitors have commented on too.”
Despite being sandwiched in a row of cottages, the project succeeds in creating a sense of sanctuary as the concrete walls’ shapely recesses face skywards, while most windows point to the privacy of the back garden. Luckily for Cavill his parents were very trusting clients. “I think it was clear that they were really excited about the house as it came to life. Most residential clients feel the need to be familiar with every design detail before they are comfortable that it should be built that way,” says the architect. “Of course, we had a brief and they were kept abreast of our progress throughout, they simply chose not to impose their own ideas. In the end the house exceeded anything they could have imagined."