Dempsey Warehouse

Dempsey Warehouse is an eco house and alternative model of housing that exemplifies the social ethos of its owners and stewards for the past 45+ years, instigated by the late Col James AM. The idea of repurposing Dempsey into residential space was as simple as it was effective – to stop the university from gobbling up Darlington – and today it addresses the challenges of a new generation: sustainability, affordability and ageing in place.

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230m2 x 3 live/work units
Gadigal, Darlinton, NSW
Private | Completed 2022

“The architect is a doctor to keep buildings working, rather than just knocking them off.”

– Col

“Thanks to the good work of Carol and Ken and their excellent building team, [they have honoured] Col’s memory with this beautiful completion of the ever-transforming Dempsey Warehouse project.”

– Karine

Approach

Dempsey Warehouse is located in the inner-city suburb of Darlington, which sits on Gadigal land in close proximity to Victoria Park, an area known as a rich source of foods for the Gadigal prior to colonisation.

The suburb was named after the Darling Nursery established by Thomas Shepherd in the 1820’s. Shepherd’s nursery provided fruit trees to the early colony’s land owners, and his active involvement in botanical and horticultural circles influenced the establishment of the Sydney Botanic Gardens.

In the 1970’s this warehouse building was purchased by the late Col James – architect, academic and activist – who formed the ‘Dempsey family’ with his mates. He won a landmark case at the Land & Environment Court that paved the way for the conversion of redundant industrial buildings into residential accommodation, safeguarding them from demolition and retaining the character of inner-city areas.

In those early days Dempsey housed an eclectic mix of academics, activists and artists, and a similar array of activities, including silk printing in the rear courtyard for the Australian brand Mambo.

The brief for this project was a long-held dream of the owners, the late Col James and his wife Karine, to make Dempsey a sustainable eco house and incorporate a roof garden; a place for the enjoyment of the outdoors, which the upper level had always lacked.

We met Col and Karine after taking up the ground floor tenancy, one of three live/work units that are still occupied by an eclectic group of creative people. We were attracted to the site because the warehouse easily accommodated a live-work set-up, long before working-from-home became the norm.

Process

The current renovation integrates Col and Karine’s long-held desire for a low-carbon low-emissions building. In keeping with the building’s longstanding ethos, we took a frugal approach to improving thermal performance to achieve the goal of reducing the building’s overall carbon footprint and reducing operational running costs into the future.

Works included:

  • solar panels for renewable energy generated onsite
  • green roof
  • phase change materials
  • recycling timbers removed from the roof
  • installing high levels of insulation, including to cavity brick walls
  • removing all existing air-conditioning in favour of cross ventilation via new timber windows
  • installing low energy lighting and ceiling fans
  • refurbishing original steel windows for thermal performance, and
  • recycling a piano into wall art – a memory of Karine’s late mother who was a concert pianist

These latest works placed significant value on the building’s layers of history, cultural meaning, personal stories and aesthetic values, while carefully incorporating pragmatic requirements such as sustainability upgrades and the care and maintenance of an ageing building.

We also responded to Darlington’s rich layers of history by creating a series of gardens at ground and roof level, referencing the changing landscape character of the area over time. The gardens provide shade, amenity, a mix of native and exotic plantings in addition to fruit bearing trees and various herbal plants.

The roof garden incorporates culturally significant plants such as Bush Mint and the Vanilla Lily, the tubers of which are an Indigenous food.

Results

Now serving as a multi-family and multi-functional exemplar, Dempsey demostrates a long-term commitment to the life of this building and all those who inhabit it. It is our debt of gratitude to Col, to advance his legacy of architecture as the art of the possible and the improbable.

The new laneway tenancy provides below-market-rate affordable accommodation that encourages tenants to remain long-term, thereby strengthening the notion of the Dempsey ‘family’.

Upgrades to the upper level enable the owner to age in place and provide additional space for her yoga practice on the loft level.

Today, Dempsey provides an ongoing, credible alternative model of affordable housing, intergenerational housing, live-work housing and eco housing.

Awards

Sustainability Awards | Winner – highly commended | 2023

ArchitectureAU Award for Social Impact | Shortlist | 2023

Publications

Houses Magazine

Collaborators

Shorebuild

John Carrick | Structural engineer

Sue Barnsley | Landscape architect

Brett Boardman | Photography