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Light touch transforms fire charred warehouse

Recipient of a heritage award from the Australian Institute of Architects (NSW Chapter), the architects even retained a few of the charred timber planks that were damaged in a former fire.

Steel blade walls protect the interior from the north-west sunlight.

Steel blade walls protect the interior from the north-west sunlight.Credit:Brett Boardman 

“These remnants form part of the building’s DNA,” says architect Adam Haddow, director of SJB Architects.

Unlike many warehouses from the early 20th century that suffered from numerous makeovers, this one was in relatively original condition, with the exception of a few rudimentary partitions.

Approximately 1,000 square metres in floor area, the intent from the outset was to retain as much of the original fabric as possible, including timber trusses and turpentine timber columns.

“Our brief was to accommodate 80 to 100 staff (for a digital company), while making the spaces as flexible as possible,” says Haddow, whose practice was commissioned to rework the base building.

Every move was made lightly, whether it was cleaning up the exterior creamy brown bricks, accommodating a new steel staircase and lift or restoring the original timber window frames.

SJB Architects’ brief was not only to lightly touch the warehouse’s original fabric, but also to add a third level.

In the spirit of the Burra Charter, where new work should be clearly delineated, this third level is constructed in steel.

The steel blade walls also protect the interior from the north-west sunlight.

It’s on this level, with the views of the park,that one finds the kitchen and breakout spaces, some located on the terrace.

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From the moment one arrives at the Wellington Street office, there are subtle insertions that take the form of steel.

“We created a void (expanding over three levels) at the core to bring in additional light and also create a sense of arrival,” says Haddow, who also included a planter bed, made in steel over the front door.

Milled steel features such as the staircase also sit proud of the original turpentine columns, with this move creating strength in each material.

Other moves are even less apparent.

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The original bluestone cobble that frames the entrance has been reproduced in the atrium, taking the palette of Chippendale into the building’s core.

Additional fernery also allows the office to feel part of the inner-city streetscape.

The building’s concrete floors were simply polished, along with exposing the original timber rafters.

And on the upper levels, timber floors were added.

“We wanted to keep the floor plates as wide as possible, rather than limiting the possible work areas,” says Haddow, who included a series of strategically placed bridges to allow staff to freely move across the floor plates (approximately 20 by 20 metres in area).

For SJB, the objective was not only to create a new use for the building, but as importantly, to work with its raw features rather than conceal them with layers of plaster and superfluous detail.

“The design is deliberately quite raw, which looks quite effortless but requires being fastidious in the way it’s addressed,” says Haddow, pointing out the junctions between the steel and timber.

“Every plane needs to be perfectly aligned.

We were looking for crisp geometry,” he adds.

The Wellington Street building (number 1-7) has few, if any painted surfaces, except for the few pieces of joinery in the bathrooms and kitchen.

“We could have simply gutted the entire building, but that would have obliterated its history, as well as the many layers built up over more than 100 years,” says Haddow, who feels that he can be part of that history and allow it to be enjoyed by future generations.

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