The same is true of contemporary architecture as it is of many other creative industries operating in the current climate: there’s an increasing risk of it turning into a production line. Which is one of the reasons Julie Firkin was driven to create her own practice.
After studying at the University of Melbourne and at the prestigious Harvard University, Firkin came back to Australia and found herself following a not-uncommon path. Her success in both study and overseas work landed her positions in some of the larger firms in Melbourne, working on correspondingly large projects.
In 2009, a decision was made to start JFA – an eponymous acronym for Julie Firkin Architects – so that she could take her time with projects.
“[Since I left big practice] I’ve just been doing residential work,” Firkin explains of her transition. “I really like the idea of passive solar design – in homes especially – so that’s always an important part of my design. I also just like being able to have the time and opportunity to spend enough time on the design, so you’re not always rushing through and doing something that just good enough. [In my own practice] I can take the time to do something [I’m] really happy with.”
JFA’s Fenwick House project is an example of this undercurrent of slow, thoughtful and sustainable architecture. The residential extension in Melbourne underwent what Firkin describes as “quite a long design process with the client, who had a lot of ideas”. This bouncing off of one another was welcomed by Firkin, who took the time to come up with three separate options for the (then) family of three: a low-budget, one-storey option; another “much more extensive” option; and an option in the middle ground. In the end, it was this latter that won out.
The resulting addition takes into account the two overarching practical concerns that framed the design: the irregular geometric shape and the block, and the need for a house that could accommodate a growing family. (When Firkin started the project, her clients had one child; now, they have four.)
The starting point for the project was to take the “fairly typical Edwardian cottage with a bad 1970s renovation” that was existing, knock the renovation off while keeping the original, and then to add something “quite contemporary” at the back. Aside from the fact that the oddly shaped block required it, the clients were actively interested in playing with the form of the new addition.
“They didn’t want a boring rectilinear box,” says Firkin. “They were actively looking for something geometric.”
Fenwick House – in the sense of the addition – is a clean break from the old style, while still communicating with it through several subtle visual connections, such as the rear window that “punches up” from the old cottage to look through to the new part of the house.
In her practice, Firkin says she is “attracted to those kinds of buildings that are quite sustainable”, and Fenwick House is no exception. The façade of the new addition is clad in PEFC-certified timber and insulated timber framing, making the building quite thermally efficient. Inside, thermal mass was achieved with the insertion of a concrete floor at the rear.
“A lot of the form generated was trying to get an overhanging upper volume that allowed you to have a lot of glazing downstairs, so that in winter the sun will enter the house and warm up the concrete floor,” says Firkin. “In summer, the overhanging roof and the upper floor creates shade and keeps it cool. The kitchen and dining spaces face north onto the little garden, and that’s the area that has the extensive glazing.
The interior scheme is a continuation of the exterior, in the sense that a similar palette of natural, sustainable and “budget-friendly” materials are used: “concrete and timber and granite in the kitchen, with quite a lot of white that acts as a foil for the natural character of the other materials”.
To offset the neutral-dominated colour scheme of the home and to inject “a dose of colour and liveliness”, Firkin worked with the client to incorporate various artworks and custom-made design insertions.
“The client’s brother is a sculptor, and he had the windows made upstairs with coloured glass. There’s also a splashback by a local artist, Ellie Malin, and we used coloured glass elsewhere and coloured tiles, so there’s a dose of colour and liveliness,” says Firkin. “It’s very homely and cheerful.”