In 2005, recently graduated architects Asha Nicholas and Chris Stanley bought a small workers’ cottage in the Melbourne suburb of East Brunswick – and spent the next 15 years experimenting and developing the space into a three-bedroom home when 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 crannies that provide light while maintaining privacy.
“We’ve changed a lot from when we started at 25 to when we finished at 40,” Chris says. “Through hands-on practice and the play of ideas, we’ve come up with a lot of things we wouldn’t have if we were sitting at the drawing board and pushing to get things done quickly. Dirty is the best way to learn.”
To accommodate this additional process, the couple developed a framework to inform the design that could be modified when they discovered new technologies and materials they wanted to incorporate. They loved the historic qualities of a workers’ home in the early twentieth century, and wanted to retain its street presence, its gabled shape, and its volume – while intervening to open and free it from its long, narrow scheme.
In keeping with this approach, they retained the gable shape and extruded it from the front end to the rear, where it is realized as a planted pergola. They then advanced the traditional weatherboard construction by creating a new facade of vertical panels that deliver a powerful rhythm that resonates elsewhere in the house. Inside, they removed ceilings to expose the trusses and create wide vertical spaces.
“The concept of using black for new entries extends from the inside out,” explains Asha. “It’s kind of like a box that slides in and out of an extruded gable shape.”
The house in front has a large raised deck that allows active engagement with the close-knit neighborhood. The front door leads into an entrance corridor with a room on the left that initially served as Asha’s jewelry studio, before the couple converted it into their son’s bedroom.
A driveway leads to a small bar and bathroom with a deep concrete bath on site that overlooks the indoor and outdoor gardens. A second bedroom—which doubled as a “music room” for Chris’s record collection—is located on the mezzanine floor, which the couple eventually enclosed.
At the rear of the house, the central kitchen opens to an open plan dining room/lounge. Here, the different spaces are defined through the use of ceiling height, with an open space above the dining area and a more intimate and cozy ceiling height above the lounge.
The master bedroom and en-suite are located upstairs, and in a fun touch, the rooftop features an open bathtub. “It’s on the flight path to Tullamarine Airport, so you can lie in the shower and watch the planes come in,” Asha says. “You can also see hot air balloons and bats flying overhead.”
The key to making the tiny house feel expansive was the thoughtful approach to light, views, and landscaping. As a result, the plan features unusual “zigzag lines” that allow for massive windows while maintaining privacy, and a large skylight that sits between the living and dining spaces. Fence is deliberately used to introduce permeability, and plants seem to sprout from the concrete floor slab throughout the house.
“Indoor gardens were used a lot in the ’70s,” Chris says. “Continuing to use the same plants from the outside in is a really effective way to break down the barriers between indoors and outdoors.”
From the start, it was essential that the home provided flexibility. In the early days, for example, Asha and Chris installed a steel frame to which they welded heavy fixtures which allowed them to hang everything from hammocks to large artwork. When the couple had their first child, they used these stabilizers to create indoor swings and rope courses. “We’ve always dreamed of owning a warehouse, but we bought a cottage,” explains Chris. “So, we introduced some of these industrial qualities.”
Another distinguishing feature is the use of handcrafted materials – from decorative plaster to stones and woods used for other purposes. Take, for example, the existing perforated metal bar. “The handcrafted materials were very accessible to us, as we didn’t have a huge amount of money or access to tools and equipment,” Chris says. “It’s a fine line, though—we both love the polished aesthetic, and we’re all too aware to elevate the compositions so it doesn’t look like a junk yard.”
After spending 17 years at home, the couple felt like it was time for a new challenge. They thought about demolishing and rebuilding the dwelling, but eventually decided to sell – and just started building a new house on the same street. “It got to a point where we felt the house was done enough to feel the need to start over,” Chris says. “It was really hard to make the decision to sell it, but surprisingly we got over it so quickly! Now, we can create something new.”