-----In 2004 we bought a falling-down house and 30 acres. This blog documents our progress-----

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Prue's thoughts on the secret garden

Prue is the garden designer who's helping us... see here and here for background

I'd forwarded on Eric's emails to her, to get her input on the secret garden especially in terms of how it should be shaped, positioned, etc. Here's her replies:

Extracts from email from Prue - March 23

"I've been thinking about your internal courtyard and how it should be positioned. It almost appears that the courtyard needs to be designed first and the house and all the rooms designed around it.

(She went on to say that using the garden to tie the buildings together, as Eric suggests is a very good idea... but) I think part of the space could be active for sitting/ small entertaining/breakfasting in, and part be inactive for looking and contempating either from cloistered walkways or a conservatory.

A few thoughts...

It will need to be enclosed on all sides to protect the garden & plants from harsh northerly hot winds and summer sun, also in winter protecting all the plant from cold south westerlies and the frost.

It would also be good to have the option to be inside the courtyard but still have a bit of a view out across the surrounding landsape at some point within the courtyard. This could be done with a wall with window openings (shutters to keep it enclosed when needed) looking toward the north, or a glassed in walkway partway or completely joining two wings of the house looking into the courtyard on one side and out to the garden on the other.

Also perhaps a balcony overlooking the space, on the north or west side as this will cast a bit more shadow across the courtyard in summer eliminating some of the hot afternoon sun but still allow for morning sun in winter.

The inclusion of arbours/pergolas with deciduous climbers will also give protection in summer and light in winter. This could be over an active area

A conservatory extending into the space from a living area, or main bedroom.

A pond or water course that will increase the air moisture content while aiding in keeping its surrounds cool.

A breeze-way along a cloistered walkway. Breeze in the shade nearby to water acts as a bit of an air conditioner.

Recycling water, catching the water from the low side and pumping back up to the high side either for use as irrigation or for a water course.

Probably most importantly would be planting one or two very hardy deciduous trees to give an upper canopy to shade the hotter, sunnier spots in summer ie Gleditsia triacanthos 'Shademaster', or if possible a Jacarandah (they are stunning at christmas time but not too partial to frosts as a young tree)

As the site is on a slope, this garden can be built up to almost level (it would be nice to have a couple of steps either up to a deck or conservatory, or down to a cool shady area) therefor allowing for a generous depth of good growing compost and soil media. Also for its own tank for irrigation and pond which could be built under the house.


A lot of gardening books on Mediterannean, Spanish and Moorish gardens show enclosed courtyards, cloistered spaces and secluded shady enclaves. Perhaps start with those. I also saw in a magazine a year or so ago, and can't remember if I bought it, a corrugated iron and timber house in some exposed area of either Australia or NZ that had a huge internal couryard with enormous rustic timber sliding doors that opened the internal to the external environment. It looked absolutely fantastic. It was all very minimal.

Even Japanese garden design is a good place to search for more ideas. They are big into internal coutyards. Although smaller and a different climate they give a serene feeling and can be replicated for your purpose.

I have also had a client in St Kilda who's house was built around an internal pond which acted as a tank and water storage (overflow and watering capabilities for the back garden). The kitchen living space was built around two sides while the bathroom and a bedroom looked in from the other. It was a lovely outlook from the living space, and functional.

Extracts from my reply - 30 March

I like the suggestion that the space could be multi-purpose, but I still want there to be parts that are quieter and contemplative, "secret". But, given it's going to have some traffic around it anyway, it would make sense to have an area for sitting I agree. In our brief to Eric we asked him to design in a whole lot of different
verandah-ey type areas, so we can have different ones by season, mood, etc.

I love the idea of letting the garden have a view sometimes... shutters would be nice(very Mallorcan!) but even better would be something you could open out / slide back / whatever so it's almost like part of the wall goes away, like in that garden you saw in the magazine. I'm not so keen on the idea of having glass walkways as I
think it might feel a bit too modern, but I guess it all depends on the execution; we could always build a verandah railing around it to soften the effect, or make it feel a bit like an Edwardian glass house. (I love the glasshouses at Kew, especially the littler one that grows all the gourds! Speaking of which, gourds are really cool, don't know if they're possible to grow there, I'd guess they need a
tropical climate but no idea really.... :-)

The balcony idea could work really well too, especially if we made it perhaps a bit more extended than you would normally expect (it could have pillars to hold it up. Then it could function as a climbing frame / gazebo type thing too.

I also like the idea of having a pond that doubles as water storage tank and borders onto some rooms... We could grow water lilies in it perhaps, plus the reflections would be very soothing. In fact, imagine having french doors from an inside room opening onto the pond itself, you could sit and dangle your feet in it!

In fact, I like all your suggestions! The challenge is just working out how to combine it with the house.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Eric's thoughts on the secret garden

The "secret garden" is my name for the garden area that I want to be somehow part of the house. An area that is not immediately on view when you arrive and that is protected enough (from heat, frost, wind, lack of water, etc) that I can grow my favourite plants from my garden here.

Here are some extracts from recent emails with Eric about this, because obviously it has a big effect on the house plan.

Eric's email - 10th Mar

"I've been thinking through the secret garden and believe I know why it is a struggle to visualize. I can imagine the space from within, but it's tricky to imagine how it fits within the whole of the buildings. Here is a line of reasoning that seems to be leading me in a certain direction:

The old house, as we agree is worth working with. It's long face is rotated about 30 degrees east of north. When designing for good exposure to sun (both summer and winter) we like to face north or within about 20 degrees of north in either direction. So the old house still has good potential for good solar orientation.
The natural slope of the ground is pretty close to due north east. For a building to sit nicely on the land, we often place it along the natural slope. So the new buildings may want to be rotated slightly to the east as well. Also, the main views are to the north and east.

In our climate, building generally like to be roughly proportioned in a 2:1 ratio shape with the long side facing north. This achieves a good balance of more north wall for winter sun and less east and west wall to reduce impact of summer sun. It is also possible to create a very thin building with fingers spreading out to enclose a variety of outdoor spaces. This general shape would be quite typical in the tropics, but in our climate would be inappropriate from a thermal efficiency point of view.

(Here's where it starts getting tricky)

A building of this type and size (and most of my concepts so far) will be around 12-15m long in the east - west dimension, and about 6 - 8m in the north - south dimension. With the 12 - 15m in length you can see the difficulty in using the one building to enclose the secret garden. The secret garden needs to be bound by two or even more buildings.

Generally from a climate and comfort point of view, the main rooms like to be on the north and east to take advantage of sun (and in your case, views as well) This puts service rooms along the south and southwest sides. There can still be glimpse views from main rooms to the south, but the main orientation seems to be toward the sun. I fear that if we have the garden firmly on the south sides with only minimal glimpses, rather than being "secret", it may be "forgotten."

(A brief tangent.)

We have assumed that the secret garden is on the south side in order to suit cool climate plants. I wouldn't mind confirming this. During summer, the sun comes mainly from the east, west, and directly overhead. A wall on the north side will have very little shading to a garden in the summer. However, a north wall will provide shade in spring / autumn (about equal to it's height) and winter (about twice it's height.) One query is whether the secret garden should be bound mainly on the east and west by main buildings providing shade and not necessarily as much on the east and west.

(An idea.)

If the secret garden becomes defined by several buildings, what about using the garden itself to tie the buildings together? It could be like a cloister that you walk around to get between buildings. Note the distinction between cloister and courtyard. Courtyards are active spaces with movement through the middle. Cloisters are quiet spaces with movement around the edges.

So, one thing I've been considering is a central garden enclosed on 3-4 sides by various building. But rather that being entirely secret, would be used to arrange and link the buildings. Movement would be around the edges and the centre could remain the secret with glimpses in and places to discover.

My reply -11th March

Hi Eric, thanks for this, I think I understand. I'm intrigued by the cloister idea, I think it could work, I just need to imagine it a bit more. You're right we don't want the garden to be so secret that it's forgotten! Maybe we could achieve a sense of having secluded areas by having a few walls within the garden itself, eg for climbers.

Your logic about what side the secret garden is on makes sense to me. But, I'm going to email this to Prue, because she'll be able to answer the question better than I can, and may have some ideas about the cloister effect too. I'll cc you on what I send. I'm guessing that the second storey might also help to add shade, depending on where it is? Overall, my sense is that if we can create somewhere that would
be "partially shady" in gardening terms, it would be about right for the kind of plants I need. It could even be fully shady... we can get creative with the placement of mirrors to bring in extra light into dark corners if we need.

Friday, March 25, 2005

more from Timme St

The nice guy who runs Timme St sent me some more links to view pictures of cool Russian wooden houses. These included a bunch of sites I couldn't find myself as they're in Russian! In particular, there are some great pictures in the russian sectino on Timme St site itself, about the museum of wooden houses
Malye Karely

Sunday, March 20, 2005

more arkhangelsk wooden houses

I just finished watching a new BBC drama called "Archangel", which unsurprisingly enough had a lot of the story set in Archangel in Northern Russia. (This is the region that our wooden chests come from). It made me curious to see whether any of it was filmed on location, as they showed several wooden houses. According to the BBC website that part was filmed in Riga Latvia, so obviously there are nice wooden houses there too! But, in the process of searching I came across some more pictures of wooden houses in Archangel:
another archangel house

The site this is from gives a kind of city tour here, it makes me want to visit it just to experience the vastness especially in winter.

This is from this site which has lots of photos of russian buildings and landscape. I'm pretty sure this is in Archangel because I read about it at another site, it's the HQ of an old timber factory

Here is a link to view pictures from a 2004 visit to Archangel's Malye Karely = open air wooden architecture museum.

Timmest is a fantastic site by a guy living in Timme Street in Arkhangelsk! It tells you a lot about the city as it stands currently including a little about the wooden houses, which are in a league of their own in terms of charm. Here's a picture:
another archangel wooden house

Extract from the Timmest site: "Arkhangelsk is a mixture of faceless blocks and slummy wooden houses. Nevertheless there are some streets being able to tell interesting stories of the old city. First of all it is the Chumbarovo-Luchinskogo street... now it is like a country road, without a hard covering. There are too much mud there, but houses standing in the street are beautiful!. Most of them are wooden, some are really old and others are built in the style and the spirit of the pre-Revolutionary times. Also there is the wooden pavement (mostki).

Pomorskaya street has some old private residence too. There are museums in the most of them. The Museum of Stepan Pisahov (a northern story-teller and an artist), The Museum of an art familiarization of Arctic and The Museum —Country-seat. There are two nice little side-streets nearby. It is the Teatral'nyj side-street and Bankovskij side-street ...There are some remarkable buildings. They are destroyed a little, you know, the Time is cruel and there are no money as usual. It's Russia :)".

There is lots more at the site so if you're interested go have a look - here is the link

unusual products

Various things that I thought might come in handy for future reference:

Brume make easy-peel window film in a range of designs that looks just like etched glass. I can imagine it would work brilliantly for kitchen cupboard doors or bathrooms... House goggles offer a similar service

Hang it All can convert photographs into great canvas images in frames. They can even add effects, like watercolour, or create a montage. I think this would work really well with some of my favourite garden pictures perhaps

Gel fireplaces look like real fireplaces and give off heat, but it is burning from a gel rather than gas or wood. It means they can be hung on the wall(!) and don't need flues. Also you can get fire gel baskets to use in traditional style fireplaces

Toffshop sells old fashioned fabric like hessian, calico and deckchair material cheaply. Their site seems to be down at the moment but the phone number is 020 87788049. Might be worth getting some lovely striped fabric for deckchairs?

According to the Evening Standard article, Zaida crafts will make woollen rugs to custom designs. They also apparently sell cheap but top quality persian carpets

Sunday, March 13, 2005

7 Hammersmith Terrace

There was an article in last week's Property supplement with the Evening Standard newspaper about an amazing house in London that is going to open to the public for the first time. It is Emery Walker's house... he was a printer heavily involved in the Arts & Crafts movement, and good friends with William Morris etc. The place is pretty much as he left it so it is a real treasure trove of Arts & Crafts... they claim it's the last original interior left (there are others that have been recreated but this is the only one that hasn't been changed since the 1930's). You can see some pictures here

It's opening for a couple of days each week for 3 months only, to coincide with the V&A's latest exhibition about Arts & Crafts. We're trying to book a time to go see the house, it would be amazing to experience it in real life in a home rather than a museum, and we might get some good ideas.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

email conversations with Eric

Eric is our architect, from Greenpoint design. Over the past week we've had a couple of interesting email conversations that I thought I'd include them here for posterity! I can imagine it will be quite amusing to look back on how we arrived at certain ideas for the design once we're at the other side and the thing is built! Right now, we're just about at the point of getting to see the first iteration of Eric's design, I can't wait.

Here is Eric's email to us from March 8th - and I've interspersed my comments on each point from my email reply:

"I am well and truly back in my office. It's amazing how quickly a week goes. I mentioned that I worked on some concepts for you while in the US. I've continued to developed a couple of ideas since getting back. (It's all on the drawing board and stuck all over the walls of my office right now.) A few themes have emerged which I thought it worthwhile to suggest sooner rather than later.

1. After visiting the site, I feel that the general location of the existing house is a very good one for the rest of the buildings. It is elevated and well drained, has good access and good aspect to both sun and the views to the east.

Great. Totally sold on that. It felt good to me too instinctively, but I didn't want to insist on it in case there were better spots from an energy efficient point of view.

2. The existing house seems to be in workable condition. Relatively new roof. The framing will need some repair work, but it is all exposed and easy to get to. Need new linings and finishes both inside and out, but that would give us the opportunity to consider it's appearance in relation to other buildings.

Very glad to hear. Again, you would have had to work hard to convince me to knock it down, so I'm glad we can avoid that discussion! I'm afraid I get very sentimental about old houses, they have a soul to them far more than modern brick veneer boxes do, so I will always err on the side of saving them. I'm also happy to reconsider it's appearance, as I know it is in dire condition at the moment. But my only slight hesitation is that I do like its style and faded grace. Even though I guess it is a bit incongrous for that kind of house to be there, I like the fancy bits around the door and the lovely little mouldings and the fact that they have survived these past decades of neglect. I even like the fake brick moulded thing in wood at the front side. I suppose what I'm saying is that I'm happy to change but I want to be true to the spirit of the old house. e.g., if we are having a little collection of buildings, maybe that can be the old stately home of our mini-village. :-)

3. One scenario is too hard to pass up. It is: use the house as a storage shed for the first stage of building, then once you are comfortable in the main house, fix up the old house into the extra bedrooms and accommodation. Most of my ideas so far have assumed something similar to this. It seems a waste not to use the old house.

Happy with this too. I'm so glad you agree it's a waste not to use it! Most other people seem to think we should just raze it, I felt like I was being really stupid to insist on at least considering we keep it. However I must confess that my first reaction (given that I love old houses) was that the guests will get the best bit(!!), but I know that's just because I can't yet envisage what the new parts will look like. It is so annoying... I can envisage various rooms, even wander round them in my dreams sometimes, but I just cannot figure out how they're joined up.

4. The new buildings can be either physically connected to the old house or separate. I tend to favour separate buildings for a variety of reasons, but am still very open to options.

5. Siting generally. I'm looking at a matrix of options for how the main house, guest house and other misc outbuilding all relate. Will send some diagrams to help explain options.

I don't have firm opinions on this yet, I think I'll get a better feel for it when I see some possible layouts. If the old house were to be joined fully, the only place I can envisage it being (so as not to destroy the symmetry) is on the back where the current extension is. I like the concept of keeping it separate though in the sense that it lets it retain its history/sense of identity.

6. The English garden space. Just on sheer size of this area (10 x 6 or 9 x 5), it seems to be enclosed by several buildings (and/or garden walls) rather that simply enclosed by single U-shaped building. How this garden area relates to the cluster of buildings will, I'm sure, be the source of some good conversation.

Hmmm... I'm open to suggestions but my instinct is that this should be enclosed by buildings rather than walls (or, at least walls that look like they're part of a building). Because, it isn't just a walled English garden, I want it to feel "secret" too, ie: for you not to be able to tell its there until you come upon it. So, for instance, I don't want you to be able to stand at the front door and
look inside and the first thing you see is a big window onto the secret garden. If one side of the garden perhaps ran alongside a hallway, I wouldn't want huge windows looking onto it along the full length... If the house has a personality, the secret garden is the introvert, private escape bit... other parts like the verandahs are
more extravert, outward looking and social.

I have also grown quite attached to Dave's suggestion that the secret garden should not be rectangular but instead L or T shaped - ie: so you have bits that are secluded and you have to walk around in able to see. This might allow it to be smaller. Or, at least make it easier to have trellis across the roof to support mosquito netting, etc.

7. Upstairs / downstairs. Also looking at which rooms have ground
floor positions vs upper floor. Again, it should be the source of

I told you I sometimes dream about being in these rooms. Based on that, it feels like the bathroom should be on the ground floor, so it can open out onto the secret garden. Maybe even it could have a very large window that is almost the whole side of the bathroom wall looking onto it, but still private by being a mirror on the garden side?

The kitchen should also be on the ground floor because I envisage it opening onto a verandah.

That's all I know for sure.

If you forced me to say gut feel where the master bedroom should be, I'd say up the stairs above the bathroom, on the second floor, adjoining a little sleeping porch bit... in fact, if the second floor is not that big, maybe the large master bedroom is the only proper room up there? (I'm just musing here, I don't feel certain about

One of the main quests at this early stage is to determine general positions and orientations of various spaces, so that is very much what I am working on and will send to you. I'm hoping to have something to send very soon.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Battle for the Belle of Amherst

Now, this is absolutely nothing to do with building our house and garden, or indeed even Amherst in Australia. But I couldn't resist posting it 'cos of the title! If you haven't already discovered it, Wired is one of the foremost geek news mags out there.
Wired News: Battle for the Belle of Amherst

Tuesday, March 08, 2005


Dad has found us a great old shipping container which we can use for secure storage up at Amherst. It means we don't need to keep annoying people by cluttering up their houses with our stuff; nor spend a fortune on one of those storage places like Fort Knox. We worked out that we'll break even in around 2-3 years on buying the container compared to if we'd had to rent the space in Fort Knox; plus this way Dave gets to add to his accumulation of sheds which he's happy about!

The container was originally custom-made as a workshop for a plumber; Dad got it secondhand from a place near Geelong. It's a basic 20ft container except at one end it has an extension of 18 inches, which means that we can fit building material like timber etc in standard lengths which would otherwise be slightly too long. It is wired for power, has two vents for air circulation covered with mesh, and shelving. It should be very secure with Dad getting extra modifications made so now there'll be a big steel I-beam blocking the door as well as two padlocks with a locking system that stops people being able to get at them with bolt cutters etc. We're going to put it down near Charlie's house, behind our dam so it will be largely out of sight of our house, harder for people to sneak up to as it's more in view of Charlie, and also more convenient for delivering things.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Cob-building thoughts

Both Dave and I have read through (or at least flicked through) the book all about cob-building called "The Hand-sculpted House". There are some interesting ideas in it provided you can get past all the hard-core hippy moralising. For instance, there are several pages explaining why you should never trust government or banks, and instead should touch up your friends/family for loans since "they won't mind if you are late making payments". It even says you should ask first for 5 year loans with no interest! Yes, and I'd like a new car too.

Anyway, once you get past all that, there are some inspiring ideas in the book. Here are the key things we took away from reading it:

* Cob is fireproof, so provided you also have a fireproof roof, then it is very good at withstanding bushfires.

* Cob lets you embed glass shards straight into the wall so you can not only use up broken glass pieces, but you can have really creatively shaped windows. This would be a way to get the gaudi-esque natural feel; perhaps it would be good for the garden room?

* With cob you can easily have tapered walls, thinner at the top, so it gives you a psychological feeling of more space

* Idea of building a thermal mass cooler into the wall (this is from p34): "Our house has no electric refrigerator. In our Oregon rainforest climate, in-the-wall refrigeration works well. A 3-shelf closet cut right through the north wall at eye level keeps perishable foods in good condition. It opens by a small wooden door about the kitchen counter and the outdoor face is fly-screened. It's interior is gypsum plastered directly onto the cob, and it has a ceramic tile floor. Even in summer, with temperatures in the 90's, milk covered with a wet cloth will keep fresh for 3 days. Fungus and bacteria are inhibited by dry air and drafts so fruit and vegetables stay fresh, as higher summer temperatures are counterbalanced by much better airflow than in sealed electric refridgerators"

Some of the ideas aren't specific to cob:

* Idea of using mirror backed glass anywhere you want a view but still want privacy. Perhaps this could be good for the secret garden if the bathroom were to look onto it?

* Idea of designing a house around activities rather than rooms. I think this is partly what we're doing anyway but hadn't thought of it in such black and white terms before. Then, once you've worked out what activities there are for which you need space, you can see what needs to be near to others (and I guess too what might be able to be shared). And that kind of "bubble diagram" gets you partway towards a floorplan

* Idea of building a house at different levels, taking advantage of the slope, with steps from one room to the next

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Ebay win: more windows!

This morning we got an amazing bargain on Ebay, well I think so anyway. I nearly didn't even bid because the photos weren't very clear, but then decided to take a gamble as it was only an hour's drive away. Fortunately, no-one else bid against me so I got them for the asking price... It is 3 windows, all in pretty good condition, a few minor cracks in the glass but barely noticeable, and the leadwork is all in good nick. The person selling said they were all part of a set but I think only the two big ones are. The other is from the top of an old door and seems of quite a different scene... I don't mind the door window, but it's the other two that I adore. They're big; the glass sections are approx 17 inches across by 45 inches tall, and when you look at them side by side the images do seem to match up. They're in a solid metal frame so very sturdy.

Below are some pictures, and I am experimenting with a new photo blogging program called Hello (hence the little speech bubbly thing at the end).

First, here is the window from the top of a door
ship window

And here are the two windows that are part of a set. They're amazingly detailed; different in style to the other kinds we have as there isn't any clear glass in them, but similar heritage I think.
stained glass scene stained glass scene