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Sustainable Sawmill Wonder

ARTICLE Clare Chapman PHOTOGRAPHY Benjamin Hosking DESIGN Archier Architecture

Mergin mid-century modernism with an industrial rural vernacular, this house blurs internal and external boundaries and provides a fitting home for its bohemian sculptor owner. It weaves a narrative within its walls, grounding it to its site and connecting it with the wider context of north-east Victoria and the town of Yackandandah where it is situated.

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Sculptor Benjamin Gilbert initially purchased the former quarry and sawmill site where the house now sits in 2005 from the state government with the working, abandoned sawmill building still on site. A typical Australian shed, the building was pieced together from bits of iron and has a distinct industrial feel.

The land is brutal, with the layers of topsoil washed away from years of alluvial wet gold mining, a process in which the earth was blasted away with high pressure water and the resulting mud sluiced for gold.

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It is in this setting where Benjamin set up house and ran his sculpture practice in the former sawmill building, until the concept for the new abode was conceived in conjunction with his architect brother, Chris Gilbert.

For the brothers who grew gup in the town, theirs was a childhood spent tinkering in the shed. It was from this young desire to create that their enthusiasm was initially sparked to embark on this project together as adults. For the pair, the site was also tinged with a sort of nostalgia; their father, a volunteer firefighter, spent many a day putting out fires started by wood chips at the old sawmill, many of which the boys still remember.

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“We struggled to find an appropriate design to fit Benjamin’s ever-changing brief but eventually we came to agree that simplicity was the answer,” Chris says. “Although flippant and beautifully erratic, he had a routine that was largely predictable: he rose at first light so the bedroom was to face the east; and, he wished to live outside as much as possible, therefore the building envelope needed to be adaptive.”

While the original plan was to adapt the existing industrial building into a home, the geography of the site informed the eventual location of the house. One edge of the gold mine’s quarry had been levelled off for wood chip storage, and it provided a great northern aspect with a strong edge and stunning views down the valley.

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With perimeter walls comprised of 270 reclaimed concrete blocks, the rectangular house instantly makes a statement. “When concrete trucks go out to a site they take a bit extra in case something goes wrong, normally about five per cent,” Chris says. “If this additional concrete isn’t used, it is taken back to the depot and poured into loose-cut moulds as a way of storing it.”

With the use of these blocks, the house became a patchwork of scores of other projects from around the town. It represents schools, footpaths, people’s houses and farmers’ sheds. “The texture of the blocks also grounds the building to the quarry,” Chris says. “The myriad of raw concrete finishes and colours anchors the house into the landscape, picking up the sedimentary layers of exposed earth from the site’s prior life as a gold mine.”

The flat-roofed house was initially designed as an abode for a single person but during the course of construction, Benjamin met his partner and the pair had a baby. This changed the design somewhat; a water feature was removed and sandpit was added. But the bones of the plan remained.

These bones form a unique, contextual approach to the somewhat unusual site. The house is 90m2 internally, but large decks and courtyards increase It to 190m2. Chris says people have described the house as deciduous due to its ever-changing, dynamic and active nature. The steel roof encompasses a 14-metre sliding component that opens the house to the air. Four metres of the bedroom wall opens up onto a large private grassed courtyard to the east, while nine metres of the kitchen glazing slides away as one motorised element. Nine metres of the timber screen on the verandah slides away too, which completely opens the area to the elements. These elements seamlessly blend the internal and external, while allowing the property to be constantly immersed in the surrounding nature.

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The house is essentially one long open-plan space that can be separated into parts if necessary to offer more privacy. The nine-metre sliding door, which was constructed from an old Redwood tree that once stood in the playground of the local boys’ school, leads from the lounge to the deck and extends the living space significantly, and the deck can be exposed or sheltered from the elements by sliding back the roof section. While these sections provide versatility within the spaces, they also take advantage of the breezes that travel up the valley toward the house, passively cooling it in summer and in winter, by opening the roof, sun penetration is maximised allowing passive heat gain for most of the year.

Sustainable home renovation

In line with the desire to re-use material where possible, the timber that lines the floor and ceiling is reclaimed timber from a storm that blew through Yackandandah a few years ago. “One of our fathers’ friends milled it all and processed it and turned it into this beautiful lining,” Chris says. The rough-sawn macrocarpa references the sawmill, while floor-to-ceiling sheets of patinaed brass that constitute the kitchen cabinetry provide a beautiful glow and add texture to the space offering a clear nod to the precious metals that were extracted from the site when it was a gold mine. “The brass sheets also let the fingers of the users register on the walls, giving the project another layer of narrative,” Chris says.

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The brothers custom-made the furniture for the house too; this time using timber from the old army barracks in the nearby town of Wodonga.

“The building emerged naturally from materials and processes found within the local community – the project serving as a platform for us to exchange ideas, test materials and investigate alternative vernacular,” Chris says.

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All information is believed to be true at time of publishing and is subject to change.

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