News Home & Design Small Apartment Renovation Celebrates Building's 1880s Splendor A petite apartment in a heritage building gets a bright and elegant makeover from Tsai Design. By Kimberley Mok Kimberley Mok Twitter Writer McGill University Cornell University Kimberley Mok is a former architect who has been covering architecture and the arts for Treehugger since 2007. Learn about our editorial process Published February 21, 2023 11:21AM EST Share Twitter Pinterest Email Never Too Small News Environment Business & Policy Science Animals Home & Design Current Events Treehugger Voices News Archive It may seem counter-intuitive, but there is a growing consensus that it is the more ecologically friendly approach is to preserve, repair, renovate, and retrofit older existing buildings rather than start from scratch. That's because there are a lot of embodied carbon emissions (also known as upfront carbon) in those already existing buildings—from the materials, their transport, their assembly, and so on. Embodied carbon is a huge blindspot for the building industry and a hidden challenge in the ongoing climate crisis. We get to see the "reuse imperative" at work in this recent renovation of a Melbourne, Australia apartment located in a grand, heritage-status building that dates back to the gold rush years of the 1880s. Once used as one of the many offices for the Victorian Railways company, the one-bedroom apartment measures a relatively compact 538 square feet (50 square meters). In its original state, the apartment was a jumble of dimly lit zones, which Australian architect Jack Chen of Tsai Design has now transformed into a much more stately residence. We get a tour of this updated home via Never Too Small: The new scheme swaps the bedroom into the darkest corner of the apartment where the kitchen once was. As the architect explains, this redesigned configuration serves modern needs while paying homage to history: "We set out to create a spare but generous and welcoming home for our client, celebrating the 1880s splendour of the building. First, we removed the half height partitioning walls to open the volume into an open plan kitchen and living-dining room." Never Too Small Thanks to this simple move of removing the offending half-walls, the space now feels much larger, with the entrance opening up directly into the main living space. Now, there is a set of built-in wardrobes that act to conceal coats, a refrigerator, as well as a clever, space-saving vertical pantry that slides out. Never Too Small Starting from the concept of a kitchen-as-picture-gallery, the minimalist kitchen now snakes itself around part of the perimeter, blending seamlessly into the rest of the main living space. This L-shaped configuration helps to clear out the center of the home, aligning all that open space with the existing windows, and therefore making it feel much larger. Never Too Small It's lit overhead by a row of LED strip lights, making it look very much like an art gallery. The idea here was that since the client liked to dine out in the neighborhood's many restaurants, there was no need for a full-on kitchen. Never Too Small The all-white surfaces here include the embedded white induction stovetop, and the single countertop of durable and low-VOC Corian, creating a unified look throughout. Small details like the brass fixtures add a gleam of elegance, tying the apartment back to the historical grandeur of this heritage building. Never Too Small Behind a custom-cut door, one sees this counter continuing right into the hidden bathroom, and becoming the vanity for the sink. Never Too Small At the bottom of the counter's turn into the bathroom, there is a concealed drawer at the kickplate, which hides the cat litter. Tess Kelly The bathroom's bright palette feels glamorous, and also has enough space to include a washer and dryer, both hidden behind a door. Never Too Small Back outside, we examine the living room, and see a view out to the communal garden, as well as some furniture pieces that were custom-made for the apartment. One multifunctional piece extends along much of one wall, and acts as an extra sofa and banquette, an entertainment center, and as storage. Never Too Small Here we also have the firm's award-winning Drop Leaf Table, which usually is small and round, and is capable of seating two persons. Tess Kelly But when guests come over, or if more space for working is needed, the table's sides can fold up to create a rectangular table that can easily seat up to six people. Tess Kelly Coming into the once-dark nook where the kitchen used to be, we now have a glorious space with a restored archway. It functions as a bedroom and an oversized dressing room, with full-height wardrobes flanking a large mirror. Never Too Small But behind that mirror, there is actually a Murphy bed. When brought down, it creates a cozy space for reading or sleeping. With the entire space being lined with a wooden skin, it helps to insulate the room from any noise coming from a nearby train. Even with the bed deployed, it's possible to open the closet doors. Never Too Small Another instance of the apartment's thoughtful design comes in this pair of alcoves on either side of the bed—mini-libraries that are outfitted with suspended lights and adjustable shelves. Never Too Small Chen has achieved something remarkable here, proving that a small space such as this can still evoke a sense of grandeur, when it's done right. But in the greater scheme of things, he notes that: "I think there are two reasons to repurpose an old building. One, of course, is to address the housing issue [of affordability], but just as importantly, it tells the story of the city. And so, for me, I think that it's a very sustainable way to look at the housing issue in a growing city." To see more, visit Tsai Design and Instagram.