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.
"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."
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.
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 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 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.
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 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 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."
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."
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."
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."
Builder: Owner builder
Structural Engineer: Structural Bureau
Landscape Design: Splinter Society
Interior Design: Splinter Society
Lighting Design: Splinter Society
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