This modest cottage in Carlton appears not dissimilar to others in the streetscape. Complete with wrought iron detailing and fence, it was rented out by the current owners for six years. “We weren’t planning on living here, but the family home (a three-storey Victorian in North Melbourne) had become too large for us since our daughters left home,” says Alex Abernethy, who lives in this house with his wife Margaret. “We didn’t want to be ‘rattling’ around in that house in our twilight years,” he adds.

The Abernethys didn’t have to search very far to find a suitable architect. One of their daughters is architect Karen Abernethy, who had spent the last 10 years living and working in Switzerland. “My parents had been looking for either a large unit or even a new townhouse for quite some time. But everything they saw wasn’t quite right. They also wanted outdoor space for Rita (the couple’s pampered standard poodle),” says Abernethy, who could see the potential of reworking the cottage for her parents’ next move.

Abernethy was more than familiar with the property having lived on and off in this house at certain times, in between travelling. She was also in tune with her parents’ requirements. “Margaret was the prime mover in this renovation,” says Alex, who could also see the possibilities of what a renovation could achieve.

A three-storey Victorian home is at the other end of the housing continuum to a Victorian worker’s cottage, the latter having a frontage of less than four metres. However, natural light can be achieved in both typologies and Abernethy has a history of creating light-filled interiors, even for her latest fit-out for Craft Victoria in Flinders Lane, located in a basement.

Although the 1890s cottage has a modest frontage, it benefits from having access to a laneway at the rear, as well as a rear garden (the total site being approximately 100 square metres). One of the problems, apart from the minor cosmetic changes made in the 1970s to the kitchen and bathroom, was the tapering of the living area, formally at the centre of the house, to just three metres. “You felt as though you were being ‘squeezed’ into a tunnel,” says Abernethy, who extended this bottleneck to the side boundary to create a sense of space.

While the original front two rooms of the cottage were retained, they have been completely reworked to suit the Abernethy’s way of life. Part of the front room, used as Margaret’s home office, was given over to the adjoining main bedroom and this slither of space now functions as the couple’s walk-in wardrobe. What was the formal living room is now a pint-sized courtyard garden/lightwell, with the remnant of the original brick fireplace still intact. And rather than the usual ensuite, there’s a Corian-lined bathroom across the passage. However, past the bathroom, almost everything else is entirely new.

“The problem with the previous arrangement was that the kitchen and bathroom had been tacked on to the back as a lean-to in the ‘70s. That meant there was very little connection to the garden from the living spaces,” says Abernethy. What was previously the living area is now the kitchen and dining room, loosely delineated from the lounge by a ‘floating’ staircase with Russian birch treads. The kitchen, simply finished with laminate joinery, is complemented with the home’s original concrete floors. Abernethy has established a signature using modest materials to maximum effect.

“I have a number of clients who have modest budgets. But I have always thought the quality of a space, the way the light falls and the feeling you have when you’re inside, is more important.” The kitchen and dining area, for example, features a dramatic pitch-shaped roof, reaching its zenith at over five metres. In contrast, the lounge area, used for watching television or simply relaxing, features a standard ceiling height, with exposed timber beams. “Having the two different scales side by side provides different experiences,” says Abernethy, who included two skylights above the kitchen/dining area.

The floating stairs, covered in a vine, leads to a mezzanine-style bedroom, complete with a breezeblock wall to provide ventilation during the warmer months of the year. Having glass windows in front allows the flow of air during the warmer weather. Although this hit-and-miss style of brickwork has recently become popular in Australia, Abernethy was using this technique while working in Switzerland. “There, you can often find this style of brickwork in old stables and in grain stores,” she adds.

As well as the mezzanine bedroom for guests (a moveable credenza allow the room to be screened from the dining/kitchen area), Abernethy included a separate home office and bedroom at the rear of the property, currently being used as her own office. Again, it’s a small footprint that has been cleverly designed to include an office, a separate bathroom and a mezzanine-style bedroom above. “I’ve been living with an artist for many years. One thing I learnt was that whether it’s contemporary jewellery or architecture, you really need to work on a design until you get it absolutely perfect,” says Abernethy.

Text by Stephen Crafti.


Karen Abernethy Architects can be contacted on 0439 318 387.

Lifestyle & Design

Be the first in the know

Receive the latest Kay & Burton property news delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe now No thanks!