Slate House: an alternative to the overbearing clinical modernist box

Brighton is an affluent and distinctive Melbourne suburb, famous for its brightly-coloured bathing boxes. Houses here are mostly large, either contemporary modern builds, Victorian villas or Edwardian homesteads. New apartment buildings are typically monolithic, near identical off-white concrete structures (linear or boxy), with mild variations in landscaping. In designing Slate House The Where was paramount for Austin Maynard Architects. Recognising and appreciating the suburb’s long-standing and prevailing character led to a building that sits quietly within its context; sensitive to the size and scale of houses in the area, and to its direct neighbour Kardinia House, a heritage protected home of historic significance.

Slate House is sited on a T shape block, allowing for two frontages, each exhibiting a different identity. The main entrance on Bleazby Ave is pedestrian, befitting of the quiet and leafy cul-de-sac. The Male Street frontage, a busier and wider vehicle thoroughfare, incorporates the entry to basement parking, but has the appearance of a much more private residence, relative in scale to the larger homes along the street.

“We looked to Architecture that spoke of scale, texture and character to inform the design. We aimed for the building to appear domestic, small and loveable. The intention was a synthesis of the prevailing heritage character and domestic context, to show there was an alternative to the overbearing and clinical modernist box.” – Austin Maynard Architects

The design of Slate House is the careful articulation of built form to fit gently within the street character. To reference and respond to the context, an audit of buildings in the area was taken. Slate, terracotta, brick and white masonry were most prevalent. By utilising these three distinct materials in the construction of Slate House, the architects were able to break down a large building into smaller volumes. Forms reminiscent of the bathing boxes (little pitched roof houses), were wrapped in these contrasting materials and stepped back to reduce scale. Rather than appearing as one form that has landed, it poses questions of singular buildings.

Slate House is one apartment building arranged into three seperate blocks, connected by common entry walkways. The concept of dividing the larger form into three seperate elements ensure greater efficiency and resulted in light filled corridors with only three front doors on each level. Each block is articulated with slate cladding providing legibility and is continued internally to make the corridors feel like outdoor space. The materiality is simple, honest and beautiful. Natural raw materials, slate straight from the quarry, robust tiles, bricks and timber, free of coatings and toxic chemicals, that require minimal maintenance and will endure many life times.

Slate House is a high-end residential apartment building with interiors that are suitably sophisticated and refined. Rather than the expected white on beige on grey palette we opted for beautiful handcrafted architecture, hand-cut tiles, rich colours, textural finishes and natural sustainably-sourced materials. Dark navy bespoke joinery, fluted Tasmanian oak cladding, fluted glass and brass handles. Dramatic cabinetry and high ceilings and more subtle moments, such as the shelf beside the front door, perfect for a parcel or a plant. Every corridor has just three apartment doors, so no waiting forever for the lift. These common area, are glass filled at both ends with a continuation of the hand fixed slate tiles on the walls. It offers a sense of community without being overly dense, there is space and individuality.

In the context of apartment buildings within the Brighton area, Slate House pushes the sustainability envelope. One of the few, if not the only, fossil fuel free multi-residential building in Bayside, Slate House utilises the general principals of ESD. Attaining an overall NatHERS rating of 8.2, with a 7.7 star average per apartment (exceeding the 6 stars requirement, at time of construction) Slate House has a Melbourne Water STORM: rating 110% (again exceeding 100% requirement, at time of construction), and harvests or absorbing all the water that falls on the site. The design of Slate House draws on the forms and context of the local neighbourhood. In this way the building is sensitive to the future use of adjoining sites – the building does not detrimentally effect the current amenity of the neighbouring buildings or any future building proposed. This sets a precedent for other apartment buildings within the area.

The majority of the apartment’s heating and cooling is passive, through design, materials, and window size/placement. Living spaces are oriented to the north where possible, and utilise as many full height windows as possible, allowing the winter sun to passively heat internal spaces, thus reducing the reliance on the heating system. Operable window locations facilitate cross-flow ventilation as well as exhausting off air throughout the hotter months. All windows are double glazed and have a low-E coating.

Fixed awnings and screens are located on key windows to protect against the summer sun with vertical screens to the western face where the sun is lower in the sky and harsher. Ceiling fans are installed in the living area and bedrooms to provide efficient cooling during summer. High quality insulation, made using recycled glass, was also used throughout all internal walls, floors and ceilings: R2.7 in the walls and R6 in the roof.

High quality materials such as brick, concrete, aluminium framed windows, metal roofing and slate tiles were selected to construct a home that will last and reduce ongoing maintenance. Materials that have no applied coating and do not require re-painting at regular intervals. All joinery and flooring is E0 and low ZVOC paints and coatings are used internally. Carpets are 100% wool. Bricks salvaged from the existing house on the site were cleaned and re-used within the construction. Rainwater from all roof areas is harvested and directed to a 20k litre water tank (located under the slab of the basement), for toilet flushing and garden irrigation throughout the building.

A 14kW photovoltaic solar power system has been connected to supplement electricity use, with the capacity for future connection to storage batteries. The design utilises low-energy LED lighting throughout and low energy usage appliances. A centralised heat pump, heating and cooling system is installed for efficiency as well as a centralised heat pump hot water systems. There are no gas appliances within the building. Bike parking facilities are provided within the basement and a visitors bike rail is provided at the development entry.

Design and info © Austin Maynard Architects

Images © Tess Kelly

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