Ship shape

Monumental concrete walls full of technology, thermal mass and character are the key to a stylish and clever renovation.


Don is a retired country boy from Queensland who worked and travelled extensively before finding ‘home’ in inner city Port Melbourne in the early 2000s. Around eight years ago he bought a tiny, uninsulated, two-bedroom home in what was once a groundbreaking Housing Commission estate at Fishermen’s Bend.

Built in the 1940s, the estate was one of Victoria’s first attempts at public housing and arguably its best: a response to the intra- and post-war housing crises for low income earners based on altruistic design ideals like the English Garden City movement. It incorporated not only extensive parkland but shops, a community centre, recreation and sporting facilities and a kindergarten. It was also the only public housing estate in Victoria conceived as the result of design competition. As a result the homes featured innovations such as pre-cast concrete panels that keyed together to form the internal and external walls.

Four years ago he engaged architect Adam Dettrick to transform the original house, still with rudimentary kitchen and original outside toilet, into a contemporary, open plan, outward-looking, four-bedroom home with a study and varied indoor-outdoor living spaces including multiple decks. “After living here for seven years in four rooms I wanted different places to spend time,” Don says.

A flexible floor-plan was critical. Don’s adult children often come to stay (daughter Steff has moved in since the renovation), and he knew he’d want a master bedroom at ground level at some stage in the years ahead. Pragmatically, he also wanted to create a sellable family home he could leave to his kids one day. “It had to be something more than a house for one man,” he says.

A heritage overlay on the estate presented design challenges and meant planning took nearly two years. Patience and care were also required to save established trees, but this was particularly important for a country boy on a 340-square-metre block four kilometres from the city whose vision was for a sustainable home in a bushy setting.

Adam Dettrick’s design achieved Don’s brief by retaining the front two rooms, creating additional bedrooms and bathrooms at the rear and upstairs, and placing generous living spaces in the centre. The latter wrap around – and open up fully to – a gorgeous rear courtyard deck with outdoor kitchen, lush vegetation and a raised, pond-like water feature with in-built seating, to which visitors and inhabitants alike gravitate.

It’s a simple idea but the sound, sight and feel of water create a calm, cooling presence, especially on hot days. Add to it the impact of southerly sea breezes animating the myriad trees Don has planted for extra shading, particularly to the north, and the result is an atmospheric space that draws people in year-round.

A distinctive palette of robust materials is central to the design’s aesthetic appeal and six-star energy rating.

Taking the original home’s concrete walls as his cue the architect used super-thick, highly insulated sandwich panel concrete walls to provide the thermal mass, acoustic privacy and passive solar heating and cooling properties the old place lacked. The 270–290mm thick walls are framed in steel. Thick enough to hide a host of technology and pipes deep within, they’re finished in places with textural detailing that adds to the home’s sense of place. (An exterior feature wall in the courtyard, for example, is imprinted with an abstracted interpretation of a traditional Fisherman’s Bend knot).

Bedroom Loungeroom

Further warmth and subtle layers of insulation are added via timber screens, floors, feature walls and ceilings and striking recycled plastic panels applied mostly to the exterior. They’re painted a bright, warm orange to echo the predominant colour of surrounding roofs, ships and shipping containers. Decks throughout are built from recycled plastic. Double glazed windows are minimised at the northern rear and strategically placed to help the house cool down quickly in summer, aided by a shaded, operable skylight atop the central staircase and cooling sea breezes.


Clever passive solar design means the house stays comfortable year-round with only occasional blasts of heating or cooling in specific zones during extreme weather. Don says the project taught him the importance of patience when dealing with heritage overlays,and of finding an architect who listens to your needs but challenges your ideas about how to achieve them. “I never thought I’d have an orange… concrete house,” he concedes with a laugh.

House Plan First Floor

House Plan Ground Floor

House specifications

Text: Kath Dolan

Photography: Michael Downes

Prepared with assistance from Green Magazine

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The rear of a newly renovated house

Smarter Renovations profile – Ship shape

Monumental concrete walls full of technology, thermal mass and character are the key to a stylish and clever renovation.