With its irregular shape and its rich history, the Griffiths Teas building has long been an architectural icon of Sydney’s city fringe. But despite having maintained an imposing presence on its central triangular corner for over a century – scarcely marked thanks to its robust industrial envelope – it has spent the most recent three decades of that time out of use.

Now, after three years of development, planning and building, the Griffiths Teas building is just days away from re-opening its doors in its new form, as a residential building transformed by PopovBass Architects.

The former tea warehouse and garment factory, which closed during the 1970s, has been converted into 38 apartments that retain many original features of the heritage building. Each floorplan contains a diverse range of apartment configurations; it was important for the architects to design residences into the space, Tetris-like, without knocking down existing walls.

Although the architects avoided demolition wherever possible, it was necessary to create a core within the building to accommodate the central elevator shafts. However, compensation has been made for this removal of floor space with a series of historical references placed around the lift arrival points on each level. Around this excavated building core, ‘tea boxes’ have been created out of silver-grey metal, which references the colour of the Singer sewing machines that were found when the building was sold to its current owner. Images from the building’s past and text panels detailing its history have been overlaid onto these metal ‘tea boxes’.

“The supporting structure of regular columns became an integral part of the new design. Studying the building’s history, from its recent vocation as a garment trade factory back to its original purpose as a tea warehouse, an entirely sympathetic design solution was conceived. Historically, tea was delivered to the site in massive, box-like hessian bales. The scale of these boxes formed an idea to encase services, bathrooms and kitchens in similar, pod-like structures that sit between the columns; revealing, never concealing them,” says PopovBass.

“Keeping the internal structure visible is the key to ensuring the new building reflects the old, rather than applying some sort of faux veneer of heritage – this design celebrates the astoundingly robust construction of the original build. PopovBass feels you cannot ‘design’ a heritage building, you must breathe life into the former structure, giving the occupants a new way of living through the transformation.”

Within the apartments themselves, original wooden beams and columns were left in-tact, with all walls built on either side so as to not make the new additions reliant on the old structure. This means that, should the building take on another function in the future, it will not require the demolition of heritage features.

The broad, boxy windows of the original building were left intact and used to bring extensive sunlight into apartments. The rough brick walls were left exposed to retain the “rustic” heritage patina, which is juxtaposed with modern fixtures, fittings and appliances, such as Smeg cooktops and brass bathroom detailing.

Although the façade of the building was left largely untouched, the old New York-style metal fire stairs were removed, with the wood from the steps repurposed to create recycled floorboards for the Chin Chin restaurant on the lower level. On top of the building, the architects have created a subtle nod to the Griffiths Tea building’s contemporary appropriation: a pixelated metal “crown” that catches the sunlight and visually “blurs the boundary between building and sky”.