A Peaceful Haven – Basement Apartment by Brad Swartz Architects
Video Feature
Sydney, NSW, Australia

Photography Katherine Lu
Words Rose Onans

Defying all expectations of a small Victorian-era apartment set below street-level on a busy thoroughfare in Potts Point, Basement Apartment is a calm and light-filled pied-à-terre that balances a minimalist approach with an embrace of the building’s heritage.

The project came to Brad Swartz Architects on the recommendation of a client from a previous project – a pair of conjoined micro-houses created on the minuscule footprint of two rear-lane parking spaces. While the Basement Apartment is larger than those houses, and indeed many of the tiny studio apartments that the practice has become known for over the years, at 50 square metres, it is undoubtedly of a small scale. With the clients ’brief focusing on transforming the previously cluttered apartment into a serene space with the flexibility to suit executive letting, permanent living or even usage as an office, the architects’ experience in fitting a maximum of functionality into a minimum of space and creating a sense of tranquility in the process stood them in good stead.

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The Basement Apartment is positioned below street level on a busy thoroughfare in Potts Point.

The design was driven by two major challenges, explains Brad Swartz. “One, because the apartment is on basement level from the street side, it doesn’t get a lot of light from the east, and with a relatively deep floorplan we had to work hard to get light in,” he says. “The other key driving factor was that the building is heritage-listed, and the apartment had been horribly renovated about 30 years ago. A big part of the design was trying to reinstate the original beauty of the space.”

The heritage restrictions meant it was not possible to increase the size of the external apertures to draw more light deeper into the plan. Indeed, maintaining the original windows and uncovering them from beneath Venetian shutters that had been added in the 1990s was an important part of restoring a sense of the building’s history. Though the apartment is at basement level, the fall of the site means that the kitchen-living space and the bathroom, both set on the side furthest from the street, are blessed with views over the Sydney skyline and receive natural light from the west.

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The bathroom and living space are blessed with beautiful natural light and views over the city.

This informed the decision to play up the bathroom, which is unexpectedly luxurious for its compact size. Reconfiguring the existing laundry and bathroom captured enough space to fit a freestanding tub, which is positioned to take in the views. Meanwhile, in the living room, the architects employed a material palette that reflects as much light as possible and creates a bright, calm environment. “The light oak floors and white walls, without being glossy surfaces, are more conducive to bouncing the light that does enter throughout the space,” says Brad.

Other similarly simple yet effective moves were key to bringing more light into the bedroom, establishing a line of sight from the bed to the view and improving the circulation and sense of space in the apartment. Though the floorplan was not changed, the opening between the bedroom and the living space was enlarged to allow light and views to be shared between the two spaces. The wall that divided the bedroom from the entry corridor was also replaced with joinery that acts as both storage and a partition.

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Basement Apartment emphasizes the original heritage details of the spaces.

The joinery throughout the apartment was kept deliberately slight and elegant, reading more like loose furniture than a built intervention in the space. “We didn’t want to interrupt the heritage elements with the joinery,” Brad says. “The joinery partition in the bedroom stops short of the ceiling, emphasising the Victorian high ceilings, and in the kitchen, the joinery allows the original skirting to run behind it.” In addition, this approach gives the design a greater degree of flexibility and longevity, as filling the space with joinery would not be conducive to allowing it to function as an office should the clients wish to change the apartment’s use in future.

On the one hand, emphasising the sense of openness, which is enhanced by the elevated joinery and tucking the majority of the essential appliances and storage into a tight space behind the kitchen, was key to mitigating the small windows and the apartment’s modest overall size. Conversely though, Brad explains that “a sense of space can be heightened by having a sense of entry and creating a journey through the spaces. It’s actually the opposite technique of being purely efficient – small separations between spaces can actually make an apartment feel bigger.”

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Though the floorplan was not changed, the opening between the bedroom and the living space was enlarged to allow light and views to be shared between the spaces.

Being situated at basement level means that the apartment is also given more of an arrival sequence than if it were on the ground floor and one simply walked in off the street. Rather, it descends down a steep set of rough bluestone stairs, and a defined entry is created by the joinery unit, so that one does not step directly into the living or sleeping quarters but progresses past the bedroom and into the living space. Here, the kitchen joinery is angled to reorient the visitor towards the view. And, once one is inside, the front door can be hidden behind a curtain, a subtle psychological manoeuvre. “I tend to find that when you can see the front door wherever you are in an apartment, it immediately makes the space feel smaller,” Brad says, “so covering it with a curtain mitigates this effect.”

Closing the door and drawing the curtain, one is cocooned in a peaceful haven below the busy city street. Bringing order to a previously dislocated, compact apartment and creating calm amongst the chaos, Brad Swartz Architects once again rises to the challenge of effective small-space design.

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