Gariwerd gem

On a concrete slab, the ground floor is of double brick with Colorbond-clad timber frame construction upstairs. "Airtightness was actually a bit of an afterthought – we probably wouldn’t have done the double brick if we’d been thinking about it from the start," says Benjamin. "But we love the aesthetics of the 130-year-old recycled bricks, and the history they bring to the house."
At the foot of Gariwerd (the Grampians) in western Victoria, a young couple’s tiny-footprint handcrafted house is a delight.

At a glance

  • 33.5m2 compact home with living, bathroom and mezzanine bedroom
  • Owner-built over 5,000 hours using mostly recycled materials
  • Highly energy efficient, airtight and powered by solar

Visiting sustainable homes and meeting their owners in person has always been one of the loveliest perks of the job here at Sanctuary, and after a long Covid-enforced hiatus, I felt particularly lucky to be invited not just to visit Benjamin and Holly’s gorgeous Nook on the Hill but to stay the night and experience it for myself.

Arriving along the quiet gravel access road, I spy the diminutive and yet tall house on its rise, surrounded by dry rocky landscaping and a profusion of flowering natives. The facade is fully glazed to take in what I can already see is a truly spectacular view across bushland to the folded ridgelines of Gariwerd.

Built on a parcel of land bought from Benjamin’s mother, the tiny house was very much a labour of love for the young couple. “I always had a bit of a dream to build on this property somewhere,” says Benjamin. “Years ago, my parents built four cottages nearby from natural and recycled materials – they were so frugal and creative. I wanted to do something creative myself.”

Benjamin crafted wall linings, floors, furniture and cabinetry from timber salvaged from around the state. Clever storage is tucked in everywhere in the compact home.

The small footprint of the house (just 24 square metres) was dictated by their limited budget as well as a strong desire to make minimal impact on the land. “Gariwerd is one of the most significant cultural areas in Australia, and while I feel quite connected to this land – I grew up here – I’ve never felt ownership of it. I feel more like a caretaker here,” explains Benjamin. “I didn’t feel comfortable building over more land than necessary.” The couple aim to rewild as much of the former farmland as possible.

Downstairs consists of a living space and corner kitchen with a micro island bench, and a carefully designed bathroom and staircase tucked behind. The staircase is technically a spiral stair around a central steel post, but the square space it occupies and its generous timber treads ensure it feels more like a standard set of stairs to climb. It leads to a mezzanine bedroom with a welcoming built-in reading spot and of course, that amazing outlook.

“All the glazing faces north-west for the view. It’s not ideal from an afternoon sun perspective, but we couldn’t not have the view!” says Holly. Benjamin notes that they tried various performance solutions to make the north-west glazing work, settling on a low-e tint that reflects about 70 per cent of the solar radiation; they also opted for motorised internal blinds with a reflective coating. A small extension to the walls provides some shading from the west in summer, too.

The outdoor bath with mountain views is a particular highlight.

In addition to high-performance glazing, the house is highly insulated and very airtight, with a small decentralised mechanical ventilation system with heat recovery to ensure fresh air. A 4.5-kilowatt solar system was the biggest they could squeeze onto the roof.

Built by Benjamin over two years of labour and learning (finishing the little details and the landscaping took a couple more years after they moved in), the house uses as many natural and recycled materials as the couple could manage. They scoured online marketplaces for everything from bricks to old bridge timbers and farm shed framing. “The ground floor walls are double brick using handmade bricks that are over 100 years old, from a house in Murtoa,” says Benjamin. “We found the bricks first, and that’s what kicked us off on the plan to include as many recycled materials and as much history in the house as possible, before it was even lived in. Not only do you get the adventure of driving around to get the materials, you get their history and character. You get so many great stories.”

Just about all the timber that’s visible in the house is reclaimed, including blackbutt bridge beams for the front facade and roof trusses; hardwood boards from a basketball court for ceilings, wall linings and the upstairs floor; hardwood floorboards from a farm kitchen for all the drawers; and oak farm shed framing for furniture and shelving. “I love it,” says Holly. “Kids were playing basketball on the ceiling and walls of this house! When you open the bathroom door you’re opening the old ironbark gate from a pig farm. When you open a drawer you’re looking at a family’s old kitchen floor.”

Although he acknowledges that using recycled materials like this “can mean anything from twice to ten times the amount of work”, Benjamin was able to take advantage of doing it himself to include many clever design elements that elevate the experience of living in such a small space. The compact fridge fits perfectly under the stairs, the built-in bed contains multiple drawers and storage nooks, and the discovery of a hidden toilet paper storage drawer under the bathroom basin is a delight. One of my favourite features is a hardwood board that fits over the kitchen sink for extra work space; when placed next to the sink instead, a prop underneath and grooves on top turn it into a draining board.

My other favourite feature is – perhaps unsurprisingly – the outdoor bath, carefully located out of sight of the only near neighbour and with a panoramic view. It is, dear reader, a very nice place to be on a calm November evening, with the sun setting behind the ridge, grazing kangaroos and a flock of cockatoos to keep me company.

Holly and Benjamin have had a tough few years – both losing their beloved dads – and have appreciated having the house project and then the finished home as a constant. “The space has really nurtured us through and after those terrible times,” says Holly. “Coming home, the location of it, the wildlife, the bushland, it’s pretty special. And the light – oh, the light. That’s so huge for me.”

The couple moved away to the Surf Coast late last year to be nearer to Holly’s family in Melbourne, and are preparing to rent out the Nook to allow others to enjoy it for getaways. They both agree it was a wrench to leave, but have no plans to sell: “I’m sure one day it will draw us back to live,” says Benjamin.

Read more about the building of the house here:

Designer & builder
Benjamin Bailey-Webb (owner-builder)
Halls Gap, Gariwerd, VIC (Djab Wurrung Country)
House 33.5m2, Land 1 hectare

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