Curvaceous beauty

Issue 39 Words: Anna Cumming Photography: John Gollings
Kensington, Victoria
  • Though the small site doesn’t allow for an extensive garden, the shape of the house was carefully considered to leave space for a series of ‘pocket’ gardens all around it. Victoria has been busy crafting them into edible, native, flowering and shade gardens.
  • The True North House makes a curvaceous statement on its corner block. The heritage brick stables at the rear of the site were an important drawcard for Tim and Victoria in choosing this site as they were able to live onsite as they built their new home.
  • “Once you start, it’s hard to stop,” laughs Tim of the curves throughout. “I think of the upstairs rooms as ‘peas in a pod’, rounded capsules hanging there in space.” Bricks for the masonry walls were recycled from the dilapidated 1950s cottage that was on the site.
  • The front of the house is wide enough to accommodate a dining space and a sunken living room, with the front door in between. The double-height atrium in the centre of the downstairs space is a sunny play area for Victoria and Tim’s son.
  • LED lights normally come in clusters but after seeing single-LED lights inside a friend’s boat, for lighting Tim opted for adjustable one-watt LEDs in groups of three. Sold as jewellery cabinet lights, they were the smallest commercially available fittings he could find.
  • The 1880s stable building at the rear of the property was renovated into a one-bedroom townhouse. To keep costs down, the kitchen cabinetry is from Ikea, customised with CNC-cut plywood doors and drawer fronts designed by Tim.
  • Tim played with the basic wedge shape of the house’s footprint: “The form dips away from the northern boundary, making a sunlit garden. On the other side, the house was bent northwards away from the neighbour, improving sunlight penetration to their backyard.”

A creative response to the constraints of an awkwardly shaped site has resulted in an eye-catching curvilinear family home in inner Melbourne.

It’s easy to spot the True North House as you approach its small corner block in the inner Melbourne suburb of Kensington: visible from both streets, its sinuous double-storey form stands out from the heritage houses around it. Home to architect Tim Hill of Tandem Design Studio, his partner Victoria and their young son, the house is clad in a distinctive ‘pleated’ folded metal skin that emphasises its organic curved shape.

The house is placed in the centre of the 312 square metre block, and the facade is bowed in places to allow for a series of ‘pocket’ gardens on all sides. Inside, Tim has squeezed a kitchen, sunken living room and dining area plus a double-height atrium into the ground floor, and above, three pods containing bedrooms, bathroom and ensuite are accessed via stairs and a bridge. Curves are everywhere, from the custom-built brick island bench in the kitchen to the built-in dining furniture that’s reminiscent of a ship’s cabin.

Far from being a design conceit, the curves are a key part of Tim’s response to the challenging, wedge-shaped site. “The block is smaller than you think when you first look at it,” he explains. “There’s enough room for a traditional double-fronted house at the front, but only for one room at the back. A triangular footprint was the obvious solution, but acute corners are difficult to build and furnish, so I curved them off.”

The project involved a heritage renovation as well as a new build, as the block includes a heritage-listed 1880s brick stables at the rear. When their son was born, the couple were living nearby in the ‘Kensington Lighthouse’, designed by Tandem and featured in Sanctuary 11. “That house had the challenge of bringing in natural light despite a neighbour’s four-metre high wall to the north, and it was a very tight site. It was a great house for a couple, but not for young kids,” says Tim. For their next home, he wanted to do something quite different. Initially looking for a block they could subdivide, build on and sell one of the houses, the plan changed when they discovered the Kensington block. “It was really appealing architecturally, with its quirky geometry, the stables, its corner location that offers great north solar access, but on the other hand also gives a distinct urban quality – the site is open to observation from several sides.”

They started with the stables, which were in bad repair, the double brick walls in danger of falling into the street. Constructing an internal timber frame braced with structural ply, their builder attached the masonry to the new frame to stabilise it. The brick floor was lifted, a concrete slab poured and the bricks re-laid. The roofline was raised to convert what was a loft into a habitable upper floor. The building now boasts a living room and compact kitchen downstairs, with a bedroom and surprisingly generous bathroom above. A high window in the living area admits north light without compromising on privacy from the street; all other windows and doors are on the west, which means the little space does get hot on summer afternoons, despite the double glazing. Tim is contemplating removeable shade sails, or perhaps a pergola planted with a deciduous vine, to help with this. The family lived in the stables for a year and a half while their own house was built; now it provides a self-contained place to stay for family and friends.

The main house is also partly of recycled brick construction. Bricks were chosen to tie in with the stables and echo Kensington’s history as a brickmaking centre, and to provide thermal mass. The rest of the structure is a highly insulated composite steel and timber frame, with a concrete slab floor and a Colorbond roof. Inside, walls and ceiling are timber-lined for a warm, textural feel. But it’s the pleated steel cladding that makes the biggest impression. “We designed it and had it custom formed,” says Tim. “It’s a nice solution for wrapping up a curving building and it provides diagonal bracing.”

Victoria describes the design as a little like a mediaeval hall: “One big room downstairs, with segregated, private nooks upstairs.” She says that the reduced privacy that comes with living in an eye-catching house on a corner site has had its challenges. “But it’s also nice to have the connection with the neighbourhood. We have had so much goodwill from the community. There’s something about this house that provokes people to talk about themselves, to ask about the house and garden.” The gardens around the house have become her domain: “Every section of the garden is slightly different in microclimate. There’s a lot more planting to do – everything will grow up, and improve our privacy.”

Tim describes being inside the house as like looking out through a water drop, or hiding inside a musical instrument. “The constraints create the shape. When you’ve finished dealing with the constraints, that’s when the opportunities emerge and you can start doing the fun stuff.”

Renovated backyard stables
The stables take a different approach to the main house: the existing (and failing) double brick structure was preserved and a single, braced internal timber structure installed. Bricks were connected to it to prevent them falling into the street and a new cavity was created for insulation. The new timber structure was founded on a new concrete slab and ring beam, over which the existing brick floor was relaid. The roof structure was replaced and existing trusses were exposed. Existing shuttered openings were replaced with double-glazed units. Temperature control is via a reverse cycle air conditioner.

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Cover of Issue 39
You can read more about Curvaceous beauty in Issue 39 of Sanctuary magazine.

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TANDEM design studio

Owner-builder / Vizbuilt

Project type
New build (home), plus renovated 1880s stables (secondary dwelling)


House 182 m2
Stables 64 m2
Land 312 m2

Building star rating
7.3 Stars

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