Right at home

Issue 34 Words: Rachael Bernstone Photography: Alexander McIntyre
Newcastle, NSW, Australia
  • The renovated miner’s cottage feels expansive, despite only an extra 30 square metres being added to its footprint. The existing timber floors were restored and float-filled in order to minimise underfloor draughts.
  • Architect Jason Elsley says they tried to make the modest house “feel domestic in scale, while looking like a piece of art.” The joinery is deliberately striking, but also highly practical.
  • High level louvres help vent hot air, while providing a sightline towards a row of distant trees and allowing the family to “watch big storms roll in”.

A recently renovated house in Newcastle that shares attributes with a well-designed yacht is the perfect home port for this young family.

This house in Newcastle may be small, but it makes up for its diminutive size with cleverly designed spaces that accommodate a family of three in comfort and style. Marine industry professional Nairn Johnston and his psychologist wife Emily moved back to Newcastle with their young son to be closer to extended family, after living in Sydney for several years. The couple purchased a two-bedroom miner’s cottage in the same street as relatives, and appointed local architect Jason Elsley, of Derive Architecture & Design, to help with the renovation.

“We wanted a very small renovation that wouldn’t cost the world but would give a big result,” Nairn recalls. “We didn’t add much in terms of square metres, but the change it made to the house is massive. Now the house feels really spacious, has more natural light, and brings the outside in. We wanted a clean modern addition for our 114-year-old cottage.”

Jason opted to extend the footprint to the side boundary rather than towards the back fence, to preserve as much outdoor space as possible. The new back room, which combines kitchen, dining and living areas, feels larger than its dimensions would suggest, thanks to existing high ceilings and a new double-height void above the kitchen. The clerestory windows expand internal sightlines to a row of distant trees, an idea that was important to Emily, and function as a thermal chimney to help purge heat in summer.

Recycled windows and doors placed on either side of the kitchen connect to front and rear gardens, and capture cross-flow breezes for passive ventilation. A high window on the southern side is positioned for glimpses of the Southern Cross, in a nod to navigation at sea.

The back room was extensively insulated during the renovation, with Earthwool battens added to the walls and ceiling, and gaps in the existing timber floor were filled to exclude draughts. The new north-east-facing timber deck plays a vital role in managing seasonal internal comfort. “Nairn rigs up tension sails on the rear deck during summer for passive shading, rather than using fixed awnings,” Jason says. “The idea was that Nairn and Emily would manage the house actively and in tune with the weather, like a sailor would manage a yacht.”

The kitchen also reflects Nairn’s nautical experience. “When Nairn was travelling the world sailing, he really understood how to live in a compact environment, but to also make things work efficiently,” Jason says. “I’m not typically a fan of open plan living in such small arrangements, because it can feel like you are living in the kitchen, so it was really important that the cabinetry had visual interest and vitality.”

After a five-month build in which Nairn played a hands-on role, especially in the selection and preparation of recycled building materials, the family couldn’t be happier with their modest, but very liveable house. “It’s a very easy house to live in, with the main space being that big ‘aft’ area at the back,” he adds. “We love to open up the whole house and to watch our son run through from front to back.

“The big windows over the kitchen are awesome, the view is constantly changing – the trees, the sky, the clouds – and we love to watch big storms roll in,” Nairn continues.

From the safety and comfort of their little house, this young family feels right at home back in Newcastle. “We have a house in the same street as our family, a park and playground at the end of the road, and a renovation we have invested in very personally,” Nairn says. “This is such an easy choice, compared to living in Sydney or living on a yacht – which was seriously considered!”

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Cover of Issue 34
You can read more about Right at home in Issue 34 of Sanctuary magazine.

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Derive Architecture and Design

Orton Building Pty Ltd


Newcastle, NSW

Land 233 sqm
House 120 sqm (ext 30 sqm)

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