Four architects respond contextually and sustainably to restore and convert historically significant buildings into homes.
In this Best of est feature, we see architects intuitively peel back the layers in existing structures, sensitively bringing them into the present.
This piece originally appeared in est Magazine Issue #42.
The Lower Mill House by McLaren Excell
McLaren Excell were given the rare opportunity to convert a late-eighteenth-century watermill in Wiltshire, UK, that had never been lived in before. The essence of the dilapidated watermill was still intact, including the milling machinery and water wheel. Mclaren Excell co-director Luke McLaren says their restoration and extension was an exercise in “preservation as much as restoration”. Located on the edge of a stream, McLaren Excell shored up the structural integrity of the long-saturated retaining walls and created a concealed drainage system, without disturbing the water that descends to the mill.
Paying tribute to the building’s industrial roots, internal works were governed by the philosophy ‘minimal intrusion with materially sensitive interventions’, seeing raw-plate steel as the primary material. “Like the mill itself, our work had to be simple, functional and honest,” Luke adds.
A compact extension to the side of the mill expands the structure to two bedrooms. Honing an environmental approach, the extension maximises thermal insulation and mass, with double-glazing on doors, windows and skylights and polished in-situ concrete floors.
SRG House by Studio Johnston
Studio Johnston director Conrad Johnston was drawn to the ‘undeniable spirit and quality’ of a pair of circa 1972 heritage-listed semis on a steep site overlooking Sydney’s Paramatta River. First owned by Melbourne architect Sir Roy Grounds and his son, Conrad set out to transform the building for his family within the original footprint.
Conrad’s intervention is marked by sustainability and the home’s connection to place; opening it up to views and ventilation and raising the lower level to the courtyard, for ease of movement between indoors and outdoors.
At the same time, the architect worked to maintain the original material language by ‘grafting’ the new to the existing fabric through a stripped-back palette of concrete, painted brick, Western Red Cedar and cork flooring – an environmental and nostalgic nod. “Working within that original geometry, we applied a softer, curved edge,” Conrad adds, making way for the ‘unorthodox’ built-in banquet seating and sofa.
What’s particularly satisfying for Conrad is that people can’t decipher the new from the existing; formed from a fundamental belief that past and present can exist cohesively, without conflict.
The Hat Factory by Welsh + Major
The Hat Factory has many stories to tell; from its time as a factory and printers, surviving a fire and being a squat for more than a decade. An atypical warehouse conversion from the outset, Welsh + Major embarked on creating two dwellings that recognise the building’s inherently colourful past.
Welsh + Major co-director David Welsh credits their clients for the journey of meticulously unpicking the building’s layers. “Our clients have been truly inspirational – the existing building could easily have been knocked down, and it’s their resilience that saw this difficult project brought to fruition,” David says.
The graffitied interior, as well as original openings, were retained, with new glass insertions. Inside, the bare stone of the original boundary creates a tactile mural, while new raw steel stairs with skylights above call on the industrial bones. One of the most rewarding aspects for Welsh + Major was opening up parts of the factory to natural light, that “hadn’t seen the light of day for decades”. “The light quality both inside and out is something that has surpassed our expectations,” David reflects.
The Parchment Works by Will Gamble Architects
Will Gamble Architects were introduced to a disused cattle shed and ruins of a former parchment paper factory adjoining a heritage-listed home in Northamptonshire, UK. The owner wanted to convert the cattle shed and demolish the 1600s ruins for a new extension. Instead, Will Gamble Architects proposed a ‘building within a building’ by inserting lightweight volumes within the ruins, constructed of corten steel, oak and reclaimed brick.
The architects engaged an archeologist throughout the construction process. This led to a surprising find; a bath used to clean animal hides before they were made into parchment paper. “We exposed the stone bath to create a unique water feature that also captures water run-off, to irrigate the garden,” principal Will Gamble says.
Upcycled materials found on site were also used to construct the new extension, while internally, the cattle shed beams were exposed and stone walls coated in limewash. “Not only did we design the building with minimal impact on the ruin walls, but to perform everyday functions, which required bespoke detailing and innovative design solutions,” Will says.