Follow Port Places

Folly and Modesty

21 Alfred St, Port Melbourne

I believe that Grand Design aired the episode that featured this house recently. This is the post I wrote about it five years ago, on 21 August 2014.

H House in Port Melbourne was featured in The Age on Saturday 16 August.  It’s tucked away in a corner of Port Melbourne that you would be unlikely to walk past unless you lived there.

I feel conflicted about this house. It’s fully sustainable but I still feel uncomfortable.  Perhaps it’s the loss associated with having known the former occupants of the modest house known as Folly Cottage. Its narrow hallway and small rooms were crammed with things from the long rich life of Janne Ray and her family. Janne was a storyteller. Unusually for this part of the world, the house had a yard and a single gum tree. It also had a sleepout.

Folly Cottage

Folly Cottage

This part of Port Melbourne was settled relatively late – after 1870 – when development spread west of the railway line. The lots are small, as are the houses – a pattern that has been picked up in (some) more recent development.

At the time of the planning approval process in 2011, the house on the corner of Alfred and Union Street was not covered by a heritage overlay. No permit was needed to demolish the house. Around that time, the City of Port Phillip commissioned a review of Port Melbourne’s heritage overlay. The review said of the area around Albert and Alfred Streets:

‘Interestingly, with relatively few exceptions, where new development has occurred in this broad area, this development has retained the existing lot size and subdivision pattern (as single lots have been redeveloped) and in some cases the new building stock has been of a related scale and even of similar form and materiality to the existing. The area also retains its street layout, including small-scale lanes and in many cases, early street surfacing. As a result, while not as intact in terms of heritage fabric as it was in the mid-1990s the area as a whole still retains a particular character that is generated by its street layout and surfacing, small lot sizes, and modestly scaled residences.’*

Howard Raggart of ARM uses the words ‘oasis’ and ‘enclosure’ in describing the H house and the interior space created by the external walls.  Its explicit sustainability features defend the house and its occupants against the harsh climate ahead.

Modesty is a rare attribute in Port Melbourne these days.  Yet modesty is also an attribute of sustainability.  Brendan Gleeson, in his book ‘Lifeboat Cities’ pleads passionately for us to get into the boat towards a climate resilient future together. As he says ‘Life in the future may not be bleak if we value the many good things that will flow from a society refocusing on modesty, solidarity and fairness.’

I think this sustainable look at me house would be better suited/sited on a prominent corner where it would stimulate urgent conversations about sustainable housing.

H House

H House

My unease is not about ugliness, some people’s concern, but about scale. The house denies its context. Some architects like juxtaposition and contrast but I prefer planning words that express some of the qualities of relationship that feel so absent here – words such as ‘respectful, harmonious’ and integrated with the surrounding character.

Is this house a folly of our time  – darkly playful in such serious times?

What do you think?


The waterwall house in December 2019.

The green walls of the waterwall house, Port Melbourne

December 2019


Lovell Chen 2011 Review of Heritage Overlay 1: Outcomes and recommendations prepared for the City of Port Phillip


  • Carol Goudie

    I agree with your concern about scale and denial of context; about absence of 'respect' and 'harmony' re the H House's surrounding character. It feels like a militaristic solution to water shortage (in a non-military zone). If and when the native climbers take over ('if the building should transform into a lush hedge' ) it will still be out of context, but suggestive of something more benign, more in tune with what humans want on a hot, dry day. I look forward to watching the plants grow as described in the Age article.

  • Folly Cottage looks beautiful to me but that's easy to say when I don't know the neighbourhood. How does it fit these days? I can't tell

    • Oh Susanna - I couldn't have been clear. Folly Cottage is no more. It is replaced with the dwelling made up of black water tanks.

  • I suspect the sustainability of the house is overrated. In fact it is only 6 star. It features a lift and very large rooms. May of the water tanks are there for effect!!! only and are not connected to the water supply. The architect thought the water tanks have visual appeal and the Council planner thought the building was not imposing. Each to his/her own. I am told it is very nice inside. Good to know they got it half right.

    • Interesting observations John It will be interesting to watch how it looks with a bit more vegetation.

  • Gary Vines

    A surgeon buries his mistakes but an architect can only grow ivy over theirs.

  • Susan Erasmus

    I thought the house does not really fit into the surroundings. It looks like it should be somewhere in the countryside where it could have looked like something from outer space

    • JanetBolitho

      I also think it sits uncomfortably in that very street where the scale is small.

  • Elizabeth Weaver

    I watched that design program last night on TV and was appalled that something so over large and out of context was granted planning approval. The emphasis for the owners was on their livability and what it was like for them to live their. The question 'what will the neighbours think' was uttered but never answered. Indeed. I was actually thinking those surrounding it would almost be wishing to relocate. Also I suspect that this is not a house about sustainability

    • JanetBolitho

      Interesting response Elizabeth. I re-read my post Folly and Modesty from 2014 and think it holds true. As I observed then, the pain of it was exacerbated by knowing the former householders very well and the richness of that modest house.

  • Are there any recent photos of this home that indicate the plant growth? Even Google Earth's street views are dated 2014-12-04 and still show metal fencing around a nearby complete project. Also, in light of your ongoing fire situation, does anyone contest the logic of storing 56,000 litres of water on-site? Curious Curtis in Canada

    • JanetBolitho

      Hi Curious Curtis, great to have your inquiry from Canada. Here is a photograph from December 2019. Regarding the water tanks. This house is located in an inner urban, rather than a rural or regional, context where fires are less common, though not unknown. Although I am not a fire expert, I think that plastic tanks like this would melt with the intensity of the fires we have recently experienced.

  • Thanks for posting the update photo, as I found it after watching the program. Its a shame the owners didn't allow the vines to grow down as they promised, as its too aggressive a building for its site. The 2 panels with vegetation do look rather thick, perhaps with all panels covered it would look like a carpeted box, but wispy vegetation would have worked.

    • JanetBolitho

      I agree that the building appears aggressive in its context. A carpeted box sounds interesting. Perhaps that is what it will become one day.

  • I watched the grand designs episode today. Generally I want to take the attitude of live & let live & I’m comfortable with redevelopment in urban areas with today’s lifestyle in mind, but I did have an uneasy Feeling about this development. It does feel out of scale with the location & I wonder how it got approved & would be curious to know how the neighbours feel about it today

  • peter Kearley

    From the 2014 GDA program,the owners were saying the outside would become green.Covered in plants trayliñg down the watertank walls..The inside was light everywhere.Love it.

  • It would probably look OK in another area but in Port Melbourne it is way overscaled and does not fit in with the 1890's vibe of the street and area.

  • Built by entitled Boomers who are showing off. Wouldn’t the stored water go mouldy and be unusable? In a fire, how would they access the water? Using sustainability as a buzz word to put up an ugly building. Horrid. What about the cast shadows in the neighbour’s yards? I would be objecting massively.

  • I agree with Maria: "Horrid". I too was wondering about the unused water. Surely, sitting unused for so many years (unable to consume such an amount) would meant it became stagnant, and infused all the chemicals of the plastic? I suppose, if they let it drain out, they will do that by releasing it into the street. They appeared, to me, as a greedy couple. Building their giant "retreat" with no thought to their surroundings. I have noticed this with many new builds, which are too large for their sites, and look just like mini-replica office blocks (being built using the same design and materials). The object with these houses are to create a huge living space inside, like some type of modern day manor house, which is all about the occupants, and nothing at all about the community around them. I agree with the other messages people are leaving here, when they point out the this house has nothing to do about environmental awareness or sustainability. And with the male owner saying, blithely; "we will be able to survive for three years on the water we collect". What a naive and "entitled" thing to say. If things become as bad as that, does he really imagine families outside his water-clad "moated castle" are going to sit by and watch their babies and children die of thirst, knowing that within the castle walls the water is flowing freely? No huge ugly black plastic bubble front door is going to keep the marauding peasants at bay. It's a hideous monstrosity, despite the attempt at cladding it in Ikea-style greenery.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *