WHILE LIVING AND working in Sydney, marriage and family counsellor Susan Weil and her partner Emma Hohnen had their hearts set on buying an old farmhouse in Bellingen – a charming riverside town in northern NSW – and spent a year hunting online. But with no luck, they changed tack.
Not only did they decide to move their business, Beachhouse Therapies, to Bellingen and rent accommodation, they broadened their search. “We couldn’t get everything we wanted unless we paid top dollar, so we started looking for the right piece of land rather than the right house,” Susan says. “We were determined to buy and leave plenty in the bank to have a lifestyle.” Distance to town and a northerly elevated aspect (for sea breezes) were still boxes to be ticked. Luck struck. Susan and Emma, with their toddler Sahara in tow, found a glorious piece of land – that fortunately had a house on it!
Raising the roof
The family could live in the modest two bedroom home – actually a besser-block garage that had been added to over the years – while deciding whether to build at the top of the block. But it needed work. “The roof was very low, and structurally not sound in terms of the amount of rainfall in the area,” Susan says. “I wanted a vaulted skillion roof [a fl at roof that slopes in one direction] and to open up the ceiling to make the space feel bigger.”
PANDORA’S BOX Although Susan had initially only wanted to open up the ceiling and put on a new roof, the home ended up being gutted. “Once the roof and ceilings were ripped out – and the kitchen and bathrooms stripped of a few bits and pieces – it was a different ball game,” she recalls. Most of the interior walls were also removed. And at this “exposed” stage it was more economical to replace all of the wiring, rather than later. Plumbing had to be moved to accommodate changes, such as the repositioning of the kitchen (and bathroom) sink, making better use of the space.
NO STORAGE There was also a lack of kitchen storage, with no cupboards or shelves. “We had to build the kitchen from scratch – minus the stove and stainless steel workbench,” Susan explains. For shelves, she sourced timber from a local mill. The floating floor was removed and the concrete painted a neutral colour, which was also done throughout the rest of the house.
Dine, eat, live
IMAGINATION RULES The separate but adjacent dining and living rooms were small, so two internals walls were removed to make a larger, combined eating and living space. Read this article to select house renovation styles.
MONEY SAVER Bellingen can get very hot in the summer months and very cold in winter so the couple installed the best and highest-rating insulation they could afford. “We put in double the insulation required: 3.5-rating in the ceiling and 2.5-rating in the walls,” Susan says. “It is, and always has been, the biggest money saver long term. The winter has been very mild as a result – a small heater or lighting the slow combustion stove was all we needed to warm the house.” To further lessen their environmental footprint, the family use tank water and are planning to install solar hot water and solar power systems (see page 174, and visit Solarshop.com.au). “It’s not as diffi cult as people think, and with all the government rebates for these things it’s now affordable,” Susan says.
DECORATING STYLE This “recycle, reuse and restore when we can” attitude is also reflected in the pre-loved pieces that furnish the home, giving it a relaxed, comfortable vibe. “I want people to feel they can walk in, put their feet up on the couches and coffee tables and make themselves at home,” Susan says. “I love being outdoors, and that influences the way I decorate. I don’t want things that are precious. We have children and animals, including two dogs, two cows, a rooster, eight chooks and a lamb that wanders into the house, so our home is messy and real and has a heartbeat. It reflects us,” she says.
ON THE BRIGHT SIDE The only aspect of the house that Susan is less than thrilled with is that the two bedrooms face south. “I’m sure this is a plus in summer, but it’s not great in winter,” she says. But a bedroom revamp has more than compensated. The concrete slab flooring had to be waterproofed to prevent water seepage, then seagrass matting was laid. Doors were replaced, ceiling fans were put in and a high window was installed in one of the bedrooms to create a cross draft. “It was cheaper to just put the window above the height of the new wall when we extended up,” Susan says. Outside, soil against the bedroom walls had to be removed for better drainage after rainfall.
ENTER AT LEISURE The pergola at the entrance was fitted with Laserlite sheets and new posts; the driveway was graded and widened; the property was refenced with hardwood timber; and native trees, and grasses for the cows and sheep were planted, as was an organic vegetable garden. A shed was converted into a yoga studio and counselling and massage rooms.
HEART’S CONTENT Recently, Susan and Emma found what they had originally wished for – an old farmhouse in a Bellingen valley, which they will relocate to the top of their block. Once it has been fitted out to lessen its carbon footprint, it will become the family’s main home – and their lovingly transformed, pet-friendly former garage will be (and sometimes is) available for farm stays .