Architectural couple’s experimental home is an ode to recycled materials

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.

The couple did most of the construction themselves, turning to friends for help with the particularly difficult items. “We did it on a tight budget – but it was paid for in other ways,” says owner architect Chris Stanley. “It spent most of our weekends throughout our twenties – we spent most of our litter building rather than watching movies!”

“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.”

The upper edge of the wood cladding is intentionally uneven. “I like the soft edges on buildings—it’s like looking at the horizon and seeing a dashed line, not a hard horizontal line,” explains Chris. “It also provided some privacy for the rooftop bathroom.”

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.

Although black is spread throughout the house, it is filled with light thanks to the many windows and skylights. “You get such an unexpected play of light and shade throughout the house,” says Asha Nicholas, owner-architect. “We came to love the warm golden glow of the western sun.”

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 tiny house is purposefully designed to entertain friends. The central kitchen is a major gathering place, as it is connected to the outdoor spaces and has views off the side road.

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.

The couple drew inspiration from their travels in Japan, where they went annually for nearly a decade in the 2000s. “We are obsessed with urban sprawl in Tokyo and how spaces are designed to capture light,” says Chris. “We used a lot of these technologies – getting light from above and offering tall views – to make the house look 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 finish is a neglected stone leather, reflecting Asha’s use of stone, metal, and glass in her work and jewelry.

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.

The deep concrete bathtub in the downstairs bathroom offers views of the indoor and outdoor gardens. “There’s a real sense of openness to the spaces, the way they connect to the outside garden and the views off the property,” says Chris.

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 couple kept the house’s color palette minimal to focus attention on their collection of artwork. However, there is plenty of texture to give the visual interest. “None of us liked plasterboard, and we wanted to play with handcrafted finishes and recycled materials,” says Chris.

The pair often collect materials from warehouses and country yard sales. The exterior cladding is made of old Oregon wooden beams from a Sydney warehouse, while the joinery is made of cypress from wind-damaged trees Chris purchased. “It’s about making duplicate pieces from existing materials,” Chris explains.

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 black cladding on the outside resonates internally. The master bedroom also has a staircase that leads to the bathtub on the rooftop.

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.”

The house offers glimpses of the highway through strategically placed windows and a single-roof fence. “We loved living on the highway—it was a circus day and night,” Chris says. “There’s a real permeability to the entire site, and that was very important to us.”

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.”

The couple wanted the house to be very open, with an easy flow. As a result, most rooms connect without doors – including the bathroom that overlooks the side road.

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.”

The couple had initially intended for the dark cladding to be Shu Suji Ban. “It’s very popular now, but at the time you just couldn’t have it,” Chris recalls. “We tried to blow the wood the traditional way by stuffing paper between the boards and lighting it, but we were putting fingerprints on it. Then we thought about blowing it up while it was on the facade, but we thought we might burn our house down.” In the end, the couple decided to simply paint the wood, but opted for a finish It allowed the appearance of prickly tissue and knots.

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.”

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