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Before/After: 11 Ideas to Steal from a Tiny Melbourne Worker’s Cottage

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Before/After: 11 Ideas to Steal from a Tiny Melbourne Worker’s Cottage

September 21, 2017

In 2012, architect Otto Henkell bought a Victorian-era workers’ cottage in Melbourne, Australia, with a total floor area of 60 square meters (about 645 square feet). The architect, of Apparte Studio in Melbourne’s Fitzroy neighborhood, acquired it as an investment and set about rehabbing it in his spare time—and doing the labor himself—taking almost five years to complete.

Henkell’s client was a speculative one—likely a young couple or family—so he designed their future home with a few imaginary requirements in mind: They would want a minimalist home with subtle reminders of its provenance, he thought, full of light, flexible storage, and energy efficiency (read: low operating costs). Here’s how he did it.

Photography by Daniel Aulsebrook, except where noted; courtesy of Apparte Studio.

1. Use utilities as decor.

A copper pipeline carries gas to power the hot water heater, stove, and radiators. When Henkell discovered it during demolition, he liked the metallic sheen against the museum-like white surroundings. “We polished it up and thought it was quite a nice unexpected touch,” he said.
Above: A copper pipeline carries gas to power the hot water heater, stove, and radiators. When Henkell discovered it during demolition, he liked the metallic sheen against the museum-like white surroundings. “We polished it up and thought it was quite a nice unexpected touch,” he said.

2. Use a curtain as an ad hoc wall.

In its original form, the cottage was one long hallway with rooms coming off it, and Henkell nixed the first bedroom in favor of a generous, inviting living room. In the event that a second bedroom is required, occupants can drag a curtain across a simple track system installed overhead. Photograph by Christopher Alexander.
Above: In its original form, the cottage was one long hallway with rooms coming off it, and Henkell nixed the first bedroom in favor of a generous, inviting living room. In the event that a second bedroom is required, occupants can drag a curtain across a simple track system installed overhead. Photograph by Christopher Alexander.

3. Choose the whitest white possible.

The architect used “a particularly bright and intense white,” Dulux White on White, “to make the inside as light as possible.”
Above: The architect used “a particularly bright and intense white,” Dulux White on White, “to make the inside as light as possible.”

4. Then, warm it up.

Henkell used uplighting throughout the house: on the exposed ceiling joists, at the top of the bedroom walls, and inside the custom light fixtures. Their warm temperature—around 2,700 to 3,000 Kelvin—makes the cottage feel homier at night.
Above: Henkell used uplighting throughout the house: on the exposed ceiling joists, at the top of the bedroom walls, and inside the custom light fixtures. Their warm temperature—around 2,700 to 3,000 Kelvin—makes the cottage feel homier at night.

5. Let a single original detail shine.

Henkell retained several original details, painted to match the newer house additions: He removed the ceiling and left original joists exposed, and he kept the period trim on windows, doorways, baseboards, and some original doors. The one original detail that doesn’t blend in? The Victorian-era brick wall in the kitchen, which contrasts smartly against the new bright white, sharp-edged walls.
Above: Henkell retained several original details, painted to match the newer house additions: He removed the ceiling and left original joists exposed, and he kept the period trim on windows, doorways, baseboards, and some original doors. The one original detail that doesn’t blend in? The Victorian-era brick wall in the kitchen, which contrasts smartly against the new bright white, sharp-edged walls.

6. In a tiny room, make it match.

In the narrow, open-plan kitchen and dining, there’s no room for transitions in decor. Henkell kept the look as consistent as possible by designing custom furnishings: a dining table and benches, a wall-mounted storage cabinet, plus a pendant light overhead, all linear in form and made of matching plywood.
Above: In the narrow, open-plan kitchen and dining, there’s no room for transitions in decor. Henkell kept the look as consistent as possible by designing custom furnishings: a dining table and benches, a wall-mounted storage cabinet, plus a pendant light overhead, all linear in form and made of matching plywood.

7. Can’t install it behind walls? Hide it in plain sight.

The house required extensive new electrical wiring, but the budget wouldn’t cover installing it behind the walls. The solution: Henkell turned a galvanized steel cable tray into a design motif used throughout. “It covers cabling going up the walls and provides a fixing point for switches, fuse boxes, and heating control panels,” said the architect.
Above: The house required extensive new electrical wiring, but the budget wouldn’t cover installing it behind the walls. The solution: Henkell turned a galvanized steel cable tray into a design motif used throughout. “It covers cabling going up the walls and provides a fixing point for switches, fuse boxes, and heating control panels,” said the architect.

8. Borrow light from nature.

Henkell installed a light well in the bathroom and giant polycarbonate skylights above the dining room and kitchen. Located on the south end of the cottage, the skylights spare occupants hours of artificial lighting each day. Photograph by Christopher Alexander.
Above: Henkell installed a light well in the bathroom and giant polycarbonate skylights above the dining room and kitchen. Located on the south end of the cottage, the skylights spare occupants hours of artificial lighting each day. Photograph by Christopher Alexander.

9. Embrace flexible storage.

Not every bedroom needs a closet and chest of drawers. Henkell installed a wall of white MDF cubbies to give the eventual owner flexible storage space for “office type” things like books and magazines in addition to clothes and shoes. “The room is very small so a conventional deep robe would have been too clunky; instead we opted for this ‘thin’ storage approach.”
Above: Not every bedroom needs a closet and chest of drawers. Henkell installed a wall of white MDF cubbies to give the eventual owner flexible storage space for “office type” things like books and magazines in addition to clothes and shoes. “The room is very small so a conventional deep robe would have been too clunky; instead we opted for this ‘thin’ storage approach.”

10. Use fresh air as contrast.

The character and color palette of the interior shifts completely at the back door. Henkell used spotted gum wood and a wall of greenery to give the small back courtyard a grounded feeling.
Above: The character and color palette of the interior shifts completely at the back door. Henkell used spotted gum wood and a wall of greenery to give the small back courtyard a grounded feeling.

11. Honor a history without frills.

When Henkell arrived, the petite front patio was made of poured concrete from an interim renovation. Wanting to up the cottage’s curb appeal while staying within budget, he replaced it with a simple black-and-white checkerboard tile. The pattern is “in line with the basic, low-budget original, which was built in austere Victorian times,” he said. The facade is painted in a light gray: Snow Season by Dulux. Photograph by Christopher Alexander.
Above: When Henkell arrived, the petite front patio was made of poured concrete from an interim renovation. Wanting to up the cottage’s curb appeal while staying within budget, he replaced it with a simple black-and-white checkerboard tile. The pattern is “in line with the basic, low-budget original, which was built in austere Victorian times,” he said. The facade is painted in a light gray: Snow Season by Dulux. Photograph by Christopher Alexander.

Before

Before, occupants entered the cottage into one long hallway.
Above: Before, occupants entered the cottage into one long hallway.
What’s now the living room was an enclosed bedroom with plush red carpet.
Above: What’s now the living room was an enclosed bedroom with plush red carpet.
Henkell retained only the brickwork from the previous kitchen, dining, and living area.
Above: Henkell retained only the brickwork from the previous kitchen, dining, and living area.

For more Ideas to Steal, see:

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