A Farmhouse in the Suburbs

The Solomon family moved to their rambling multi-generational home in 1992. Virginia remembers driving around the Eltham area with a 6-week-old baby looking at pokey little ‘neat’ houses in courts, each with their 9-foot-cubed rooms, gas ducted heating, en-suites and massive garages. The Solomons wanted none of those things. They were looking for a suburban farm house with generous-sized but basic rooms, established fruit trees, a bit of land and a northerly aspect. They found it in Research: a basic comfortable house on two thirds of an acre of land, 25 km from the centre of Melbourne. The property had its longest boundary adjoining an 8-acre passive reserve with children’s playground and bush reserve, with Tawny Frogmouths, wild bees and native orchids.

The house had been built facing almost due north (5 degrees east of north) by a family with 5 children in the early 1960s. It had large rooms (3 girls in one bedroom, 2 boys in another and the parents in another, what more do you need?), polished timber floors, no en-suites, no central heating, no garage (carport with workshop) and the road was unsealed. Best of all, the Williamson family were homesteaders.

The house also had:

·       two cellars, one in the rubble drain under the house, accessed through a trapdoor in the kitchen and another off one of the workshops which boasted carefully constructed shelving and even power points.

·       a large enclosed space under the house that had been set up with two weaving  looms.

·       solid fuel heating and cooking (Everhot controlled combustion range with hot water jacket linked to an off-peak electric HWS, and a Jøtul rocket stove in the middle of the lounge room) for which Norm Williamson had left 3-years’ supply of cut and stacked firewood and a spare set of fire bricks for the Everhot!

·       the well-ventilated kitchen with wood panelling and shelving, hooks in all the right places and strings on the cupboard doors for pot lids also held its attractions, even though it was too small to accommodate a kitchen table (all farmhouses need a kitchen table!)

·       the bathroom featured a 1m x 2m stainless steel shower base, just deep enough to bundle 5 kids into for a shared ‘bath’ when the plug was in

·       best of all was the garden with 28 mature fruit trees, large raspberry patch, deciduous shade trees (two Pin Oaks, and a Sycamore) over the eastern and northern sides of the house and western shade (unfortunately six Himalayan cypresses on the Western boundary had been planted too far to the north, and therefore do not provide effective summer shade, but create a fire hazard and winter darkness – they are now too large and expensive to remove).

Over the years the house has been adapted to accommodate changing family needs and circumstances.

Solomon family house 1995

Solomon family house 1995

The first ten years: a growing family

Pretty quickly the trials of cooking for a young family using a wood-burning stove in the middle of summer while working as well got the better of the Solomons and in 1994 they undertook the first renovation.

·       The Williamsons had built a small extension in 1980, using Mount Gambier limestone, with a kitchen, a bathroom and a downstairs potting studio. The two upstairs rooms were combined to form a large farmhouse kitchen with central table, and a front-loader washing machine under one of the benches. The Everhot wood burning stove was retained but was supplemented by a gas cooktop and oven.

·       a new bathroom was reconfigured in a hallway space where the separate toilet was incorporated into the room and a door moved - clever shelving had been installed in an earlier doorway so it was just a question of reversing this earlier change. (The stainless steel shower base in the original bathroom has been re-purposed ever since as a propagating bench and is about to go to its fourth location)

·       all bath and washing machine water could now go to a 60m long absorption trench ending in a bowl (for dog drinking water). The veggie garden was then built in serpentine fashion over the grey water switching and doubling down the slope beside the house. Unfortunately, the aspect wasn’t ideal being mainly on the south side of the house, but most things could be grown for most of the year.

a small deck was built off the back of the kitchen and a staircase down to the zone 1 garden – this deck is a favourite summer breakfast spot as it is cool and shaded in the morning (SW inside corner of an L)

As the children grew up more changes were made:

·       the carport was enclosed with straw bale walls and recycled windows to make a well-insulated, sound-deadening and comfortable kid hangout with a kitchenette in the workshop space at the back. This room, called the ‘Studio’, opens on both sides into the garden and has windows along the north side over a deep rendered straw bale shelf and double glass doors to the northern courtyard. The tiled floor acts as an effective heat bank in winter.

·       the three downstairs workshops were converted into 3 low-ceilinged cave-like bedrooms, effectively doubling the number of bedrooms in the house but giving the kids a room each (such luxury! The Williamson kids never had that), but also making way for a craft room/library and a study upstairs

·       an Aquamax gas hot water service was installed and this was also used for hydronic heaters installed in the downstairs bedrooms. Any residual heat was allowed to rise up the stairs to warm the upper rooms, supplementing the trusty wood-burning  Jøtul rocket stove with its ‘playpen’ protective surround.

·       the downstairs laundry area was repurposed as a second bathroom and the kids were invited to decorate the walls of the original downstairs toilet which sports mermaids and beach scenes to this day.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the Solomons hosted numerous student homestays, WWOOFers, travellers and guests. There was always room and extra hands to develop the garden, new chook and duck systems, espaliered apples (potential for 60 varieties grafted onto 6 trees) and cubby houses. The raspberry patch was doubled in size, the old wood shed was converted into a straw bale shed (the need for wood having much reduced when the gas stove and hydronic heating were added).

Installing grey water absorption trench around 1995

Installing grey water absorption trench around 1995

The next ten years: the extended family

The next major renovation was carried out in 2006 to allow Virginia’s elderly parents, Wif and John, to join the household. This was an energy efficient extension with a living room, study, bedroom and en-suite bathroom..

·       The extension used a timber frame with Hebel panels for the external walls and the floor, with a double-glazed window to south. The remaining windows are single glazed with insulated blinds. The roof and wall spaces were insulated with R3 glass fibre insulation. The extension was designed to be wheelchair accessible.

·       In addition, the old kitchen wall was demolished, and a new kitchen was constructed between the original house and what became known as the Paris End (so-called by Virginia’s mother who saw her tidy, art-filled apartment as a haven of sophistication compared to the chaos of “the Bombay End” through the connecting door).  This new kitchen provides a central hub for food preparation and shared family meals.

·       The kitchen included a cool cupboard drawing air from one of the three underground cellars. These include a wine cellar under the kitchen and cheese-maturation space in the basement room under the new bedroom A 10,000 litre water tank collecting rainwater from the extension roof stabilises the temperature in the bedroom above, as well as storing water for the garden and for firefighting, if required. There is a fire pump and hoses long enough to reach around the house and  out-buildings to the park boundary.

·       A 3.1 kW grid-connected solar power system was installed at this time, with a gas–boosted solar hot water system to provide hot water to the whole house.

·       A 25,000 litre above ground water tank was installed at the bottom of the block to collect the rainwater from the main house and the water overflow from basement tank. 

·       the Everhot stove was retained and its water jacket was connected to the copper tank of the original electric hot water system to run a loop for a hydronic radiator for airing and drying clothes. This supplements the heating of the kitchen in winter when the stove is running. (It is a feature of the new kitchen and is fondly referred to as “Darren’s Dalek”, Darren being the plumber who thought of stripping off the outer shell to expose the copper tank).

·       The Zone 1 veggie garden was rebuilt, including a new greywater system (called Root Zone, the invention of Rory Fort, an innovator and green plumber) that collects the waste water from the upstairs showers and washing machine and provides filtered grey water to drip lines in the Zone 1 garden, effectively drought-proofing this garden.

·       The indoor spaces are supplemented by large decks, shaded in the summer by the two mature Pin Oak trees. These effectively form separate outdoor rooms that have  dining and seating areas, together with a BBQ and a wood fired pizza oven constructed over a firewood store, surrounded by a herb garden.

Early stages of construction of the Paris End extension around 2006

Early stages of construction of the Paris End extension around 2006

Adapting to the future - Aging in place

By 2018 the house has grown to almost 400 m2 of living space that naturally divides into three separate living areas. 

·       The main upstairs space (the Bombay End, now more like London or Marseilles – scruffy but ordered) is where Virginia and Stephen live and host their grandson 2 days a week, as well as space for Mali the Staffordshire Terrier.

·       The downstairs space with its three bedrooms, kitchenette, studio-sunroom, bathroom, toilet and cellar is currently inhabited by a young border and her dog Chico, as well as Titania the strictly-indoor cat who is boss and has her own fully fenced and enclosed garden through the cat flap. Combined with the Garden Room, this space could easily accommodate a small family in the future.

·       The Garden Room: One of the downstairs bedrooms, which opens directly into the garden through French doors, is currently used as a guest room, WWOOFer accommodation and a cool summer bedroom when upstairs heats up.

·       Virginia’s mother, Wif died in 2013 and her father John (now in his 90s) moved to be closer to friends and social life in South Melbourne.  The Paris End is now on short term rental and it is often used by guests and family. It may become a permanent home for someone again in the future.

·       In addition, a separate green-roofed studio provides an outside creative space.

The garden continues to evolve and adapt to changing needs.  The current garden includes:

·       the main Zone 1 vegie garden, supported by the grey water system, provides the households with seasonal vegetables and herbs;

·       the front garden has the espaliered  apples, olive, hazelnut, quince and citrus trees, while the back garden has a large fig tree plus apples, pears, persimmons, tamarillos and nashi pear trees. Keeping the birds at bay is an on-going issue.  An anti-aviary netted orchard along the southern boundary provides apples, apricots, peaches, plums and cherries.

·       the raspberries planted at the bottom of the back-garden yield 1 kilo or more of raspberries per week in the season. These are fed partly by mulch-pit paths that use some of the leaf mould compost made from the 10 cubic meters of oak leaves generated each autumn.

·       the chickens produce eggs and an efficient composting, pest control and weeding system and the bees in the hive at the bottom of the netted orchard provides pollination services

There is still heaps of potential for future development:

·       the current grid connected solar-power will be supplemented by an additional solar-battery system to provide off-grid solar to power refrigeration, fire pumps and emergency lighting;

·       the gas boosted solar hot water system has reached its end of life and will be replaced with an electric heat pump system using the solar power generated on-site;

·       the construction of a green roof for the straw bale garden shed and incorporation of a wheelie bin composting toilet in one of the sheds;

·       the construction of shade structures over the car park spaces to provide more vertical growing space and a potential market space (the location next to the park lends itself to community events, not to mention opportunities for parties and exchange of goods);

·       construction of passive vertical cooling structures (green walls) on the western wall of house and a mini hothouse for sub-tropical plants using the moisture and CO2 surplus from the hydronic heating unit;

·       harvesting and utilising the overgrown native trees in the front garden that now contribute too much shade to the north and (when we crack the lottery) dealing with the Himalayan Cypress trees on western boundary;


Looking down on the Zone 1 garden from the Paris End

·       the development of a verge garden around the wide boundary fence where surplus plants go and provide food and flowers for the community, and where many conversations can be had. The fence to the park shares pumpkins, cucumbers, peas and passionfruit with dog-walking neighbours and is an educational interface as everything in the food gardens can be observed through the fences

·       establishing a co-operative tenant arrangement for the downstairs space to share our patch of productive retro-suburbia and provide assistance to ensure sustainability and resilience.

·       RetroSuburbia training site and EcoResilience website development - Virginia plans to share her days offering sharing and learning opportunities to people who live in the pedosphere or the cyclosphere whether it be gardening, cheesemaking, crafting or preserving – if she is doing it, she is happy to include others in the activity and share the resulting products

Virginia and Stephen are grandparents now and would like to share their abundance and knowledge in exchange for the energy, strength and skills of younger people. The funny old farmhouse in Research hasn’t finished with us yet! August 2018 ecoresilience.net.au

Looking down on the Zone 1 garden from the Paris End

Looking down on the Zone 1 garden from the Paris End