PEACE IN THE VALLEY
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.