OUR FOREVER HOME
Ben and Meg Engel are enjoying the personalised Yackandandah home they built with family in mind.
The Engel family are enjoying the personalised Yackandandah home they built with family in mind.
GOLDEN light floods into the kitchen of Meg and Ben Engel’s Yackandandah home. It’s a clear and crisp afternoon and the sun shines directly through generous windows into what is the heart of the home, where a wood stove soundlessly emanates warmth into the space. Where the ambient warmth comes from is difficult to detect because it feels like it’s just there, no matter where you stand, as the curved, straw bale walls seem to wrap around you. Meg says the stove was not meant to be the heater - it’s there to cook with and to heat water - but it holds the heat all day and combined with sunshine, it’s all that’s needed even in the winter.
Meg, a speech pathologist, and Ben, a human resources professional and mindfulness instructor, came to North East Victoria from Sydney in 1999, first basing themselves in Albury before exploring and discovering Yackandandah where they moved in 2009. And it’s not a cliché to say they fell in love with the place. “It’s felt like home since day one,” said Ben. “We call this our forever home in our forever town.”
They initially purchased the house next door before renovating and subdividing the property to make an ideal two and a half acre block where they could build this - their ideal home. Meg said they didn’t want to build a very big house, instead choosing a compact, family friendly design which would last a lifetime.
She said they were also conscious of the costs involved in heating and cooling a house full of rooms which were rarely if ever used.
“We wanted a house we could really grow old in and not rattle around inside it,” she said.
“We wanted a house that will go across all stages, and maybe when our kids are teenagers we’ll need a bit more space, but then we’ve got an old dairy on the property as well if we need it. “I also think it’s good to have to spend time together. “Sometimes I think people have these massive houses and then they don’t really have to interact with each other, and here we utilise every space - there is nothing underused.” >>
The couple live in the home with 13 year old daughter Arnya and 10 year old son Luka along with two dogs, and a few chooks who help provide mulch and manure for the veggie patch and orchard.
The home may be compact but it’s certainly not cramped. A large kitchen flows into the spacious main living area which is minimally decorated but has everything needed to enjoy cuddling up on the couch in front of a wood fire, which they light for ambience rather than warmth. A second living space has a piano and bay windows with a seat looking out over natural grassland dotted with mature gums. There are three bedrooms and one bathroom all decorated in a palette of neutral textures and earthy tones.
This is a tactile home, where the floor has a smooth satin finish, the walls are even but not perfectly uniform and they are warm to the touch, and the natural timber used in the doors makes a feature of their functionality.
“We didn’t want it to be small and pokey but we also wanted to think about what was necessary and what we really needed, and I feel like we’ve got everything,” said Meg.
“We wanted to keep things in their natural state and tone, so the house would have a sense of gentleness - a refuge or a sanctuary from a busy day, which is gentle on the senses.”
They chose straw bale construction for a number of reasons, including the way it looks, its warmth and the fact it makes the most of a cheap, largely wasted material. The incredibly thick walls provide remarkable insulation qualities when it comes to heating, cooling and noise, and the thick timber internal doors fitted with double glazed glass separate the living zone from bedrooms to ensure there is no need to tip toe around at night and everyone can get a good night’s sleep. The home is energy efficient and economical to run, with no need for cooling in summer, the wood stove so far providing all the heat they need as well as hot water, which is supplemented by solar panels in summer.
“One of the appeals of straw bale is you get lots of gentle curves and we like the render in its natural state like this, where you get different light bouncing off it, unlike very hard, angular plaster walls,” said Meg.
“And we wanted to build something for the future where we don’t have to invest a lot for the services we need.”
To say Meg and Ben were hands-on during the building process is kind of an understatement. The pair actually did a lot of the work themselves, putting the straw bales in the walls, preparing the render and assisting with its application, painting and even staining the concrete floors. While it was partly about keeping costs down it was also about making a physical investment into the home they were creating for their family.
“People think it’s really cheap to build a straw bale house and the truth is while the straw is cheap, it’s quite labor intensive, so if you need to get someone else to do it it’s probably not any cheaper than a conventional build,” said Meg.
“And it feels a bit more like our house because we were involved in the making of it,” adds Ben.
The couple provided a detailed brief to Soft Loud House Architects which not only covered their technical requirements, but how they wanted the home to feel. >>
They cited the desire to live in a place that felt connected to the earth, has a sense of continuity with the environment, respected the natural landscape in which it was positioned and would nurture their family. While a few different options were considered, they settled on the design which had more curves. “We loved it from the first look at it,” said Ben. “And we’d seen other work the architect had done before so we knew what we were getting.”
The floor plan provides for all the external walls to largely be curved but it remains functional, without the awkward and unusable corners a non-conventional shape can sometimes bring.
Solar passive design is what brings the winter light and warmth into the north facing living area. The thermal mass of the sealed slab and a feature recycled redbrick wall absorb that energy and provide a necessary counterpoint to those wellinsulated external walls.
A curved roof line is designed to reduce the impact of the house in the landscape, blending with the rolling hills and the gentle slope of the property.
The build took around eight or nine months and the couple credit Ovens and King Builders for their effort, efficiency and willingness to accommodate owners who wanted to be involved and build something outside the square.
“There was never an idle day - there was always someone on site - and they had great momentum throughout,” said Meg. “I think they enjoyed doing something different too,” adds Ben. “They were really great to work with.” The structure of the building is predominately timber with the veranda posts locally sourced bush poles. There are a variety of wall fabrics including radially sawn weatherboard claddings to the timber framed bay windows. The builders say the extensive timber skeleton that supports the roof and frames the walls was challenging to conceive and construct, with the curved design extending to horizontal and vertical planes, and they are proud of their carpenters who rose to the challenge of creating something very fluid in form from rigid, rectangular timber.
At the end of the home is the couple’s only “indulgence” – a detached yoga room and meditation space which is used daily as a retreat by the family. The self-contained dairy is where the family lived for the nine months while the house was under construction and is now used as an office and guest quarters.
Meg and Ben make no apology for creating a home which is tailored exactly to suit them and their family alone.
“We’ve done things in the past because it would be good for re-sale, but we got to that point where we decided to build a home which had all the things we value, rather than thinking about what other people would like,” said Meg.
“We wanted a house that we actually lived in – a place where our kids felt comfortable being themselves and doing what they want to do.”
COMFORT / Natural materials and an earthy colour scheme add warmth to bedrooms and to functional living spaces.
INSIDE OUT / The home of Meg, Ben, Luka and Arnya (right) makes the most of its natural bushland surrounds, visible from every window.