Raising the barn

The orientation isn’t ideal as the view is to the south, but the considered conversion of this mudbrick barn has resulted in a welcoming home with a sense of serenity.
Retaining as much as possible of the existing mudbrick barn was key to this pet-friendly, low-maintenance budget build in central Victoria.

Faced with a rundown, unfinished mudbrick barn with no occupancy permit, many people would have pushed it over and started again. But for Margaret and Trevor Uhe, the potential of the existing building was part of the reason they fell in love with this eight-acre farm on the edge of Kyneton, central Victoria, with its southern and western views over the Campaspe River.

Almost at retirement, the couple had been wanting to move out of Melbourne for a while. “Our daughter moved to Kyneton, and it took Margaret about two minutes to say ‘why don’t we move too?’,” laughs Trevor. They bought the property in June 2014, and started collaborating with local architect Julia Thomas on a plan to transform the mudbrick barn into a home. “The brief was for a pet-friendly, child-friendly home centred around the kitchen, as Margaret and Trevor are amazing cooks and love preserving,” explains Julia. “They love their garden and wanted a good connection with it. And it needed to be low-maintenance: if you live in the country there’s always a lot of work outside, so we wanted to minimise it in the house.”

The window seat in the living room was Margaret’s special request, but “it gets used by the dogs the most,” she says. “I’m going to sit there one day!” The polished concrete floor is easy to clean, and thermally broken aluminium-framed double-glazed windows help keep the house warm in winter and cool in summer (left). Looking from the south, the converted barn house appears to be single storey; the master bedroom and grandchildren’s rooms are tucked into the roofspace (top right). An angled pergola on the south echoes the pitches of the roof and defines the outdoor living area. One day it will be covered in deciduous vines, providing shade in summer and colour in autumn (bottom right).

Retaining as much of the original structure as possible was important both from a sustainability perspective and to keep costs down, as the budget was fixed at $250,000. “Mudbrick provides excellent thermal mass,” says Julia. “We insulated and rendered it on the outside to improve the thermal stability of the house.” Some new door and window openings were cut into the walls to admit more natural light, particularly on the south side to open the living spaces to the views; thermally broken aluminium double-glazed windows and doors help with thermal performance.

Julia’s design partitions the open ground floor of the two-storey structure. The front door opens onto a double-height space used variously for music, as a sunny reading spot, or for children’s play when the family visits. A lower-ceilinged dining area leads to the compact but efficient kitchen in the centre of the house, where in winter a wood-fired Rayburn stove provides cooking, space heating and hot water (boosted by solar). In the south-west corner, the couple’s sitting room has an inviting window seat and large windows making the most of the views across their property to the river. A bathroom, laundry and spare bedroom are tucked in at the back of the house (in the future, if required, Trevor and Margaret could move into this downstairs bedroom). The original staircase has been renovated and still leads to the mezzanine level with two bedrooms: the master and the “grandkids’ room”. A planned ensuite was cut for budget reasons, but the plumbing runs for it are installed.

There is no air conditioning in the house. Ceiling fans in the entry hall and bedrooms teamed with doors left open at night keep the house comfortable in summer, and Margaret and Trevor plan to install internal blinds on the eastern windows to reduce morning heat gain on hot days (left). The kitchen, with its large pantry, is tucked under the mezzanine level in the centre of the house. As much as possible, the interior spaces are visually connected: “very useful when the grandchildren are visiting,” says Margaret (top right). Along with their three dogs, Margaret and Trevor share their property with other pets: three donkeys, seven sheep, two goats and a dozen chickens. A planned 2.5 metre cantilevered overhang to shade the western end of the house was cut to keep costs down, one of the homeowners’ only regrets on the project. Instead, a retractable awning shades the master bedroom window, and a blockout blind is planned for the western living room window (bottom right).

Having first built a shed for storage, Trevor and Margaret lived with their three dogs in a small caravan on site for the duration of the build, and helped with demolition and paintwork. “It was one of the coldest, wettest and muddiest winters in a decade,” recalls Julia. Happily, the build was completed in the planned seven months, and the couple moved in in late 2016.

The orientation isn’t ideal because there is a neighbour’s unsightly shed close to their northern side, but Julia was careful to ensure the house would perform well even facing south as it does. “We worked with an energy consultant, included plenty of insulation, and specified double glazing.”

The result is a cosy, welcoming home with a sense of serenity. “I do feel the cold,” says Margaret, “but the house is so comfortable in winter with the Rayburn going for cooking, that I’m fine in a t-shirt.”

Trevor chimes in that the coldest it got inside last winter was 16 degrees: “The temperature stability is my favourite thing about the house. You can get up in the middle of winter and walk around just in pyjamas. It’s lovely.”

With easy-to-clean polished concrete floors and simple finishes, the house meets the objective of being low maintenance and good for both pets and kids. Julia sums it up: “There is always action here – Trevor and Margaret’s dogs and visiting grandchildren are part of life, and the house fits that lifestyle well.”

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