Sam Marshall and Jean Rice on how to re-love a building

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Sydney College of Arts at Callan Park © Karina Illovska

Adapting and re-using a building is all about respecting what’s there and leaving space for the next person to do what they want to do, according to Sam Marshall of Architect Marshall.

Sam Marshall © Museums & Galleries of NSW

Marshall won the RAIA Wilkinson Award, RAIA President’s Award for Recycled Buildings and the RAIA Conservation award in 2000 for his restoration and renovation of a derelict 1903 warehouse in Darlinghurst.

“My first priority was to save the structure of the building and make it able to be lived and worked in,” Marshall says, “then I added a toilet, bathroom and kitchen and left the rest as open space. 

“I loved the open space and it left it as a blank canvas without any idiosyncratic interventions.” 

Other constraints on the renovation were similar to those faced by the original builders. Firstly, there was next-to-no budget for the work, and secondly, “it had to be built by humans because Drew [architect Drew Heath, who worked for Sam at the time], my father Ted and I had to be able to do it ourselves.” These constraints ensured that changes were in-keeping with the original. 

“We made the stairs out of raw concrete and the bathroom walls were made of 1.6mm steel – like you use for airconditioning ducts. They were cheap – I bought the panels for $50 each, in-keeping with the industrial feel of the original building and unpretentious. I like to think that’s how the original designer would have approached it.” Marshall says. 

A frying pan sink

Marshall’s entire ethos for the renovation can be summed-up by the sink under the stairs. 

After a quick trip to Chinatown and some work with a hacksaw to remove the handles, the sink was formed by pressing the wok into the concrete as it set.

“I liked the idea of making the benchtop in cast concrete and was stuck on how to get a sink in there with minimal intervention. I needed a curved profile to hold the water and didn’t want to have to cut the surface and deal with silicone joints and the expense and complication of a metal sink. 

“Half a sphere was the obvious choice, then I thought of a wok.” After a quick trip to Chinatown and some work with a hacksaw to remove the handles, the sink was formed by pressing the wok into the concrete as it set. 

The drain was cut into the bottom, “the spout is just the copper pipe coming out of the sloping underside of the stairs above the sink and the taps are brass garden taps that were a few dollars each. 

“The copper and brass weather beautifully and won’t look out of place like a chrome tap would have.”

It’s important to draw, touch and measure the building

Understanding the history behind the building and its sense of place are key, agrees architect Jean Rice

Jean Rice, conservation architect

While working for the NSW Government Architect’s office and in private practice, she was involved in the adaptive reuse of buildings as diverse as Callan Park Mental Hospital to the Sydney College of the Arts, Eveleigh Carriage Workshops to the Carriageworks theatre, restoration of huts in Kosciuszko National Park and projects on Norfolk Island.

“It’s important to draw, touch and measure the building,” and “understand the physical and social history to develop a deep understanding of place and any historical events that have happened there. It’s like being a detective.” 

In a project like Norfolk Island and Eveleigh that sense of history is critical. “At Eveleigh, it was important to keep the volume of the main spaces so we had to find a use that didn’t require partitions, and that complimented the rough, industrial feel of the building. 

The same historical ethos applies to small projects. Like Marshall in his warehouse, Rice applied this respect for what came before to “Kirkbride [in Callan Park], which had been designed as a ‘mental hospital’ as opposed to an asylum – so already very progressive. 

“It was divided into several wings for men and women and different medical conditions. That use complimented the use by the College of Arts which was divided into faculties which could each use the different wings.”

It’s not just about warehouses

There is a risk, here, of assuming adaptive reuse is all about dirty industrial buildings, but Marshall’s Object Gallery breaks that mould. Originally built in 1957 as a chapel in the round, the building had been heritage listed as Ken Woolley’s first significant building. 

Re-use had to respect its original use as a place of quiet and contemplation, as well as preserve the fabric of the building. 

Marshall’s respect for the building’s history extended to sharing his ideas with Woolley, who was still alive during the project. The brief was to create a gallery, “but curved concrete walls don’t lend themselves to hanging works of art, and we couldn’t keep drilling into them every time we wanted to hang a picture, so we put white-painted MDF over the concrete walls to create a paintable and repairable surface. 

“Then we added a mezzanine inside the space, with storage underneath which created another long wall for the display of art while remaining subtle.”

“The most sustainable building is the building you already have.”

Designing for reuse even extends to Marshall’s home studio, where the ceiling is made up of plywood sheets that he used as display tables for Supermodels, an exhibition of 444 architectural models in the St Margarets complex in Sydney. 

“Right from the start, I wanted to preserve them for future use, so I didn’t cut them, and they were screwed together lightly. I wanted to keep the materials as re-useable as possible”, just like we should when we’re designing buildings for re-use. 

Because ultimately, to give Jean Rice the last word, “the most sustainable building is the building you already have.”

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