First House: 632 Bourke

When architect William Smart found a pair of dilapidated buildings in Sydney’s Surry Hills, he immediately saw their potential and set to work designing a new home for himself and his partner, and for his then burgeoning practice, Smart Design Studio.

Eighteen years ago, I decided it was time to find and create a studio space for Smart Design Studio. It took two years to find the right site, and when I came across a pair of dilapidated buildings in Sydney’s Surry Hills, I could immediately see their potential, not only as an office but as a residence for myself and my partner, John. Developers had been scared off by the state of the buildings – the former boarding houses had been fire-ravaged, and were full of white ants and asbestos, while the stables were heritage-listed. Up until that point, we had mainly worked on apartment interiors, alterations and additions. Converting two adjoining terraces into an apartment with offices below gave me the freedom to shape a whole building, a project we refer to as 632 Bourke.

People often ask me if it’s harder to design for oneself, but I don’t think so. I have learnt that if I’m unsure about something, then it’s probably not right. I had such a clear idea for 632 Bourke that when we settled the sale of the buildings after just two months, the design concept was already complete.

I adopted a modern approach to heritage, cutting elongated windows into the northern elevation, which was already punctuated with double-hung windows to the bathrooms, thereby exploring the connection to the northern light, street and neighbouring church. It was one of the first times since starting my practice that I had the opportunity to design the architecture and the interiors as one. I didn’t approach it from the outside, deciding that the facade needed four windows. Rather, my thinking began on the inside, determining how many desks the office required, and then how best to arrange those desks and windows. This idea of architecture from the inside out has evolved to become a common thread throughout Smart Design Studio’s work.

Smart Design Studio’s office spills onto a courtyard, which, having hosted milestone celebrations over the years, has witnessed the growth of the practice.

Smart Design Studio’s office spills onto a courtyard, which, having hosted milestone celebrations over the years, has witnessed the growth of the practice.

Image: Anson Smart

The two bedroom apartment atop the terrace conversion also gave me a chance to test new ideas. I kept the plan simple; the living and sleeping spaces are separated by an island pod, concealing the service spaces. This plan allows three out of four walls to be predominantly glazed, using the original parapet to provide enclosure and privacy, while one long wall has been left uninterrupted for the display of artworks. The aggregated pod divides the apartment into three separate areas so it’s seldom necessary to close doors. I have incorporated this principle time and time again in the numerous apartment developments that we have since worked on.

Our practice has always been interested in design that minimizes the need for airconditioning and artificial lighting, and 632 Bourke is no different. The apartment’s extensive glazing is protected in summer by large overhangs to the north, with screening to the east provided by fixed aluminium battens, and the western glare softened by deciduous planting in Bourke Street. We incorporated solar panels on the roof, as well as operable louvres on the windows and an open-plan layout that encourages cross-ventilation.

The two-bedroom apartment’s extensive glazing is protected by large overhangs and deciduous planting.

The two-bedroom apartment’s extensive glazing is protected by large overhangs and deciduous planting.

Image: Anson Smart

The project gave me the opportunity to grow the business. The costs involved in acquiring two centrally located buildings and converting them into what stands today was no small investment. To keep things in check, I registered as an owner-builder. I would begin the day on site at 7 am, often returning at lunchtime. On weekends I would manage the payments and tidy up the site. Initially, we only partially occupied the building; John and I took up residence in the apartment, Smart Design Studio occupied the ground level and basement, and the rest was leased in order to offset the construction costs. As the practice grew, we gradually took over the whole space, spilling into the courtyard to celebrate milestones, birthdays and the start of the weekend.

I recently sold 632 Bourke, having decided to embark on the same process elsewhere, but not as an owner-builder. This time around, I’m focusing on details and precluding anything that we don’t love. The things I regret in 632 Bourke are the corners I cut when I ran out of steam and the compromises that I accepted. Despite that, I have many fond memories from my time living and working there. Living above the studio has been ideal for me. I could go down early in the morning and enjoy some quiet time at my desk before everyone arrived. In the evenings, I could have dinner with John and return to work afterwards without much effort. Our dog, Dougal, was as at home in the office as he was in the apartment.

Our design for the new studio is propelled by notions of invention and innovation, and the layering of a concept with a sustainable approach, new ways of building and carefully nuanced materials. It will not be another iteration of 632 Bourke, but a fresh approach to the same values.


Smart Design Studio
Sydney, NSW, Australia
Project Team
William Smart, Anita Panov, Laura Morton
Builder William Smart
Engineer Northrop
Heritage consultant Cracknell and Lonergan Architects
Hydraulic consultant Jon Tourle and Associates
Town planner SPD Town Planners
Site Details
Location Surry Hills,  Sydney,  NSW,  Australia
Site type Urban
Project Details
Status Built
Category Residential
Type Revisited / first house



Published online: 27 Aug 2019
Words: William Smart
Images: Anson Smart, Sharrin Rees


Houses, June 2019

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