PEACE IN THE VAL­LEY

North East Living Magazine - - Contents - words Anita Mcpher­son pho­tos Marc Bongers

Ron­aldo Cortes trans­forms an old to­bacco kiln into a con­tem­po­rary re­treat for cou­ples.

A QUIET lane wind­ing its way through gen­tly un­du­lat­ing coun­try­side, past ma­ture eu­ca­lypts, grassy pad­docks and then rows of wal­nut trees, curves to an end at a shel­tered oa­sis. It’s the idyl­lic en­try to two coun­try re­treats, the first known as Cortes Cot­tage; a quaint two-bed weath­er­board used by fam­i­lies want­ing to es­cape the city, but deeper on the block is Cortes Kiln - an edgy, de­signer cou­ples re­treat.

The prop­er­ties are owned by Ron­aldo Cortes and were a later ad­di­tion to his fam­ily’s larger, 170 acre farm which is nes­tled along­side the Ovens River. It’s where Ron­aldo’s grand­fa­ther Ebe­hardt, Ebe­hardt’s brother Henry and their fa­ther Her­man Sch­lapp, pur­chased their first par­cel of land on the Ovens River flats with the aim of es­tab­lish­ing what would be­come the first com­mer­cial wal­nut or­chard in Aus­tralia, Val­ley Nut Groves.

Ron­aldo tells me they be­gan by grow­ing to­bacco un­til the wal­nut trees were ma­ture enough to pro­duce, dry­ing it in the now her­itage-listed kilns they built on site. They also built a house where Ron­aldo’s mother was born and raised, a hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist and agri­cul­tur­al­ist who con­tin­ued the fam­ily busi­ness with her Bo­li­vian-born hus­band, and it’s where Ron­aldo and his three sib­lings grew up. At the time the Sch­lapps set­tled in the area, Gap­sted had the ideal mi­cro­cli­mate for wal­nut grow­ing - the ‘Buf­falo Breeze’ cre­at­ing a rel­a­tively frost free zone for the young trees. To­day that Buf­falo Breeze pro­vides re­lief from the sum­mer heat to those stay­ing at Cortes Kiln, an ar­chi­tec­turally de­signed ex­ten­sion and ren­o­va­tion of a to­bacco kiln which sits on a lit­tle flat pocket next to a decades-old wal­nut or­chard.

With help and ad­vice from Perth ar­chi­tects Kate Fitzger­ald and Emer­ald Wise of Whis­per­ing Smith Ar­chi­tects, and lo­cal Rock­lea Builders’ Patrick Nan­nip­ieri, Ron­aldo com­pleted the re­fur­bish­ment in early 2018. He and Kate met while study­ing at univer­sity and have been best friends ever since. Ap­par­ently this type of brick to­bacco kiln is rare - be­lieved to be around 100 years old - and its for­mer func­tion is ev­i­dent in the high, red brick ex­te­rior where the out­line of the orig­i­nal, curved en­try can still be seen. Ron­aldo said at some stage, per­haps 70 years ago, it was reroofed, lined and con­verted into a home.

“When mum was a kid she said there were al­ways peo­ple liv­ing here,” he said. >>

He shared his dream to trans­form and breathe new life into the tra­di­tional build­ing with Kate, who came to stay at the prop­erty and im­me­di­ately loved what she saw - the pair walk­ing around dis­cussing the pos­si­bil­i­ties. Ron­aldo said while they wanted to re­tain the prop­erty’s orig­i­nal char­ac­ter, they were also keen to ex­per­i­ment with bold, new ideas. One of those ideas was a lush in­door gar­den in the heart of the one bed­room home. It’s one of its key el­e­ments and they chose to trial polycarbonate sheet­ing, a sub-struc­tural ma­te­rial which has an in­su­lat­ing mem­brane but also al­lows nat­u­ral light to flood in. Their col­lab­o­ra­tion on the project con­tin­ued via email and through video chats, with Kate and Emer­ald send­ing ad­vice from Perth. Ron­aldo said they left the old house largely as it was, leav­ing the in­ter­nal struc­tural de­tail, as much as pos­si­ble, in­tact.

“Kate wanted peo­ple to be able to see what the old houses were and what they looked like,” he said.

“These days it’s eas­ier to de­stroy and re­build, but we did the hard yards by fix­ing, straight­en­ing it all out and paint­ing it all.”

The black stained Tas­ma­nian oak door and en­trance deck gives vis­i­tors just a hint that some­thing dif­fer­ent can be found in­side, the dark colour in stark con­trast to the red brick of the old and the bright white of the new. The en­try walk­way al­most di­vides the prop­erty be­tween a gen­er­ous, but tra­di­tional and cosy bed­room to the left in what was the old kiln, to the con­crete floored, thor­oughly con­tem­po­rary shower and laun­dry room to the right. A con­crete bath sits next to the boxed in­ter­nal gar­den, where a tree fern is lap­ping up the dif­fused light and en­joy­ing the mild mi­cro­cli­mate cre­ated by the in­su­lat­ing prop­er­ties of the polycarbonate sheet­ing.

It’s then that Ron­aldo pushes back the ex­ter­nal wall, which dis­ap­pears com­pletely, and the house is open, the scent of wis­te­ria blos­som drift­ing in, with an ex­panse of grass out­side and that dis­tant wal­nut grove vis­i­ble from the bath­tub. This is all about so­lar pas­sive de­sign – ac­cess­ing win­ter sun and lush, cool, green space in the sum­mer.

Past the gar­den and bed­room, an open plan liv­ing/din­ing area is sim­ply fur­nished with a cus­tom built work­bench be­low a large win­dow, its cen­tral ori­en­ta­tion com­bined with the white-painted ex­posed in­ter­nal tim­ber beams of the pitched roof, draw­ing the eye and giv­ing it a cathe­dral-like qual­ity. A cou­ple of vin­tage chairs sit in front of an open fire­place where a stack of dry wood is ready to pro­vide warmth when the sun goes down, while a sleek, be­spoke lounge is an­other place to perch, read and look over the fern­ery. Doors also open up from the liv­ing area onto a spa­cious con­crete plinth mak­ing the ideal spot to sit, en­joy a glass of wine and look out to­wards an­other vista, to­wards nat­u­ral bush land where kook­abur­ras call. The clean lines of the “Surf Mist Long­line 305” iron roof fold seam­lessly down the wall to ground-level gut­ters, which re­duce fire risk and cap­ture the rain­wa­ter, tak­ing it away via grav­ity to an off-set low ly­ing tank. >>

This is a pri­vate and ro­man­tic space de­signed for two, where a cou­ple can move seam­lessly from bed­room to bath­room, kitchen to lounge and in­door to out, with min­i­mal ef­fort. It may still have a small foot­print, but the beauty is in the de­tail and the owner’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion of less be­ing more, in­nately un­der­stand­ing what is left out is as im­por­tant as what is added. Ev­ery­thing is ei­ther cus­tom made, skil­fully cre­ated or con­sid­er­ately cho­sen, from the Tas­ma­nian oak join­ery to each door’s unique lock and han­dle.

The con­crete bath, sink, kitchen is­land and main bench were cast and made by Ron­aldo and his builder. The bath­room is bright­ened by nat­u­ral light and stain­less steel-framed light boxes, se­lected in pref­er­ence to off-the-shelf light fit­tings, which cast a gen­tle, beau­ti­ful and even light. Those light boxes are one of the owner’s favourite fea­tures of the prop­erty. Nec­es­sary and func­tional laun­dry in­fra­struc­ture is off the bath­room, but com­pletely hid­den be­hind fea­ture tim­ber doors. Ron­aldo said to im­prove the old build­ing’s lack of ther­mal ef­fi­ciency, there’s the flex­i­bil­ity to open and close in­ter­nal doors, fit­ted with thick­ened glass win­dows, to di­vide the home into sep­a­rate, sound-proofed, cli­mac­tic pods.

“In sum­mer you can open ev­ery­thing up and in the evening, the breeze goes through and cools down the house in an in­stant,” he said.

“Fit­ted sprin­klers rain down on the in­ter­nal gar­den so it cools the air and never gets hot. And I like the in­dus­trial and raw look of con­crete - it doesn’t have to look bru­tal - you can make it look quite nice. We love it and use it a lot.”

Ron­aldo said he and his team had a philo­soph­i­cal ap­proach to the en­tire project, pre­pared to try some­thing new but also pre­pared to ac­cept fail­ure and come up with a so­lu­tion if it didn’t work out. “We wanted to do some­thing dif­fer­ent,” he said. “My favourite thing to do is to sit on the couch, read a mag­a­zine and look at the in­door gar­den - or look all the way out­side.”

The in­te­rior de­sign is Ron­aldo’s own hand­i­work, show­ing his eclec­tic and re­fined taste, able to select key pieces and make the most of a mod­est bud­get, while also be­ing pre­pared to in­vest where nec­es­sary in qual­ity de­signs.

“This house made me re­alise how im­por­tant ar­chi­tec­ture and in­te­rior de­sign re­ally are,” said Ron­aldo.

“It’s a tal­ent not many peo­ple have, and one that some­times isn’t ap­pre­ci­ated, but it’s re­ally valu­able.”

The project has also led Ron­aldo to pur­sue a ca­reer in build­ing and ren­o­vat­ing, hav­ing learnt a host of skills along the way and hop­ing to add even more strings to his bow. While for now he’s happy to make Cortes Kiln avail­able to cou­ples seek­ing a ro­man­tic week­end away in the Alpine Val­ley through Airbnb, he’s look­ing for­ward to adding a few fin­ish­ing touches, then one day mak­ing it his home.

“I’m the hap­pi­est when I’m in this house - I ab­so­lutely love it,” he said.

Ron­aldo Cortes has trans­formed an old to­bacco kiln into a strik­ing con­tem­po­rary re­treat for cou­ples.

SIM­PLY EL­E­GANT / Less is more when it comes to qual­ity de­sign and fea­ture pieces. The en­try (right) blends the old with the new.

IN­SIDE OUT / Ron­aldo Cortes (above) wasn’t afraid to try some­thing new, mak­ing an in­door gar­den the home’s key fea­ture.

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