A do-it-yourself project transforms a water filtration plant into beautiful, livable space.

Text by Vicki Johnson

Photography by Beau Gustafson

To most it was an ugly, abandoned space with a daunting amount of work to make it habitable, but to Matthew Finley and his wife Mikel Wijayasuriya, it was a blank canvas they could eventually make their own.

Finley met Will Brothers at Auburn University where the two studied architecture and worked on the Rural Studio, a design-build education program that gives students hands-on experience building community and residential structures in Hale County Alabama.

After graduation, the two landed in Birmingham and, in 2007, co-founded their own design/build workshop, Green Bottle Workshop. Its namesake comes from the late architecture professor Samuel Mockbee, affectionately known as “Sambo,” who had a profound influence on them while they were both at Auburn and at the Rural Studio. In its four years in existence, they’ve completed almost 20 residential and commercial projects throughout the Birmingham area.

When the two originally came across the space, it was a vacant water filtration plant that had sat empty for years before being residentially rezoned to Vestavia. When it popped up in their residential listings, they brought clients by, but many were apprehensive and turned away from the project. Finley and his wife decided to take a gamble and bought the place.

“It was supposed to be a clean, open space that we could start to make our own,” Finley says. “We’re still at more of a blank slate and we’re still adding new things. It’s not everybody’s version of home.”

They quickly sold the house they were renovating in Crestwood and bought the space in August 2008 before moving temporarily into a one-bedroom apartment.

Finley and Wijayasuriya had toyed with the idea of purchasing a loft downtown but were unable to find what they were looking for. Having space for their Labradoodles, Peri and Lili, was also a major concern, so when this place came on the market they thought it would give them the loft feel they desired while also providing the benefits of a neighborhood and yard.

Renovation began almost immediately, and for Finley, it was a labor of love. “This was a do-it-yourself project.” he says. “This was nights and weekends over the better part of two years.”

Finley addressed some of the major concerns with the water runoff by adding a retaining wall around the house, which also creates an intimate and enclosed space in the backyard.  Some of his biggest challenges were clearing the space and removing the two old water tanks in the now den area. The inch and a quarter thick steel tanks stood 10 feet tall and 10 feet wide. When all was said and done, he scrapped approximately 6,500 pounds of steel and had to have a crane pull the remaining pieces of the tanks out of their solid concrete bases.

The 2,200-square-foot house now has a master suite, guest room and bath, a kitchen, den, dining room, half bath and office space that acts as headquarters for Green Bottle Workshop.

Finley knew he wanted to keep the exposed industrial trusses of the ceiling and the concrete flooring throughout the house. Radiant heat was added to the kitchen and master suite floor to add a little extra comfort.

“For the most part, we tried to have big openings and as few walls as possible just to make it feel open and light,” he says.

Every door and window in the house was custom built by Finley using glass and steel and the kitchen features a six-by-ten foot window that doubles as a door and provides indoor outdoor living space off the kitchen that spills out onto the patio area.

The house has a light industrial feel with lots of contemporary flair. It’s handmade, modern, as Finley says: “The big goal of this project was to make it seem, I guess, to get the most bang for your buck.” While he may have been on a budget, he certainly didn’t skimp on quality of craftsmanship and detail.

A large sheet of steel wraps around the kitchen wall and acts as a backsplash and fun message board. The stairs leading down from the kitchen and also in the master suite are made from off-the-shelf Home Depot Southern yellow pine held in place by multiple stair stringers. They create an unusual look but one that was very cost-effective.

Finley wanted the kitchen appliances to have a commercial feel without the costs, and after months of looking, purchased a Viking dishwasher and stove off Craigslist.

Add in the large, overlapping mirrors in the den from Southeastern Salvage, the white Barcelona lounge chairs and couch hand-me-downs from Finley’s father, and the coffee table—custom built by Finley and Brothers, featuring a sheet of steel on top with wooden sides—and the house isn’t just beautiful, but is friendly on the wallet.  And Finley’s not afraid of throwing in a few IKEA pieces to keep costs down and tie the look of the house together.

“Most people would consider it modern, but we also don’t want it to be at the expense of comfort or livability,” Finley says. “It’s modern but still functional, useable and comfortable, because we don’t believe that those two things are mutually exclusive.”

It was an unlikely choice in the beginning and a big risk to take, but Finley and Wijayasuriya couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. Their home has a lofted feel, like many downtown residences, but contains the perks of a traditional neighborhood. It’s a blend of budget-friendly design and industrial contemporary pieces and, more important, it’s the place they now finally call home.

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