Rough brickwork and a Dutch-gabled facade are all that remain of the original brick cottage, which has now been redesigned and extended into a playful multi-level home for a family of five.

Located in Brunswick, Melbourne, Union House is a four-bedroom, three-bathroom family house with a study, a basement rumpus room, a roof deck and a carport. Owners Heidi and Craig approached Austin Maynard Architects when they outgrew the original cottage and found the place was not practical for their needs. Given their attachment to the property, they decided to work with an architect to design a robust family home where they could live forever.

“Attached as we were to the place, rather than sell up and move elsewhere, we decided to engage the services of an architect who understood the challenges of building in the inner city, with limited space, restricted access and proximity of neighbouring residences,” the couple said.

Though there were no heritage overlays or council requirement, the Dutch gable facade was retained as a piece of the home’s former life.

“Demolishing a building and erasing history is far too easy. Union House is a place of memory, a home the family had lived in for years,” the architects said.

Built on a narrow 5.5-metre site, the new house has a vertically stacked design.

“Union is an example of people literally living on top of each other, and making that part of the joy of the house, rather than a problem. The house engages with the occupants in fun and dynamic ways. Despite being narrow and stacked, the home never feels cramped as spaces are designed to merge into others in various and sometimes surprising configurations,” the architects explained.

The design uses height, sliding walls, voids and openings so that the volume of the rooms is fluid and flexible. Instead of the standard house layout, there are split levels, ramps, hidden slopes, concealed steps and bookcase walls that split apart.

Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) used throughout the house on walls, floors, stairs, ceilings and doors, are left exposed, unifying the interior spaces. A black steel staircase with partially perforated treads winds up the four levels through the centre of the house. Since the family sought an alternative plan to move between the levels from the basement to the roof without using the stairs, the architects integrated a ramp, a glazed trap door, and a series of climbing holds and nets, which could be used to clamber up and down walls. While considered an unconventional way to navigate the different levels of the home, this was a wonderfully creative idea to keep the energetic boys engaged.

The living, dining and kitchen space has an open plan design and includes an outside escape route for the family’s two Siamese cats. Glass floor panels allow sunlight to stream directly into the rumpus room in the basement, which can also be accessed via a steep ‘slide’.

Playful features aside, the house has been designed with clear sustainability objectives. Carbon sequestering CLT was used not only to reduce time and labour on site, but also for the material’s performance and environmental sustainability. A green roof above the bedrooms improves thermal performance while a concrete slab adds thermal mass at ground level. Recycled red bricks on the paving outside are a nod to the property’s history.

“Light streams into the top of the central stairwell, down two storeys into the centre of the house through perforated steel, netting and voids. Thoughtful design features confer fluidity and flexibility. There are spaces to be shared and spaces for seclusion; there are levels that are split, transparent and modular; there are features that are dramatic and playful,” the owners said.

“We now live in a harmonious space with real utility, coordinating our work, study and leisure activities; everything functions even better than we expected. Mostly though, as many have pointed out to us, although radically transformed, this is a house that still possesses the essential character of our first Melbourne home,” they added.

Photo credit: Derek Swalwell