When I first came to look at the property we now call home, the house was far from ideal. It faced south, had small dark rooms, the kitchen was poky and a wide verandah ran down the length of the north side, preventing any sunlight from finding its way in.
The soil was lush though, the house had significant potential for improvement, it was two minutes from town (Pambula, far south coast NSW) and the local school, and it had a certain charm. It was also set back off the road, surrounded by trees and farmland. All the infrastructure was already in place, it had power, a 130,000-litre water tank, a dam, ponds, a half-converted barn, a four bay work shed, an onsite caravan and two and a half acres to start living the dream life we had always wanted; growing fruit trees and vegies, having animals and providing a beautiful life for our children.
Having just sold up and moved from Melbourne, we were ready to buy when it was available. The price tag was relatively low compared to what we were used to in the Melbourne market. Looking at the property, we really had to have vision to see what we would be able to do to make the house more solar passive and user-friendly. We spent six months in the house while we did up the barn, then we moved into the barn while we did up the house.
My partner Alex is very practical and talented when it comes to building and renovating, although he’s never worked in the building industry or been formally trained. This made it possible to have big dreams and build the house how we wanted, without too many overheads.
Inappropriately for the southern hemisphere, the original skillion roof was pitched up to the south. The house had a cramped living room on the south side with glass doors as the main access. The kitchen and dining areas were separate rooms on the north side, shaded by the verandah. There was no access out to the sunny garden from here, so we found ourselves climbing in and out of the window to get to the garden.
We pulled down the verandah to the north of the kitchen/ dining area and reconfigured the original dining, kitchen and living areas into this new space in order to create a large new living area. The roof of this extension pitched up to north in a butterfly design, necessitating a box gutter. The overall aim was to create more space for living while making the house more solar passive. With large double glazed glass doors and windows facing north and well designed eaves, the winter sun comes flooding in and the summer sun is kept out, making the house a comfortable temperature all year round.
The floor was a mix of slate tiles over a very uneven concrete slab. There were gaps where the walls had been and the slab in the old living room had been covered by carpet. For really effective solar passive design, it would have been best to leave the slab exposed, to function as a heat sink, but because of the uneven level of the slab (150 mm over 2 m at its most extreme) and the mixture of surfaces, we decided to cover the lot with recycled timber floor boards. This required individually scribed joists to create a level surface.
Covering a masonry surface over with wood does prevent some degree of heat absorption, as the sun cannot directly strike it. But timber creates a better ambiance in the room, and is much more forgiving on your body when you’re standing a lot or when things are dropped on it. Having the slab beneath the boards still does provide thermal mass, and that combined with solar passivity means we need no cooling in summer and just the woodfire in winter.
Clockwise from top left: Looking down the hall with recycled timber flooring. Clawfoot bath in the bathroom. The living room opening out onto the garden. The woodfire provides all the house’s heating needs. Photos by Robyn Rosenfeldt
The house was reasonably well insulated when we moved
in, but while we were building new walls, we added more. The external wall cavities were carefully filled with standard fibreglass batts and lined with sarking. The decision to utilise double glazed windows and doors in the large new open plan kitchen/living area was based on the large area of glass we planned to install, and the fact that there was only approximately a 15% additional cost over single glazing, negating the cost of heavy curtains and pelmets. While the new insulated double glazed doors and windows were a reasonable investment, they were well worth it.
We have a slow combustion burner that we just use at night in winter and this comfortably heats the whole house. The lounge room gets warm and cosy, and enough heat travels down the hall to take the chill off the bedrooms. We let the fire die down when we go to bed. Because of the good insulation the house stays warm until morning, by which time the sun is up. Without any easterly obstructions in the winter time, the house starts to heat passively from sunrise on. No cooling is required, as with a reliable north-easterly breeze in summer, strategically opening a few windows does the job nicely.
I have always dreamed of a home that opens straight out onto the garden and we definitely have that with this building. The northerly living space freely incorporates the outside space, with kids play equipment, a productive lime tree and the washing line close by. To the east we have a porch with outside eating area, with bifold windows opening out from the kitchen. From the porch extends a deck with steps down to a fire pit for entertaining, a garden shed, and kids cubby house and trampoline. All of these design features make the house very liveable.
We have built the chook house and vegie garden only metres from the house, so it’s very easy to duck out in the middle of cooking to grab the food you need. Plus it means that from the kitchen table I can look onto the vegie garden and keep a bit of an eye on things. The orchard is in zone 2, about 15 metres from the house. We can see it but it’s not right on our doorstep.
Because we were extending out in two directions and majorly restructuring the external doors and windows, we decided to entirely reclad the building, rather than trying to match the expensive original colorbond steel cladding. After some research, we found a company that was recycling old wind breaks of Cypress macrocarpa from Victorian farms and milling the salvaged timber into various sizes.
Due to the high resin content, this timber is unpalatable to termites and has good rot resisting properties. They milled us up boards at 280 x 15 mm to use as our new weatherboards. So far this product has performed reasonably well. It takes paint well, but does lack some durability, requiring care with installation to avoid splitting. The main advantage is cost—at about $2.50 per lineal metre it proved considerably cheaper than conventional cladding. It also has very low embodied energy and is highly sustainable. The old steel cladding has since been used in various projects around the property.
Creating A Work Space Onsite
All of this was happening while I was dreaming up the idea of Pip Magazine, so it was important to have somewhere to work from. Once we moved back into the house, I was trying to get snippets of work done while the kids (who were still little) slept. I needed to have a workspace in the house, which worked as the kids shared a room. As they got older and wanted their own rooms, I was able to move the office into the converted barn where we had been living. As the business grows and expands it means I have lots of room to work with. We also run courses and events out of the barn from time to time.
Throughout the construction we reused as much of the building materials as possible. The windows taken out of the property were installed in the barn to allow more northerly sun and winter warmth in.
The studs from the pre-existing walls were 120 x 50 mm hardwood. These salvaged timbers were used to build the kitchen benchtops and structure of the kitchen cabinets. The kitchen cupboard doors were created from recycled pine lining boards, and drawers were built from repurposed door jambs and offcuts from the new external cladding pine.
A couple of years after we moved in, we saved up and bought solar panels. We plan to buy a battery and/or electric vehicle down the track when the technology improves and the costs come down. Because of this we bought a 5 KW system so we’re ready when the time is right. We also replaced the old hot water system with a solar hot water system, which in our climate heats 100% of our water for most of the year and then is boosted on overcast and cloudy days.
What at first appeared like a cold dark house is now a highly functioning solar passive abode which is very comfortable and easy to live in. It has taken a lot of hard work and vision to make it what it is today, but we were able to recognise the potential of the property when we saw it and transform it into something that works for us.