Recent Work - Unit Development; North Perth


This schematic design stage work was undertaken for a North Perth site with a beautiful existing 1930's bungalow. The owner was interested in developing the site as an investment property, retaining either one or both of the units, with a view to rent them out. He was particularly interested in the idea of professional rentals and was keen to explore ideas which The Henry Project is passionate about: namely how to allow multiple households to live independently within the one dwelling, and increase their quality of life through the inclusion of comfortable shared spaces.

The starting point was getting a feel for the site, and developing an approach to retain its best features. This approach focused on three things:

  • The existing 1930's Bungalow: Whilst it would have been an easier proposition to demolish the existing residence (it was not heritage listed, and was in need of a quite a lot of rectification work) an early decision was made to retain as much of the existing residence as possible. It was filled with character and charm and worth retaining as part of the street frontage.

  • History + Story: A strong sense of the possibilities of Architecture as Story emerged in the early stages of this project. Standing in those grand old rooms, you could not help but sense the past life of the building - lives and memories have been played out here. The intention became to respect this history, by retaining parts of the existing building, allowing the layers that have built up over the years to show, and to consciously add something that was not dismissive of its presence. One of the images above is of a note that was pinned on one of the bedroom walls; it read: 'Merry Christmas Nana, from George.' I don't know where Nana or George are now, but I wanted to respect the stories that had been played out within these rooms, and allow space for new stories to form alongside them.

  • Detail: An undeniable richness and interest existed in the internal and external details. These detail were worth retaining in their own right, but also gave clues to the level of detail which could be emulated in the new build. The new build was envisaged in a contrasting, modern way, but with a richness and attention to detail that could sit comfortably against this old fabric.

With these ideas as a basis, there were two other aspects which directed this stage of work - the desire to find the right balance between private and common space, and adopting an alternative process to ensure financial viability was determined as quickly as possible.

Balancing Private and Common Space

The owner's brief was to design two separate units, with four to five bedrooms each. Flexibility was key to the design: the owner was keen to have the opportunity to rent out rooms separately if he wished, as well as retaining the option to sell a unit as a four or five bedroom house. The design process explored how to achieve this balance between common and private space for rental purposes, whilst still allowing for the possibility that the units could be sold at some stage in the future as self contained homes.

Rather than a subdivision into two titles, a built strata was proposed early in the design process. Parts of the existing house, facing the main road, were to be converted into common spaces, which included:

  • The front garden, to be used as a common vegetable garden

  • The large front verandah, to be used as a common sitting or entertaining space

  • The front room, to be used as a common room (in this instance envisaged to be a co-working space for professionals, but with flexibility for future uses)

  • The entry corridor, to be used as a common entry to each unit.

These common spaces were intentionally located facing the street, with the idea being that they would make the best use of the existing house, allowing as many people as possible to enjoy the quality of these old spaces. In addition to this, positioning the common areas adjacent to the street provided more opportunities for incidental interaction with neighbours: the common vegetable garden could invite participation from neighbours, and having the common room (co-working space) facing the street meant it would be easy to invite other people who were not residents into it.

The design of this front room also explored ways it could be modified over time, to absorb it into one of the units if needed for resale. It could be converted, with minimal effort, into a separate guest room, or into a bedroom as part of one of the units.

Financial Viability

The owner was understandably keen to determine the financial viability of the development as quickly as possible, without incurring too many costs. Testing the financial viability of the project hinged on the bank valuation of the proposed design, as it determined how much the owner would be able to borrow. In order to achieve a favourable bank valuation, two things were necessary:

  • A building contract which showed an offer to build the development for a specific contract sum, and the quality of proposed works. Working closely with sustainable builder Brendan Kelly from New Earth Living, we developed a much more advanced set of documents than is usually prepared for concept design. We worked closely together to refine the concept plans, and to develop a full interior and exterior material, fittings and fixtures schedule which he was confident he could build within the owner's budget. This was a detailed and involved process with lots of back and forwards: refining the materials used, the construction method and the internal fittings. This collaborative process prepared the owner and the builder to enter into a Design + Construct contract where both had confidence in the outcome. The builder was confident in the contract sum he had nominated, as he had the opportunity to have his input into all aspects of the proposed design. And the owner was confident he would be getting the level of finish that he was after, as it was clearly captured and expressed in detail, in the contract documents.

  • The other factor that was relevant to the valuation was achieving a house design which was comparable with similar properties in the area. The owner originally wanted to provide complete independence for each potential tenant: we allowed for a standardised ensuite and kitchenette unit adjacent to each bedroom. The main north facing living and dining areas, which opened onto rear north facing courtyards, became spaces where residents could come together when they chose. The following plan below shows this original concept.

However, as part of a thorough process, we engaged in conversations with a contact at Bendigo Bank, with an independent bank valuer, and with a real estate agent, to understand if this design would return the owner the valuation he was after. Whilst you might think that adding more amenities to a residence (eg, more ensuites) was an advantage, and would return a better bank valuation, this idea didn't hold up under examination. Bank valuations are undertaken by comparing recent sales in the area with the property in question, using these recent sales as a method of determining the value of the subject property. It is a very localised approach, and relies heavily on an existing precedent for the area. If there is nothing comparable in the surrounding market, it can actually return an unfavourable bank valuation: the bank and real estate premise being you have created a very specialised property, with a limited market, making it harder to find a buyer for. In this instance, there were no five bedroom/ five bathroom residences in the area, and the advice we received was that it was preferable to design something closer to a four bedroom/two bathroom layout. To achieve a reasonable compromise between the owner's needs and this system that governs bank valuations, we made some changes to the concept plans, by introducing shared bathrooms, eliminating the kitchenettes and altering some of the bedrooms to other uses.

Despite this thorough process and adaptability to meet market forces, a depressed housing market at the time meant the owners plans were thwarted: he came up only slightly short of the valuation he needed (only about 3% of the valuation price), but enough to convince him not to proceed with the development in this form.

This process shows exactly how difficult it is to do something that varies even slightly from the norm, when reliant on bank finance. It shows the importance of being aware of the market in the surrounding area. And it also shows the importance of demonstrating the financial viability of a project as soon as possible, without incurring extensive fees and holding costs on a property. At The Henry Project, I am very willing to use the expertise of traditional architectural processes and adapt them to our client's needs, to best serve their specific requirements. I welcome your enquiries if you are trying to achieve an 'out of the box' housing solution and would like to explore its viability as quickly and effectively as possible, through a thorough, rigorous and wholistic architectural process.

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