Finding a balance: How to blend period homes with modern design

Domain cover story
By Peter Barrett

It used to be that real estate agent Arch Staver could stand out the front of any renovated period home and know exactly what was inside: polished floorboards, period colour schemes and, on occasion, a big, open-plan white-painted living room overlooking the rear garden. Those days are gone, he says. “One thing that I’m seeing at the moment is a fairly noisy space with trends in designs. There are a lot of designers out there with a whole lot of ideas. My question is, ‘how much of that will stand the test of time?’ “

Staver, a sales director with Nelson Alexander in Fitzroy, has sold real estate for the past 30 years. He believes period homes (think terrace, Edwardian, Victorian and warehouses) are “without a doubt” the most popular genre of real estate. “There is nothing more appealing than a period house that has a contemporary renovation inside. All of the outstanding results right across Melbourne are almost always that type of property.”

In the past, they were unrecognisable from the street. Today, it’s common to see modern, angular extensions jutting off traditional houses. “I think as home owners we’ve probably matured a little from a design point of view and we’re willing to accept that,” says Staver.

This is the quintessential Edwardian family home: 9 Victoria Crescent, Mont Albert.This is the quintessential Edwardian family home: 9 Victoria Crescent, Mont Albert. Photo: Marshall White

In the bayside area, Greg Hocking of Greg Hocking Holdsworth says smart period home renovators focus on bringing in natural light, maximising floor space with boundary-to-boundary designs and creating low-maintenance interiors and courtyard-style gardens. He also says buyer demographics have changed in his area. Gone are “local heroes”, such as solicitors, surgeons and advertising executives keen to impress with expensive trophy homes. Today’s (even wealthier) new guard are people like Flight Centre co-founder Geoff Harris, Computershare’s Chris Morris and Naomi Milgram, of Sussan/Sportsgirl fame. “They are selective, they don’t spend money foolishly,” says Hocking, “but when they see what they want they buy it.”

Hocking says it’s now common for people to spend at least $2 million on their period renovation. And, given the combination of high demand and tightly held real estate in many inner city parts of Melbourne, that’s a trend that’s likely to stay.

It’s certainly kept architects like Nicholas Murray busy. In 2014, an 1800s-built mansion in Albert Park that he modernised set real estate records, selling for a reported $12 million. Murray is now working on his sixth house on that same street, estimating it will eventually be worth $20 million. But isn’t there a danger of overcapitalisation? “In most parts of Melbourne that’s normally the risk but the Albert Park property market has gone completely nuts in the past half-a-dozen years,” he says, adding that prices often catch up with renovation costs before construction is finished.

It’s all very well to spend millions of dollars on a whiz-bang period home renovation (if you have that kind of cash) but what does the market want? Greg Hocking says there’s a huge demand from empty-nesters for terrace houses with ground-level en suite/master bedrooms, which guarantees 15-20 years without having to worry about stairs.

In ToorakSouth YarraArmadale and HawthornJeremy Fox of RT Edgar recommends retaining the first few rooms of a period home in original style but updating the rear into a combined kitchen, living room and family space. The trick, he says is to retain high ceilings throughout. “That big kitchen/family room/meals area is what’s really popular at the minute,” he says. “You see some beautiful houses with 3.2-metre ceilings, floor-to-ceiling glass – it lets a lot of light in.”

But period home renovations aren’t just for the super-rich. Architect Reno Rizzo, of Inarc Architects in East Melbourne, says people are generally more prepared to spend significant amounts of money on doing a renovation “properly” than they were 20 years ago. Instead of a growing family’s temporary stop-gap, renovations are now better planned for the longer-term. “We try to use natural materials as much as we can,” says Rizzo. “You’ve got to try and stay away from some of the fads […] all the things you see on do-it-yourself TV shows.”

9 Victoria Crescent, Mont Albert9 Victoria Crescent, Mont Albert Photo: Marshall White

Architect Andrew Maynard says owners should be aware of the “hidden costs” associated with old buildings, as well as complexities brought about by heritage overlays and other planning issues. “Sometimes you think you can work with the structure and as soon as you start cutting holes the whole thing just falls to bits.”

Maynard’s preference is to connect the interior with outdoor spaces by “grabbing” the backyard and putting it into the centre of the house. “I really love that we design these homes where you can have a conversation through the garden, between two living zones.”

So, our final tips? Don’t DIY. Find an architect who has proven period home experience, choose natural materials and don’t fall for fads and gimmicks.

9 Victoria Crescent, Mont Albert9 Victoria Crescent, Mont Albert Photo: Marshall White

Feature property – 9 Victoria Crescent, Mont Albert

9 Victoria Crescent, Mont Albert
Photo: Marshall White

4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, 2 car spaces
$2.7 million+
James TostevinMarshall White, 0417 003 333

What the agent says: “This is the quintessential Edwardian family home, set in truly beautiful gardens and positioned on one of Mont Albert’s most coveted streets.”

This story first appeared on the cover of Domain.