An Architect Couple’s Experimental Home Is an Ode to Recycled Materials

Over 15 years, the cofounders of Splinter Society give a tiny worker’s cottage in Melbourne a gleaming goth makeover.

In 2005, recently graduated architects Asha Nicholas and Chris Stanley bought a tiny worker’s cottage in the Melbourne suburb of East Brunswick—and they spent the next 15 years experimenting and evolving the space into a three-bedroom home as they started a family. At the heart of the transformation is a rich palette of recycled materials and an unusual floor plan with an abundance of nooks and angles that introduce light while maintaining privacy.

The couple did most of the build themselves, turning to friends for help with particularly challenging elements. "We did it on a budget—but it was paid for in other ways," says architect-owner, Chris Stanley. "It took away most of our weekends throughout our 20s—most of our hangovers were spent building rather than watching movies!" 

"We changed so much from when we started at the age of 25 to when we finished at the age of 40," says Chris. "By being hands on and playing around with ideas, we came up with a lot of stuff that we wouldn’t have if we were sitting at the drawing board and pushing to get things done quickly. And, as young architects, getting your hands dirty is the best way to learn."

The top edge of the timber cladding is deliberately uneven. "I like a soft edge on buildings—it’s like looking at a skyline and seeing a broken line, rather than a hard, horizontal line," explains Chris. "It also provided a bit of privacy for the rooftop bath." 

To accommodate this incremental process, the couple developed a framework to inform the design that could be adjusted as they discovered new techniques and materials they wanted to incorporate. They liked the historical qualities of the early 20th-century worker’s cottage, and they wanted to retain its street presence, gabled form, and scale—while intervening to open it up and release it from its long, narrow plan.

Despite the prevalence of black throughout the home, it is full of light thanks to the many windows and skylights. "You get such an unexpected play of light and shadow throughout the house," says architect-owner Asha Nicholas. "We came to love the warm, golden glow of the westerly sun." 

In keeping with this approach, they retained the gable form and extruded it from the front facade to the rear, where it is realized as a planted pergola. They then evolved the traditional weatherboard construction by creating a new facade of vertical boards that introduces a strong rhythm echoed elsewhere in the home. Inside, they removed the ceilings to expose the trusses and create expansive vertical spaces.

"The concept of using black for the new insertions extends from the interior to the exterior," explains Asha. "It’s a kind of box that slides in and out of the extruded gable form."

The small home was purposefully designed for entertaining friends. The central kitchen is a prime gathering space, as it’s connected to the outdoor spaces and has views beyond the laneway.  

The home is fronted by a large, elevated deck that allows for active engagement with the close-knit neighborhood. The front door leads to an entrance corridor with a room to the left that initially functioned as a jewelry studio for Asha, before the couple transformed it into a bedroom for their son.

The couple drew inspiration from their travels in Japan, where they went annually for almost a decade in the 2000s. "We are obsessed with the urbanism of Tokyo and how spaces have been designed to capture the light," says Chris. "We used a lot of those techniques—getting light in from the top and introducing long views—to make the home feel big." 

The window in the front room was initially designed as a kind of "shop window" to display the work of Asha, who is also a jeweler. The textured finish is a discarded quarry stone skin, which reflects Asha’s use of stone, metal, and glass in her jewelry work.

The corridor leads to a small bar and a bathroom with a deep, in situ concrete bath that looks out to both indoor and outdoor gardens. A second bedroom—which doubled as a "music room" for Chris’s collection of records—is located on a mezzanine level, which the couple eventually enclosed.

The deep concrete bathtub in the downstairs bathroom offers views of both internal and external gardens. "There’s a real sense of openness to the spaces, and the way they connect to the exterior garden and the views beyond the property," says Chris.

At the rear of the home, a central kitchen opens out to an open-plan dining/lounge room. Here, the different spaces are zoned through the use of ceiling height, with an open space above the dining area and a more intimate, cozy ceiling height above the lounge.

The couple kept the home’s color palette minimal to focus attention on their collection of artwork. There is, however, plenty of texture to lend visual interest. "Neither of us like plasterboard, and we wanted to play with handworked finishes and recycled materials," says Chris. 

The couple often collect materials from warehouses and country yard sales. The exterior cladding is made from old Oregon timber beams from a warehouse in Sydney, while the joinery is crafted from cypress timber from wind-damaged trees that Chris purchased. "It’s about creating refined pieces from found materials," explains Chris.

The primary bedroom and en suite are located upstairs, and in a playful touch, the rooftop features an open bathtub. "It’s on the flight path to Tullamarine Airport, so you can lie in the bath and watch planes coming in," says Asha. "You can also see hot air balloons and bats flying overhead."

The black cladding of the exterior is echoed internally. The master bedroom also features a ladder that leads to a rooftop bathtub.

The key to making the small home feel expansive was a considered approach to light, views, and landscaping. As a result, the plan features unusual "zigzags" that allow for huge windows while maintaining privacy, and a large skylight sits between the living and dining spaces. The fencing is deliberately single-paled to introduce permeability, and plantings appear to sprout from the concrete floor slab throughout the home.

"Internal gardens were used a lot in the ’70s," says Chris. "Continuing the same plants from the outside into the interior is a really powerful way to break down barriers between inside and out."

The home offers glimpses of the laneway through strategically placed windows and the single-paled fencing. "We loved living on the laneway—it was a circus day and night," says Chris. "There is a real permeability to the whole site, and that was so important for us." 

From the very beginning, it was essential that the home offer flexibility. In the early days, for example, Asha and Chris installed a steel framework to which they welded heavy fittings that allowed them to hang everything from hammocks to large artworks. When the couple had their first child, they used these fixings to create internal swings and rope courses. "We always dreamed of owning a warehouse, but we bought a cottage," explains Chris. "So, we introduced some of those industrial qualities."

The couple wanted the house to be very open, with an easy flow. As a result, most of the rooms connect without doors—including a bathroom that looks out to the laneway.  

Another defining characteristic is the use of handworked materials—from textured plaster render, to repurposed stone and timber. Take, for example, the bar created with found perforated metal. "The handworked materials were very accessible to us, as we didn’t have a huge amount of money or access to tools and equipment," says Chris. "It’s a fine line, though—we both like a refined aesthetic, and we are very conscious of elevating the compositions so it doesn’t look like a junkyard."

The couple initially intended for the dark cladding to be shou sugi ban. "It’s quite popular now, but back then you couldn’t get it," recalls Chris. "We tried charring the timber the traditional way by stuffing paper between the boards and lighting it, but we were putting fingerprints all over it. We then considered charing it while it was on the facade, but we thought we might burn our house down." Eventually, the couple decided to simply paint the timber, but they selected a finish that allowed the gnarly texture and knots to be show. 

After spending 17 years in the home, the couple felt as if it were time for a new challenge. They considered knocking the residence down and rebuilding, but eventually decided to sell—and they have just started construction on a new home on the same street. "It reached a point where we felt the home was done enough to feel the need to start again," says Chris. "It was really hard making the decision to sell it, but surprisingly, we got over it pretty quickly! Now, we can create something new." 

Floor Plan of Host House by Splinter Society

Related Reading:

This Australian Home Frames Theatrical Moments With Rough and Shimmering Surfaces

An Angled Expansion Gives a Bungalow in Melbourne an Open-Air Slant

Project Credits:

Architect of Record: Splinter Society / @splinter_society_architecture

Builder: Owner builder

Structural Engineer: Structural Bureau

Landscape Design: Splinter Society

Interior Design: Splinter Society

Lighting Design: Splinter Society

Photographer: Sharyn Cairns / @sharyncairns

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