I had arranged to meet with Bill and Tracey on Tuesday evening. I was keen to show them my design for their apartment renovation. I had put together a package of sketches. On the cover I wrote the words “Hindsight; all the things I would have done as a new parent.
The siren call of the suburbs
A new baby often pushes us to conservatism and conformity. Bill and Tracey had lived in their two level Fitzroy apartment for almost six years when we first met. Their apartment was on the top floor of a beautiful MacRobertson factory where it commanded an expansive view over Edinburgh Gardens and the northern suburbs. Their’s was the location that we all dreamed of as young adults. However apartments like this are often abandoned if kids come into our lives. Increased space, an extra bathroom and a backyard are factors that often dictate a move to the suburbs. Yet Bill and Tracey loved their Fitzroy home. They did not want to leave. They wanted clever ideas that would allow them to have a child in their much loved home.
The apartment needed a radical rethink. The stair was tight. So tight that it was, in fact, illegal. Carrying groceries upstairs was a nightmare. Carrying a child downstairs could even be dangerous. The lower level was dark, much of it internalised. The entry, on the lower level, was confined, dark and awkward. Prams and the bulky baby paraphernalia had no place in the apartment. They would inevitably occupy hallway space, forever tripped over by frustrated parents and visitors. Bill’s office, the centre of the lower level, had no natural light nor view outside. The upper level had ample space, however much of it was unused or wasted. With clever rearrangement an extra living area could be added.
It’s a lot more complicated than you think
For Bill and Tracey the biggest issue was space. How would they fit a baby into their home? For me the fundamental issue was much more than just increasing space. Armed with the hindsight of raising my own child, my concern was the radical day-to-day changes a baby brings. The endless management of ‘stuff’ was the key. The trick is to work with the chaos a child brings rather than naively hoping that your child will choose to be neat.
Parents, gravity conspires against you
Gravity is colluding with your child. Gravity conspires in your child's favour. Their target is your sanity. Parents constantly pick things up, while kid throws them down. Children love dropping things on the ground. We have all seen the torturous game of a baby sitting in a high chair throwing a toy to the ground the moment it is placed on their table. It’s cute the first three times. It’s a nightmare the next 200 times. While gravity amuses the child, it punishes the parent. At Black house we have made gravity the parents’ ally rather than the child’s. What if the floor could eat all the mess up?
The toy box floor
Let’s design a floor that swallows the mess. Rather than picking toys up to put back in the toy box, let’s make the floor one big toy box. Let’s get a broom and sweep all the lego in from the top and sides. It becomes a game for the child as well as a new hiding place for her to play.
Your child wants to be with you, always, regardless of how wonderful their bedroom may be. Along with them they bring their toys, clothes and chaos. If we provide a bedroom that, at times, can feel like an extension of the shared family space, then it is likely that a child will play in their space and
keep all of their stuff there. All you need to provide for your child is a line of sight and the ability to speak with you without leaving their room. To accomplish this we have added heavy sliding walls rather than a fixed wall with standard door. If the child and/or you want to occupy one large space, the wall slides away so that the child’s room is an extension of the living spaces. If the child needs to sleep, study or wants privacy the heavy walls slide closed and lock in position.
Beneath the stair is often lost space. Its the little things that make a house work well. Entering a house with a pram and a couple of bags can be surprisingly stressful. Here we have a small shelf to the left of the entry to drop bags and keys. A hidden hatch to the right to slide in the pram under the stairs. Its the perfect size for a pram, which is now hidden until it is needed next.
Try moving a fridge or a couch in an apartment. It sucks. It sucks a lot. ‘Stuff’ is always on the move in any house, especially a house with a baby in it. Groceries go up, garbage comes down. Clean nappies go up. Dirty nappies go down. Groceries go up. Recycling goes down. And toys just go everywhere. The new mesh floor, directly over the front door can be unlatched and a winch lowered to haul items of almost any size. It’s a small idea that makes a huge difference to your sanity.
Mesh is the best
Stairs are tricky. Especially in tight spaces. We have tried to create a stair that feels light like lace, which is difficult considering the constant live loads it is under. Steel mesh is folded allowing light to be shared while also enabling conversations to take place from one level to the other, without requiring you to be in the same space. This was previously impossible. The stair is also part desk, part laundry and part furniture. One can lounge on the steps and chat with both someone at the study and upstairs. Furthermore, as apartments at the top of old warehouses don't typically have playgrounds for kids, the stair becomes a jungle gym for play and exploration. Give a child a handful of colourful magnets and a handful of pegs and that stair will keep them amused for days.
The command centre
Bill’s office was previously relegated to a dark corner under the stairs. He now has the ‘command centre’. The centre of the house, where he sees all and hears all. The child’s bedroom wall can be slid away so that father and daughter can see each other without the need to drag toys into the office. The mesh stairs wrap around the office allowing someone to sit and chat or quietly play or read on the stairs, in the same space as Bill. Utility, bathroom, bedroom, laundry, living, dining and kitchen are all directly linked with the office so that Bill can run the house with ease.
1 bathroom = 2
The original bathroom was large. Arguably too large for an apartment. Bill and Tracey wanted an ensuite for themselves and a second bathroom for both the child and guests. To squeeze out maximum functional space we sliced the existing bathroom at an angle with each shower back to back. This rationalised the plumbing while also making use of every millimetre of space available.
Retreating to the suburbs shouldn’t be the default decision. ‘More space’ is often not the answer. The answer is more complex, and can lead to great spaces that do just what you want. All you have to do is challenge your preconceptions.