Readapted Residence Spurs Conversations About Green Preservation and History

This heritage-status terrace home in Australia has been remade into something modern, while preserving the past.

Wongi House by Ben Callery Architects exterior

Tatjana Plitt

A crumbling house with heritage status can present some significant headaches for would-be homeowners. But building anew from scratch isn't necessarily better either—there's a lot of embodied carbon in those new materials, not to mention the carbon that will be emitted in the building process. Reducing upfront, emitted and operational carbon is something that the building industry needs to seriously consider, and as they say in green preservation circles, sometimes the greenest building is the one that is already standing.

But sometimes, good-intentioned plans in preserving an old building can go awry, as it initially did in this project taken on by Australia's Ben Callery Architects. Tasked with readapting a terrace house dating back to the early 1900s into a three-bedroom residence, the architects had to adhere to Melbourne's council heritage regulations, which stipulated that the facade and two front rooms had to be retained.

Wongi House by Ben Callery Architects interior
Tatjana Plitt

But the preservation portion of the project, dubbed Wongi, did not go as planned, as the architects explain:

"[The house] was literally falling down, so after its inevitable condemnation, it had to be re-built to replicate the original. This painstaking and expensive process required specialist heritage architects and engineers. It was immaculately executed by skilful builders and craftspeople with stucco parapets, cornices and urns re-created to match the colonial original. Meanwhile, we upgraded the structure and thermal performance to include higher levels of thermal mass, insulation, double glazing and solar power to complement it’s all-electric operation."

The heritage regulations didn't apply to the project's rear extension, the roof of which now took on a bold, sloped form to catch as much winter sunlight as possible, in contrast to the deep, dim colonial-style verandah that was previously there.

Wongi House by Ben Callery Architects sloped roof
Tatjana Plitt

This sloped roof not only minimizes any protrusion that might cast towering shadows over the neighbor but also helps to offset the dark atmosphere created by the long, solid structural wall that is shared with the neighboring house.

Wongi House by Ben Callery Architects stairs and kitchen
Tatjana Plitt

To allow the clients control over the amount of passive solar gain during the hot summers, operable external Venetian louvers and awnings were installed, while windows were arranged to maximize natural cross ventilation.

Wongi House by Ben Callery Architects living room
Tatjana Plitt

While the front of the house maintains its heritage look, the extension is designed to engage fully with the street at the rear, thanks to the full height folding glass doors and the retractable awning that extends the interior living space further out.

Wongi House by Ben Callery Architects awning
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Out in the backyard, a black sliding fence also partially hides the rain-harvesting garden wall but can be opened up to invite the rear alley in.

Wongi House by Ben Callery Architects view out to backyard
Tatjana Plitt

Upstairs, the main bedroom's ceiling takes on some of the same sun-catching, passive solar design ideas...

Wongi House by Ben Callery Architects bedroom
Tatjana Plitt addition to a distinctive window on the side.

Wongi House by Ben Callery Architects bedroom window
Tatjana Plitt

Perhaps most importantly, the reconstructed facade has a large "WONGI" imprinted upon it, which the architects clarify as a name with cultural and historical significance for both the client and the neighborhood:

"The owners named the house WONGI which is the name of the West Australian tribe (Wangkatha) to which [the client's] maternal grandmother belonged. At the time the house was originally built, an exciting prospect of a home for the occupiers, [the client's] grandmother was 8 years old, on country, being hunted down, removed (stolen) and placed on a mission. The name of the tribe is proudly stuccoed on the reconstructed parapet taking its place beside the other terrace names in the street; Florence, Violet, Elsinore and interestingly – Hiawatha. WONGI is a gesture to moving beyond Australia’s culture of selective remembering."
Wongi House by Ben Callery Architects facade with wongi name
Tatjana Plitt

So besides preserving a building of some historical worth, the updated home is now also spurring dialogue about Australia's colonial past, its former policy of forcibly removing Aboriginal inhabitants from their lands, and its present aims for remembrance and reconciliation, say the architects:

"Wongi also means an ‘informal talk or chat.’ This house is a conversation integrating history; how things were done then and how we can do them now. The owners were committed, on both a bricks and mortar and symbolic level, to use the past to look forward. WONGI has prompted chats between the owners, their neighbours and passers-by, interested in the design and build, and no doubt sobered [when] learning the story behind the name. Perhaps these talks are WONGI’s most important contribution to its street."

So at the end of the day, green preservation isn't necessarily just about whittling down embodied carbon or maintaining the original character of a neighborhood—it can also be about shining a light into the darker corners of history—with the hope of changing the hearts and minds of the larger community.

To see more, visit Ben Callery Architects and Instagram.