One of the more pressing questions we now face in Australia is, how can we continue to cope with ever-expanding CBDs? One of the coping mechanisms being implemented is the injection of higher-density living and additional commercial floor space. It's a balancing act, as each town often comes with its own long and proud history. But the task is made easier by the fact not many would argue against the necessity of those measures – least of all those living and working within those suburbs set up on transport nodes.

Planners and designers are deeply involved in the process. Not only are they creating the buildings and infrastructure which will ultimately define the character and useability of these cities, they’re also the ones mediating the damaging imbalances of the past.

A recent project in the Brisbane suburb of Spring Hill by local firm Shane Thompson Architects (STA) illustrates the architect’s dualistic role. STA have added new commercial floor space to the growing suburb that lies within eyeshot of Brisbane CBD. Surrounding the commercial floor space, they have created a building that attempts to remediate the impact of insensitive developments (i.e. those that overshadow and alienate the suburb from its history).

490 Boundary Street is a small site located in the centre of Spring Hill, immediately north of the CBD. The site is home to a new, integrated development that consists of a six-storey ‘mini tower’ and a ‘typical’ worker’s cottage – albeit one that has been extensively restored – on the Boundary Street frontage.

The worker’s cottage is a 19th century remnant in an otherwise densely-developed commercial, government and health precinct. As it is, the area is dominated by mid- to late-20th century institutional architecture, such as the gargantuan Department of Transport and Main Roads building – designed by Karl Langer in the 1960s – and the heritage-listed St. Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital.

While the scale of development of a site with an existing cottage was unprecedented, the STA sought and achieved exemption. In large part, the project’s success was due to its capacity to mediate between the original, intimate scale of Spring Hill and the bulky major urban developments that have sprung up recently throughout the precinct.

The worker’s cottage was lifted 800mm and repositioned to be closer to the street as well as to the centre of the property. This provided both consistency with the surrounding streetscape and additional space for the back-of-site development. Behind the cottage, a six-storey tower – comprising five office levels and three basement carpark levels – was added. The tower was then connected to the cottage by a new link (or ‘bridge’) building. Both bridge and tower are accessible via a contemporary insertion through the undercroft of the cottage; a feature that mediates between the new and existing components of the site.

The tower itself is discreet from the street. It was conceived by STA as a ‘soft’ intervention into the existing urban context, and its materials and façade pattern provide this.

A white concrete vertical service core and fire stairwell are located on the northern elevation behind the cottage, providing a blank canvas against which the heritage aspects of the development shine. The tower’s western and eastern elevations incorporate full-height glazing with green, frosted-glass spandrels at slab heights. Static aluminium louvres, arranged into the form of a variety of irregular rectangular boxes, have been fixed to the façades to deliver sun protection. They also provide a unique geometrical pattern for the building.

The Spring Hill development may represent an alternative model for increasing densities in the character suburbs of the inner-city. At least, where retention of existing fabric is critical.

All considered, the building’s materials and architectural detailing offer a distinctly sub-tropical character. These considered aspects successfully mediate between the fine grain of the traditional cottage and the larger grain of the commercial, institutional and apartment buildings nearby – a balancing act from which Shane Thompson came out on top.