Family-Friendly Renovation of a Brick Warehouse in Alabama

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By Olivia Martin / Published by Dwell
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In Alabama, a commercial building with a multifarious past begins a fresh chapter for a young family after a modern renovation.

"I wish people would not stick their heads into my living room and ask, ‘What kind of business is this?’" architect and landscape designer David Hill says with a laugh. This happens often, which is understandable given that his home, an industrial red-brick building, contrasts sharply with the student apartments surrounding Auburn University, where David is an assistant professor, and the typical cozy houses that populate Auburn, Alabama.

Architect David Hill, his wife, Elizabeth, and their three children (from left: Wade, eight, Luke, six, and Breyton, ten), have an unusual home by the standards of their college-town setting in Auburn, Alabama. Built in 1920, the industrial brick building has had previous incarnations as a church, a recycling center, and a pool hall, among others.

When David and his wife, Elizabeth, moved here from Virginia with their three children, it was the anomaly of a historic brick building off the main street that grabbed their attention. Built in 1920 as a mercantile space in a thriving African-American neighborhood during segregation, the building has since hosted several pool halls, a barbershop, a Baptist church, a few cab companies, several restaurants, and, rather dubiously, a "fish shop."

The tables in the kids’ study hall are “plywood specials,” David’s term for the furniture he built himself. “There is something so good about living in the South: the culture, the innovation, the values, the thrift," he says.

Auburn city officials had deemed the neighborhood a "development district," so the Hills received little pushback when reclassifying the commercial building for residential use. "We think the area is healthy and diverse, so everyone was supportive," David says.

Many pieces in the house, like the barstools in the kitchen, are Ikea. Others are salvaged or antique. “We keep it cheap and cheerful,” Elizabeth says.

When the Hills purchased the building, they were unaware of its backstory —it was merely a termite-infested plumbing storehouse with a promising brick-and-concrete exterior. "During construction our neighbors kept coming up and sharing stories about getting their hair cut here, or eating here when it was a cafe," David says. "We realized we had to be a little more careful. This thing had a life, a more interesting life, than we had ever imagined. We kind of stepped back a little bit and didn’t do some of the architectural moves that we originally thought we were going to do."

The cabinets, island, and countertops are KraftMaid and the appliances are Frigidaire, all from Lowe’s. The espresso-colored bamboo flooring is by USFloors.

Rather than change the existing walls, David, a principal at the Virginia-based firm D.I.R.T. Studio, worked within the existing spatial volume. Even though several interior walls were added to create bedrooms and bathrooms, David demarcated six significant masonry changes with steel cladding and trim. He ended up with a steel-clad fireplace, a steel-framed front door and trim work, as well as a custom half-ton steel sliding door separating the kitchen, dining, and sitting areas from the living room. "That’s a really fun piece of the house. We can literally close the kids in and have adult conversations, or close the adults in and have kid conversations," David says. The door is one of several that delineate the public and private rooms, as well as the children’s and adults’ spaces.

Throughout the house, as in the master bedroom, industrial ceiling fans from Westinghouse, combined with the thick brick walls, keep the need for air conditioning to a minimum. The bed is from Bob Timberlake.

David and Elizabeth salvaged as many of the original ceiling tiles as possible for the main living spaces and incorporated pieces of ephemera found nearby, including a Southern Delite cafe sign for the kitchen. The living, kitchen, and dining areas retained their original brick walls and plaster, which boasts a patina of paint layers, including a splash of red glitter from the building’s time as the King’s Kongo Klub.

One of David’s class projects was to photograph a beech tree every week over a year. The photos are now on display in the living area with an antique chair and desk.

In the master bedroom—once a cab mechanic’s station during another chapter of the building’s life—a French door now leads to the garden, through the same spot where cars once drove in and out. The decision to create a direct opening to the outdoors was "very strategic, because you can only afford to get this kind of connection between inside and outside in a couple of spots," David says.

David and Elizabeth built the lawn chairs in the garden from old signs.

It is precisely the many careful considerations, from the sliding doors to structural orientation to historical sensitivity, that provide a sense of home. And, despite the unusual choice of building that garners, as David puts it, "a few funny looks from our friends," a distinctly Southern tradition pervades. "We’re not all on top of each other," Elizabeth says, "but I can cook dinner while one child is reading a book, and another is playing Legos, and the other is doing something else, and we’re all in this shared space. I just love it."

Bragg House Floor Plan

A Kid’s Bedroom

B Master Bedroom

C Study Hall

D Master Bathroom

E Bathroom

F Kitchen

G Sitting-Dining Area

H Living Room

I Laundry Room

J Half-Bathroom

The lights that cover the ceiling of the open-plan living and dining space were crafted by the Hills out of Ikea floor lamps. "We found these floor lamps that were just a black rod," David says. "We realized we could simply unscrew them off the base, cut the wire, and sleeve them up into the attic." The lamps are designed to expose as much of the metal ceiling tile as possible, which the Hills carefully restored from the original structure. David made the dining table from a plywood sheet, painted black, that sits on top of saw horses.

From years of scouring secondhand shops and scrap yards, the Hills have amassed a sizable collection of interesting furniture. "Elizabeth had a rule back when we lived in Virginia that we could buy a chair, anytime we wanted, as long as it was under $10," David says. "We started to learn how to find cool chairs, not just junky chairs."

End tables made of old card catalogues can be found throughout the house. "We’ve collected them in every city we’ve lived in," David says. "Usually people were giving those away. Now they’ve gotten sort of cool so we can’t find them anymore."

The Hills rely on simple fixes to help preserve used furnishings, even cleaning pieces with baths of Dove soap and water. "Finding stuff, cleaning the heck out of it, and putting Johnson furniture wax on it—that's our M.O," David says.

Each piece in the house has a story behind it. "We avoid antique shops because [the owners have] already assigned a value to the furniture," David says. "We prefer secondhand shops, junk shops, and trash cans. To me, just getting in there and trying something is the fun part."