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The Rough with the Smooth

A gritty industrial or heritage structure can be both a boon and bad luck for architects designing places to live. The key to successfully incorporating all that storied stone and steel, it turns out, is a surprisingly delicate balance. By Stephen Crafti
Architect Hannah Tribe sought a balance between rough and refined when designing this East Sydney home in a former electrical substation.

There’s always a conundrum in balancing a grittier industrial aesthetic with the smooth and refined — something that continually tests architects and interior designers. If everything is too polished, there’s the danger of living in a house that lacks character. And if a finish is too rough, it can, in the wrong hands, simply appear as an unfinished project.

“It’s always about working with the bones of a building and knowing how far to push the design in a certain direction,” says the interior designer Sioux Clark, co-director of Multiplicity. Clark’s practice has established a reputation for transforming older buildings into fine contemporary homes, often working with buildings that have an industrial past, be it a warehouse or, as is the case with one project in North Melbourne, a former pumping station dating from the late 19th century. “We inherited quite uneven walls as well as the building’s original chunky timber beams,” Clark says of that project. “It also came with a rough concrete floor that once supported some fairly heavy machinery.” Multiplicity created a multi-level home with a stainless-steel frame and curtain framing a central pod that includes a main bedroom, a bathroom and a reading space. There’s also the inclusion of pressed veneer panels for the joinery, including in the walk-in dressing area. And to reflect light, as well as add a contemporary layer, mirrored acrylic panels accentuate some of the interior’s period detailing.

Cowshed’s steel roof “crowns” the house with timber-framed windows.

A similar balancing act was involved with the renovation and extension of a Victorian timber house in Geelong. Multiplicity’s builder set aside smooth plywood for the new walls and ceiling of the extension, but the architect insisted on handpicking the most characterful sheets of less refined, marked bracing plywood. “These marked panels give a more relaxed feel to the spaces,” says Clark. It’s a case of knowing where to push forward and, just as important, when to pull back.

“Sometimes it can be as simple as selecting the appropriate laminate,” continues Clark, who often makes a call on some of the finer details once a project is well underway. “It could be changing the joinery to find that right balance,” she says.

The architect Hannah Tribe, principal of Tribe Studio, also had to find the right balance between rough and refined when designing a house in East Sydney. Originally an electrical substation built in the 1930s, the structure was transformed into an award-winning home for a couple and their two dogs. While the structure is in a gritty inner-city environment, its remodelling was going to affect several neighbouring homes whose backyards all point towards it. The modest footprint of just 50 square metres also suggested a vertical solution. There is now a garage and home office at ground level, with two bedrooms on the first floor. The second floor has been given over to the open-plan kitchen, dining and living area, which leads up to a rooftop terrace and pool.

In contrast to the building’s original rough brick walls, the upper level features new glass bricks that also form the balustrade for the terrace. Tribe Studio retained the external signage, however faded. “We wanted to allow natural light but also ensure privacy for the neighbouring homes,” says Tribe, who, from the outset, aimed to reconcile the raw and slightly gritty and the smoother finishes. “That balance is always on my mind. But you know when that balance is reached — you can really feel it as much as see the result.”

Sydney Sandstone, an 1850s terrace house revived by Carter Williamson Architects.

That balance is seen in many of the houses designed by the architect Shaun Carter, director of Carter Williamson. He and his team also enjoy working with the sandstone that’s unique to Sydney. “We are always delighted to see sandstone walls inside a house that have not been covered in plaster — working beautifully with either timber floors, joinery or both,” says Carter. The Cowshed house, in Forest Lodge, for example, includes some of the original walls. There’s also a concrete slab floor in the kitchen and living areas, with exposed rafters providing architectural interest. The conversion of the shed into a house offered a number of exposed industrial finishes such as a steel cable tray that contains services such as the electrics.

A new steel roof “crowns” the house and is clearly expressed, like the new timber-framed windows. As with Clark and Tribe, Carter sees the importance of getting the balance right — knowing, as he says, “what’s too raw and what appears to be too polished”. He adds: “It’s about crafting a space and not going too far in one direction.”

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eighth edition, Page 68 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “The rough with the smooth”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.


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