Determined to build a personalized home with moderate means, creative couple Leah Hudson-Smith and Wally Maloney set out to convert a warehouse in the Melbourne suburb of Northcote, using their own trade skills to reduce costs. The dwelling comes with a finite lifespan—a nine-year commercial lease—but in the ever-inflating housing market, that counts as more stability than most people can bank on, even with the cost of materials added in.
"The real estate market in Melbourne is limiting if you’re a renter," says Hudson-Smith. "We don’t have huge incomes: we’re both in the creative industries, so we don’t have loads of money to spend on housing all the time. This was a great opportunity to create something that would fit us perfectly rather than us fit the house."
Hudson-Smith has the advantage of working as an interior architect by trade. The less-than-ideal aspect of her job is that everything she designs gets contracted out to builders, giving her few opportunities to make things herself. "There’s an element of disconnect even though you follow major projects through construction," she says. it’s always me working with a building team."
She builds furniture to stay connected to the pleasure of creating something tangible, including the wood-and-steel table in the home’s dining area. "I wanted to get my hands dirty," she says. "I was lacking that connection to the making process."
The pair’s concept for the conversion meant a year of hands-on work outside of the office on nights and weekends. Hudson-Smith and Maloney, a musician, conceived a plan to buy around $7,000 of materials and appliances to fit out the open space with enclosed sheds for a bedroom and music studio. A kitchen and living room would connect the two. Later, they added a wood-burning stove and air conditioner unit.
"While it’s open-plan, it’s not just one room, which is the typical approach—and which I personally think doesn’t work," says Hudson-Smith. "We still need spaces to occupy—nooks and crannies for things like our furniture, and our objects, and plants. We still, by nature, want to have areas of different use."
The concrete floors are painted gray to give off a polished appearance. Since the warehouse is laid out as an on-grade slab with no basement, the bedroom is raised on an insulated base to add greater warmth in the winter. Translucent louvers in the maple-clad walls and a skylight cross-ventilate the room with fresh air and bring in daylight. The backside of the dark-painted timber room for Maloney’s music studio became shelving and display for books and objects in the living area.
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The wood-burning fireplace in the living room is vented through the warehouse’s sawtooth roof, sheathed in plywood above the living room. In the summer, they reverse the layout to locate the living room at the other end of the warehouse, where the most natural light comes through the roof.
"It’s a big space with no corners," says Hudson-Smith. "By creating different shapes within the space, you create more negative space, and it’s those negative spaces that we can occupy."
Abundant plants, a mix of handcrafted and modern furniture, and layered textiles create a cozy ambiance within the former warehouse. Unfortunately, at the end of the lease, they have to accept that the landlord might demolish the building and develop the lot into apartments, a common occurrence in Melbourne.
"This is by no means a luxurious renovation," Hudson-Smith says. "This is very much a shoestring budget, DIY, creating a solution to a housing problem, and I guess a bit of an experiment in a different way of living."
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