Smart Design Studio - Sydney Architects

Designed from the Inside Out Conversation with Heidi Dokulil

An invitation into William Smart’s studio in Sydney’s Surry Hills – once a run-down boarding house and now a bustling architecture and design studio over two levels, with an apartment on the roof where William, his partner and dog Dougal also live – means a behind-the-scenes look at the somewhat secret life of designing buildings. Unlike some design offices where public and studio spaces are separated, here it’s refreshingly all front-of-house and its head designer likes nothing more than showing you around while enthusiastically providing a running commentary.

Every wall and free surface is layered with models and drawings. There’s the National Art Gallery of Singapore competition entry, shortlisted in the top 5; interiors for Sydney’s Central Park West apartment building by French architect Jean Nouvel; and a new apartment building in Sydney, just won. Amongst it all are explorations and ideas, some according to William will never work and others that need further development. It’s also the time William takes for explaining the design process at SDS and the strength of the relationships developed with each client.

Over the past 15 years, the studio has developed a culture of respect between disciplines and a genuine appreciation for each other’s skills. Instead of dividing his team of 30 into groups of architects and interior designers, here teams are defined by building type so they can specialise where their skills and interests lie. Like the open plan office with its reveal-all- collection of projects completed and on the drawing board, this is an office with strong connections between the design teams and the clients who are always active participants in the process. It’s what William sees as the foundations for the studio’s creative cohesion.

Here, William Smart talks with Heidi Dokulil about a project currently in progress for White Rabbit Gallery’s Judith Neilson in Sydney’s inner-city suburb of Chippendale – a new house that demonstrates the cohesion between the group’s interior designers and architects, while also testing some exciting sustainable technologies.

Let’s talk about Indigo Slam. You have said that this is a very special building for you.

Yes, the project is for the creator and director of the White Rabbit Gallery which we designed in 2008. Judith called me up one day and said “I want to build a new house in the old Simona warehouse in Chippendale and I know the name of it. It’s Indigo Slam”. That’s the first thing she said. I asked why she chose that name and she told me it was the name of a crime novel. I immediately knew that was an invitation to do something incredibly expressive so I started the project in a similarly open way. The project is very much about a piece of architecture that is not what you would normally do. It’s completely against the norm. It’s not on the waterfront, it’s not in a tranquil suburb, it’s in the middle of the city. The Australian Financial Review wrote an article about it, noting the land purchase price and the cost of construction and posed the question: “Who would want a 15 million dollar house in middle of the city. Who is going to want that?” Her answer is “I do”.

What kind of brief were you given?

To hurry up, and to make it the best house in Sydney! In our next meeting she said it had to be the best house in Australia and in the third meeting she said, “I think we should aim for the best house in the world.” And that was about it. The only thing she said she needed was a dining table for 60. The other request was no curtains and the third thing was everything in the house had to be manual. After that it just evolved.

So, it was a brief built on trust.

Yes, Judith places all this trust in your hands and for me that means I felt as though it was an invitation to do something that I would love her to have. Judith is not afraid of shocking people so that means don’t be polite with the building. Build something extraordinary. So, I showed her my four favourite architect’s work. We talked about Alvaro Siza who is sculptural and a little bit eccentric; John Pawson, particularly all of the monasteries with their calm monastic interiors; Christian Liaigre, which was more of a test to see if she did want a more conservative approach; and David Chipperfield for his materiality and austerity. She loved the interiors of the John Pawson spaces and the work of Alvaro Siza which is a bit crazy and mad.

There is some irony in choosing John Pawson, an architect famous for hiding his client’s artwork behind discrete walls of joinery.

Yes, interestingly Judith hasn’t said whether she will show art in her home at all. She won’t decide until the project is finished. The only thing she has bought is a light fitting that’s connected to a little bubble making machine.

Tell me about the design approach.

It’s a 4-storey house. Ground floor is the public level so there is the idea of arrival and welcoming and a strong entry gate. You arrive at a semi-circular entrance foyer with a 2.2-metre ceiling so the intention is that the first space will be a little dark before you turn into the main void atrium which is intended to be quite bright with a soaring 12-metre ceiling. There is an 8-metre rise to the second and third floor which are the private levels. Bedrooms are all upstairs with ensuites and a laundry, and on the top level the kitchen, private dining, study, powder room and family room. On the level below there is a courtyard that connects to the guesthouse and below that is the garage. On the ground level there is another staircase down to the basement below. We are now working on the backyard, a little green oasis which needs to be a bit overgrown and mad.

The process for me was to explore it from the inside. I took it as a warehouse conversion but Judith wanted a new house. We kept the walls that could be kept with recycling and rejuvenating the city in mind. We then opened up the north wall which had the best aspect. It’s one of those briefs where it’s a big house and we didn’t have to fill it so there’s an opportunity to bring great light and great voids and great spaces into the house. We realised it was all about the section and not about the plan. The idea was to manipulate light and to create spaces that were linked as a series of events. So the central qualities of walking through this house are the intimate spaces, like a Frank Lloyd Wright project might do, along with impressive height, light and dark. We had this idea of taking a plane and cutting it and snipping it. We then took that classic barrel vault and cut it and let it peal out to bring light inside that play on the shape and form. That language follows right through the house. The same idea of material follows through from inside to out. For me it’s been one of those projects where I’ve pushed myself very hard to do things that I’m uncomfortable with and scared about.

What were you uncomfortable with?

The form. I didn’t want to be too ambitious with the project and do something we can’t build. I wanted it to be daring and I wanted it to be unique and I wanted it to have the right flows and the right harmony.

You have said that the making process is just as important for you as the designing process.

The house is very much made by tradesmen who are specialists in what they do. We use boat builders, steel fabricators and concreters who we have a relationship with. Along with engineers and consultants we try to bring together a team who will build the house together, so everyone understands what it’s about and they believe in it. It’s one of those projects where you’ve got such a great client, everyone wants to be close to her. Judith goes to all the site meetings unless she is out of the country, she wants to be part of everything.

For a house that is immersed in an old industrial fringe of the city what were your material cues?

Inside the materials are all solid woods, solid brick and solid concrete. We are using a waxed marble dust on the ceilings, a luminous finish called Marmorino. The floors will be brick throughout except for the showers. Judith likes the simplicity of it and the sound the bricks will create. We will loose-lay them so you can hear the sound of clinking as you walk across a room. She is interested in all of that.

It’s a big house, what technologies are you using to reduce energy consumption?

The heating and cooling is geothermally based which means we have 17 bores that are each 120 metres down into the earth where the temperature is stable at around 18 degrees all year round. So in summer we will reticulate water through the pipes and that will run up through the slabs so the house will be cooled to about 18-20 degrees all year round. All it takes is a pump to run that which will be solar powered. So there will be almost no air conditioning costs. They say it’s about 1,000 times more efficient than a regular air conditioner. Other than that we have the usual things; rainwater tanks, energy efficient lighting, water-wise fixtures and fittings, solar panels over the whole roof, as well as natural ventilation, good aspect and shading.

So this has been a bit of a testing ground for geothermal technology?

I have never used geothermal before and it’s quite expensive to install. The payback periods are very long however Judith wants to be responsible with the house and not to build a big gas-guzzling house. She also wanted this to be a project that would share knowledge about sustainable technologies and how they work in practice with others.

When will Indigo Slam be finished?

We hope to be finished by the end of next year. It’s moving really fast now. They have finished all of the excavations, they are building the brick-vaulted basement roof, we are prototyping the steel framed windows which oddly support the concrete façade and are designed as picture windows with solid shutters above and below the fixed glass. The operation for all windows is manual and has visible axles, arms and cranks. While in the studio we continue refining details and having regular discussions with Judith. It’s one of those lovely relationships, she loves the dialogue which can also be quite robust and we all enjoy that too.

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