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Narkoola was originally an orchard, subdivided in 1974, and the house was built in 1923 when access to Blackheath was via a dirt track and so the building materials would have been brought in by bullock team.  The house was built by the brother of the first owner (the Longtons being a pioneering family on Shipley Plateau) who, although not a qualified builder, constructed a solid weatherboard and iron-roofed cottage with a simple but pleasing design and demonstrating quite accomplished building skills.  In all of its essential features the original house could be described as a typical rural cottage of the late 19th century.

The present owner acquired the property in 2002.  A major building programme was commenced in 2006 with the intention of preserving and restoring the original house, addressing its functional difficulties, and adding an extension to the rear containing a modern kitchen, a large living/dining area, a laundry, second bathroom, a double garage and a workshop.  A third bathroom was added as a pavilion to the façade of the original house as an ensuite to the main bedroom.


The original house was not oriented to maximize light and, with small windows typical of the period, the interior was dark.  The rooms were returned to their original configuration, creating 3 bedrooms, and the solid Oregon doors were replaced by new wood and glass doors (clear or frosted as appropriate), of period design.  The small original kitchen was converted to a library and the small living room became a study/4th bedroom.

The architect for the project was Nigel Bell of "ECOdesign Architects" with construction by Mark Tam of "Dimark Constructions".

The rear extension was oriented exactly north/south and therefore at a slight angle to the original house.  The objective was to maximise light and air and to feed as much of this into the original house as possible.

The essential brief to the architect, whilst driven largely by functional criteria, was to produce an extension reflecting the character of a "21st century farmhouse" in the sense of relative simplicity of design and of traditional character but with an emphasis on quality ethical materials and construction.

The Build

The extension required an entrance at ground level with a foyer containing a flight of steps down to the garage/workshop level and up to the living area.  Space restrictions meant that the entrance itself had to be a separate projecting structure and Nigel hit upon the idea of fabricating this from, literally, a traditional galvanised iron water tank with a door cut into it and a silo-type metal roof.  This most unconventional solution and the need to work with corrugated surfaces and produce a cylindrical lining presented a major challenge to the builder but was handled by Mark with consummate skill.  The result was very pleasing in aesthetic terms as the "water tank" entrance created a unifying element between the old and the new structures taking on the appearance of a conventional water tank that could easily have been an attachment to the original house (the excavation revealed that there had indeed originally been a water tank at the very spot).

A further fabrication challenge was presented by the ensuite pavilion to the main bedroom that Nigel conceived as a "rusty old shed" mimicking pre-existing rustic structures of former use that were preserved and located in that part of the garden.  This needed to be built under, and without disturbing, a large Arbutus tree and was constructed of rusted “Corten” steel, corrugated iron and glass blocks on a suspended concrete slab.  Initial concerns about interference with the façade of the original house were dispelled by this eccentric but sympathetic structure that is respectful to the original house and which was beautifully constructed by Mark.

The "21st century farmhouse" motif was delightfully enhanced by metalwork designed and made by Henryk Topolnicki of “Art is an Option”, particularly the external and internal balustrades inspired by the “make do” tradition of rural Australia using fencing wire and found objects.  Henryk constructed the internal balustrade in the entrance foyer with a silhouette of fruit trees cut from rusted “Corten” steel as an acknowledgment of the former orchard and which is as much an art installation as a functional object.

The most striking feature of the large living area is the very high curved ceiling designed by Nigel and built by Mark of oiled plywood slats.  Although this is a beautiful design object the primary intention was to create a room with excellent acoustics for listening to music and it achieves this admirably.

The addition of a 2 storey extension required fairly major excavation (Mark constructed quite extraordinary cantilevered struts to temporarily support the rear of the original house) with the garage floor nearly 2m below original ground level.  The potential awkwardness of the excavation was avoided by massive but quite lovely curved and sloping retaining walls built by Mark himself from the same "Macquarie Stone" blocks of the which the lower part of the extension is constructed.  This has had the effect of “tying” the extension comfortably to its site.


The end result is that a rather cramped and dingy house with limited amenity and which did not, in any sense, address the extensive grounds around it has been transformed into a house of great visual appeal which is flooded with light and air and with expansive views across the property and into the distance and which, in terms of functional amenity, "works" brilliantly.

This case study was kindly produced by the client Wayne Willis