Single-fronted terrace houses pack a punch

Most inner-city suburbs have them. Often in a row, but sometimes free-standing.  They are that 19th-century architectural gem, the single-fronted terrace.

In brick or timber, with verandahs trimmed in decorative cast iron, terrace houses are as much a part of Melbourne as hot Christmas dinners and the Boxing Day Test.

From Carlton to Brunswick, Fitzroy, Richmond, Hawthorn, Malvern, Armadale and South Yarra, terraces are being transformed into glamorous, low-maintenance homes that pack a mighty punch behind their narrow frontages.

Soaring architect-designed extensions, interiors by Melbourne’s top designers,  marble and stone finishes, oak parquetry, and en suites are all part of the new terrace package.

Despite modest facades, many have staggering interiors with cutting-edge design and spaces that have to be seen to be believed.

In Brunswick, an unrenovated single-fronted terrace costs upwards of $700,000.  In Fitzroy, a rebuilt single-fronter will set you back at least $1.3 million, says Arch Staver, director of Nelson Alexander.

Single-fronted terraces with a well-executed renovation in Malvern or Armadale are incredibly popular, according to Marshall White director Justin Long.

“They are seen as a good, low-maintenance, ready-to-go proposition retaining a lot of the charm of the inner city,” he says. “People are looking for a seamless blend of contemporary and older style with quality design and fixtures.”

Melbourne terraces, typically with a five-metre frontage, have stood the test of time because they are efficient for high-density living, according to architect Kel Greenway, the principal of GHP Architects.  He says terraces can be recycled to fit in with modern ideas of sustainability.

Greenway first renovated a terrace in Hawthorn in the 1970s and estimates he has done more than 40 since.

“The challenge is getting light into the interiors and being very clever with the way you deal with the proportions of space in what is a long-narrow building,”  he says.

Light courts, extensive glazing and opening up the space to create a sense of spatial flow all require the architect to draw on a bag of tricks.

“It’s really about being an illusionist by the way you create sight lines and integrate the indoors and outdoors,” he says.

Brett Gilbert, of Gilbert Design Group, specialises in restoring heritage houses, including terraces.

“Most clients want a house that looks very simple from the front but amazing once you get inside,” he says. “The best way is to keep the front two rooms, chop the rest off and rebuild.”

Construction of terrace houses began when Melbourne was awash with money after gold was discovered in Victoria in 1851 and the city’s population trebled in three years. As gold fortunes grew architects designed great buildings, many of them elegant terraces.

The designs became grander and more ornate, with moulded ornaments, parapets and multi-coloured brickwork. In the early 20th century the middle class abandoned terraces as they sought out the leafy quiet of the new Edwardian suburbs.

Terraces got a new lease of life in the 1950s and ’60s when immigrants from southern Europe saw them as cheap first homes in Australia, often painting them blue or green, or even pink, but in the grander suburbs, often white.

Today terraces are quintessential inner-city living – the charming, compact option to high-rise.

Styling your terrace

With 18 years’ experience as a home stylist, Maree  Mursell​ shares her secrets on turning  a terrace house into a single-fronted gem. Aim to make the narrow terrace look spacious and light.Keep interior paintwork colour the same throughout. Popular colours include Antique White USA and Hog Bristle used at no more than a quarter or half strength. Forget heritage colours.Get the  wow factor and colour with scatter cushions on beds and sofas and with artwork.Invest in a good quality sofa because you don’t want to buy something every two years. Go for “conservative contemporary” when buying furniture because it won’t date.Mirrors in hallways and bedrooms reflect light and enhance the space.Use rugs on floorboards in hallways and living areas. Neutral-toned carpets make  bedrooms look bigger.Opt for plantation shutters or simple plain blinds at the windows. 

Case study

Interior architect Mairead Murphy imbues the smallest spaces with buckets of personality.

Her creative work to add functionality, style and light to a single-fronted home in Fitzroy North was a study in accentuating the positives.

Murphy calls it “playing on strengths”, which older, single-fronted homes do have, but not always in obvious abundance.

The solution can be found in simply looking up, Murphy said.

Period homes, including single-fronted addresses, often have soaring ceilings, which offers storage space – such as extending wardrobes to full ceiling height – and an airy feel, if used well.

At her easel in her Northcote-based Maike Design Studio, Murphy put pencil to paper and rejigged the Fitzroy North floor plan, which she has named in her portfolio as “C House”.

“The house had an old extension from the 1980s on the back, so one of the main challenges was how to work with that space,” she says. “A lot of detail from the original home was missing. It was crazy what people used to do.”

When tackling the makeover of any single-fronted home, Murphy says she reconfigures the layout to better suit modern families, who tend to share zones rather than splinter off into separated formal rooms.

One of the most common requests for transforming and improving single-fronted or smaller homes is adding creating an en suite for a main bedroom and enlarging the existing central bathroom.

To achieve that in C House, among other clever touches, Murphy installed a claw bath that sits up off the floor, so it didn’t feel heavy and dominant. Better still, it was an elegant nod to the home’s era.

31 Densham Road, Armadale $2.8 million+ Agent Justin Long, Marshall White 0418 537 973 Auction August 22 at 12.30pm

Mary Bishop describes herself as a “Greek girl from Brunswick who thought Toorak was another country”, so buying a rundown terrace in Armadale was a form of inner-city migration.

Mary and husband Simon enlisted Brett Gilbert, of Gilbert Design Group, to rebuild their single-fronted terrace into a stunning home with all the bells and whistles.

Gilbert gutted the place, leaving only the front two rooms.

Interior designer, the late Stuart Rattle, brought his customary flair to the interiors, which include large swaths of marble, imported fittings and fixtures. Behind the facade of this typical single-fronted terrace are now three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a study, an open-plan living-dining hub with concertina doors to the back garden and swimming pool – and interiors fit for a design magazine.

“It’s like a tardis,” Mary says. “You open the front door and it just keeps on going.”

Gilbert says his speciality is rebuilding heritage houses to attract minimum attention from the street but to be mind-blowing inside.

Four-metre-high ceilings in the back allowed him to incorporate big windows and the nine-metre-wide block, rather than the typical five metres, allowed a side courtyard and storage space.

“We found an antique pair of gates, put antique glass behind it and when you walk through the hall it reflects the light,” he says.

Mary loves everything about the house. “It’s warm, it’s fresh, it’s great for entertaining. We use every room.”

Now it’s time to do it all over again, she says.


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