Design workshop: A beach shack transformed

Barwon Heads, Victoria
  • Jess and Lucien purchased one of the last classic beach shacks in the area, and want to renovate it to be as comfortable and energy-efficient as possible: “Around here most of the old places have been knocked down – people are rebuilding right to the boundaries.”
  • Where possible, they want to retain or build around any existing mature fruit trees, which are located at the rear of the existing deck and laundry.
  • Due to site constraints, there is limited potential to build to the front (north). This view from the north-east shows the light-capturing east windows and the clerestory north-facing windows which will pour light into the backyard-facing living space.

There is nothing romantic about asbestos cladding and dingy kitchens. But when deciding whether or not to demolish their fibro beach shack, Lucien Hoare and Jess Davis chose to keep as much of their new home’s old-school charm as possible. With a modest budget to work with, Tim Sonogan, from Sonogan Design in nearby Torquay, responds with a flexible design that pours light into the living spaces.

With a view to having a lifestyle that focussed more on outdoor living, Lucien and Jess made the move from an inner city apartment in 2014, not long after their son was born. “Neither of us need or want a large house so living in a small space was ideal – but growing vegetables in pots has its limitations,” says Jess.

After renting in the area for six months, they found what they were looking for in Barwon Heads: a coastal block with a small house and large garden, and a town with a village feel, where they could access trains to Melbourne, walk to shops, schools and parks. It wasn’t until they moved in that they realised they had bought one of the last original beach houses in the area. “Our neighbours were relieved to find out we planned to live here permanently and keep the garden. Around here most of the old places have been knocked down – people are rebuilding right to the boundaries.”

The rundown 1960s fibro shack met their relatively small budget, but the trade-off was that the house, rear bungalow and gardens needed substantial work. “To make it liveable, we needed to replace the floors and paint the house internally,” says Lucien. “We also removed close to 10 tonnes of concrete and furniture from the gardens.”

After spending their first year establishing the native and food gardens, and coordinating a new routine for parenting, commuting and working from home, they are now ready to work on the house. After researching materials and designs, they are clear they want to keep the house small – and will renovate rather than demolish. Jess explains: “It doesn’t make sense to knock it down if we can meet all our needs by improving it.”

In fact, they would like to keep the renovation within the footprint of the existing house, rumpus and garage to retain as much outdoor and garden space as possible. However, they concede some extension may be necessary to create a house with three bedrooms, open living spaces and a larger kitchen, without resorting to a second storey.

Currently, the property is dominated by the carport and garage along the west boundary, which adds very little to the living space and serves only as storage. The site has existing mature fruit trees, which they would prefer to build around rather than remove. But they do wish to remove the asbestos cladding and roof from the site, and replace them with materials that suit the existing streetscape, which is majority zinc corrugated roof and weatherboard cladding.

While they are constrained by the site, Jess and Lucien want to have natural light throughout, and as far as possible passively heat and cool the house by taking advantage of the sea breeze. They are also committed to installing solar PV and water tanks.
They have both been owner-builders before – Jess constructed her own backyard studio, and Lucien managed a commercial office redevelopment – and intend to be owner-builders with this renovation and addition, calling in help where necessary.

The Brief

  • Keep the footprint small to maximise the garden and outdoor living spaces and, where possible, retain or build around existing mature fruit trees
  • Energy-efficient, passive solar design that makes use of the sea breeze for natural ventilation and cooling
  • Natural light to all living spaces
  • Provision for solar PV and water tanks
  • Avoid hallways or enlarge them to provide a secondary function, such as a rumpus/study area
  • Remove asbestos cladding and roofing materials, and replace with materials that fit with the character of the street
  • Three modest bedrooms, with a separate guest room for weekend visitors.

Tim’s response

Jess and Lucien have purchased this property in beautiful Barwon Heads having now met all of their lifestyle and social needs. With both of them commuting for part of the week, they have selected their site well near the shops and the Barwon River, providing them with the ability, when they are at home, to walk everywhere.

If this were a blank slate, I would recommend two storeys, with reverse living, keeping the footprint small but maximising passive elements. But with the owner requirement to retain part of the existing ‘fibro shack’ – which is understandable to reduce cost and waste to maintain neighbourhood character – creating sun-drenched habitable spaces is their next and most important need.

Designing a home on an east/west block with an existing building and established northern street frontage is one of the most challenging of all environmentally conscious designs. In this case there is little room to extend into the highly sought after northern area of the site. The way around this common issue is to create natural lighting to the southern habitable areas via high windows.

Half of the facade will be ‘sunken’ to create a nice sense of covered entry, however the existing facade and roofline presence will be retained to keep some history and beachy ‘feel’ that is so prominent to Ocean Grove and Barwon Heads living.

Carefully reconfiguring a floor plan when considering renovations and additions is important because, like everything else, design evolves over time. Like many homes of this era, little attention was paid to the climate during its design and construction.

The garage will remain to the west to reduce solar heat gain throughout the summer. The existing front rooms, though, will be re-assigned as the rest of the building footprint increases into open plan living and dining, while allowing space down the eastern boundary for access and wall gardens.

Clerestory windows transitioning into a cathedral ceiling give the south-facing living area lots of natural lighting and a sense of size. Ideally, these windows are operable to allow for great stack ventilation and purging of the house on warmer days.

The main amenities and bedrooms are situated to the west, leaving the living area to garner morning sunlight. I understand the owners’ requirement to open up the living area into the garden to the south. Realistically though, this area will be damp and uncomfortable for eight months of the year, so I am suggesting larger east windows, and view-capturing windows to the south only.

With the replacement of roof and wall cladding, this generates the perfect chance to fit out the home with insulation and bring the home up to a current standard. In this part of Australia (assuming a 90 mm wall frame) natural recycled batts with maximum R value would be appropriate.

Currently, the kitchen is very basic. The new kitchen will be positioned just below the clerestory windows to allow the dining and living area maximum natural lighting.
By reducing the amount of new materials and introducing recycled materials where possible, they could bring the cost down – the cradle to cradle approach or, at the very least, low embodied energy, is important with any material choice.

Wet areas to the south would be optimal to allow north aspects for living, but due to the living-to-backyard transition requirement, I recommend the main bathroom be located to the west side to act as a thermal break. With frequent weekend visitors the reality, having a separate ensuite bathroom will allow some private space.

Many old beach houses in Barwon Heads were built to house multiple families holidaying together and this site is no different. By renovating the rear bungalow and connecting it with pathways to the house, there is potential for this home to become a site appropriate for multi-generational living, with teenage children or older family members living out the back, and also cater for holiday makers.

As they both commute and work flexibly from home, the floor plan lends itself to this requirement – the entry, rumpus or bungalow could easily be used as sun-filled home offices or additional bedrooms for a larger family.

The desire to keep the renovation to a single storey will ensure a good internal/external transition, but will prove harder to control heating and cooling. On the plus side, minimising the building footprint, where possible, allows external space for children and visitors to play and socialise.

Read Tim’s full design response in Sanctuary 35.

Would you like your house plans Design Workshopped? Send us an email at with the subject line ‘Design Workshop’ and a brief summary and plans of your project.

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Cover of Issue 35
You can read more about Design workshop: A beach shack transformed in Issue 35 of Sanctuary magazine.

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Project type
Renovation, owner-builder

Land size
590 sqm

Current house size
84 sqm, 40 sqm garage

Proposed house size
181 sqm, 23 sqm garage