How architects are transforming traditional terrace houses

The Bower House.

The Bower House. Photo: Peter Bennetts

From the ashes of the Great Fire of London in 1666 that wiped out 80 per cent of the city, a new type of house emerged. No, not charred and black; yet rather well done, if a little dark on the inside.

To ensure the disaster didn’t recur, the London Building Act of 1667 decreed that walls be constructed of brick or stone, solid party walls meet the roof, and no timber eaves project. The terrace house as we know it was born.

During the 19th century, variations rose in the new colonies. “Unlike the rather austere Georgian character of their British counterparts, Australian terraces were quickly amended by the addition of veranda to temper the harsh sun and heat,” writes architect Howard Tanner in a new book that examines how Australian architects have reimagined 20 terrace houses. These additions were often highly decorative cast iron or timber.

Inside the Skylight House.

Inside the Skylight House. Photo: John Gollings

Fire helped forge the terrace type, but a lack of internal light has always been the prime problem. Narrow allotments and heritage-listed facades present architects with further issues. Yet despite their history – and their fall from favour with the 20th-century embrace of the suburbs – terraces contain lessons for the design of contemporary neighbourhoods.

“The terrace house is an excellent model for compact and sustainable urban housing,” says the book’s co-editor, Cameron Bruhn.

Size and proximity to the city allowed many people to experience terraces during their share-house days. But grungy student housing is a world away from these light-filled homes with sleek joinery and indoor-outdoor spaces. Yet the inventive solutions to the terrace’s inherent problems have wider applications for maximising space and improving lighting.

Exterior of the Bower House.

Exterior of the Bower House. Photo: Peter Bennetts

“We liked the idea of creating a ‘source-book’ of ideas of how terrace houses have been reworked to suit the contemporary way of life in Australia,” says co-editor Katelin Butler. “Every house in the book has before and after plans to show the condition that the architects were working in. We’ve also included data on the terrace house – such as when it was originally built, the site and floor dimensions, number of occupants, number of bedrooms and bathrooms (before and after), and the cost of the renovation (per square metre).”

While terrace houses emerged in the inner-city suburbs of all of Australia’s major capitals, Bruhn and Butler’s coffee table book focuses on Sydney and Melbourne. Edwards Moore’s modest north Carlton terrace almost doubles in size with the use of a mezzanine. Dubbed the “light box”, the mezzanine floor is perforated to allow light to stream through from its other major feature, a transparent roof.

Mirrors help boost illumination in FMD Architects’ Cross Stitch house. An external mirror hides the shed while simultaneously increasing the illusion of space. (Another mirror below the central kitchen bench appears to make it float.) The mirror also accentuates a decorative feature, something most renovations eschew. A pergola provides the unifying structure inside and out while also forming a repetitive pattern. Its timber blades fan out to form a skylight over the kitchen living area. Meanwhile Andrew Simpson Architects blows up the typical terrace house feature of the decorative ceiling. A giant spiky pod hangs above the new kitchen addition.

Inside the Bower House.

Inside the Bower House. Photo: Peter Bennetts

Terrace house bedrooms were traditionally upstairs, but Chenchow Little invert this arrangement in the Skylight house, to maximise light and views for living spaces.

Two projects hark back to the terrace house’s share house roots, offering a solution to housing affordability – co-housing. The Balmain Houses by Benn and Penna Architecture, and House House by Andrew Maynard Architects, explore the idea of shared amenity. While the projects are designed for multi-generational living, the principles of moveable party walls can be applied elsewhere.

As with all the terrace house projects, says Butler, “this is a lesson in making smaller spaces work harder”.

The Terrace House, edited by Cameron Bruhn and Katelin Butler, published by Thames & Hudson, $70.