We have had some lovely house tours over the past few years and we are revisiting some of them to bring them back to light. One of my favourite tours was the home of Susan Weil, who loves old pre-loved and used materials, as they work well with her love for vintage and Australian country furniture.
“I love their rustic look, they feel homely and relaxed and that’s what I love to build in all my homes. A place that fits like an old glove. A place where you walk in and feel at home.”
Susan has always loved this style and all of her homes, (except her very first) were like this….in fact she says, the very first place she bought in Coogee in Sydney 20 years ago, she designed with all the latest ‘in’ stuff and when she finished it, she hated it! She has never built or designed for “resale” ever again.
Susan now has two houses – one they live in, which has featured on the cover of Rural Australian Homes, and they have a vintage farm stay house on stayz.com. Both are in Bellingen. To top it off, they also have a great little off the grid hut, Hernani Wilderness Hut, furnished with recycled and pre loved interiors. All of their houses are passive solar design with emphasis on minimising their carbon footprint, using solar, rain tanks and recycled materials.
How did you build and decorate the properties?
My taste is eclectic, nothing matches and I like putting together a mish mash of second hand, roadside collectables and pieces that I love…..somehow they work. My houses are one of my creative outlets, a chance to combine my love of aesthetic beauty with minimising my carbon footprint by refusing to buy new materials and consumer goods.
I really struggle with how much we consume and waste and all my homes are built with recycled doors, windows, timbers, sinks, baths, toilets etc….my furniture is the same…..I like the story behind the pieces I buy and the fact that they have been well used and well loved long before they got to me. Recycled materials and furniture have a quirkiness and character to them that new materials just don’t have.
I always build backwards, the way you’re not supposed to build! I buy and collect pieces that I love, windows and doors, sinks etc and none of them ever match, and then I collect timber and beams and posts and so on. Eventually I build around them. I look at the space that’s there and the natural surrounds and try to bring them together in a harmonious way. I want to build places that feel like they’ve always been there. Somehow it always comes together. I have a rough idea of what I want and then I make it up as I go along….I need to feel a space and see if everything is working together… and then go from there.
What you love about the houses?
I have now renovated and/or built, 9 homes in the last 20 years and whilst they are all different they have a similarity that runs through them. I like to think they flow well, that the spaces I create are a good combination of beauty and workability. I’m practical and I like things to work well and be efficient, so I try and design that in my homes and holiday spaces.
I now always design what I want to live in. I no longer fall into the trap of designing something for resale, or what other people want, other than my first home, I always build for me. I love the outdoors and most of my time is spent outside on the farm growing biodynamic food, feeding our farm animals (chickens, horses, sheep, cows and alpacas) riding my horse or playing with my children. So I like to have homes that bring the outdoors inside – lots of light, open spaces, plenty of windows and doors that open on tracks, lots of big daybeds to hang out on, outdoor baths, and showers and kitchens where everything is open and visible in terms of shelves. I like a rustic look, a rougher finish, this is more relaxing for me to live in, shows less dirt and easier to manage with kids…as there is less signs of wear and tear. I don’t like living in a museum, I don’t want people to feel uptight, I want them to enjoy themselves and put their feet up on my table.
Can you explain to our readers about passive design?
All of the houses I build or renovate have a passive design element to them. This means I try and design or retrofit an existing house so that you limit and minimize your use of energy to heat and cool your house, thus lowering your carbon footprint. I retrofit an existing house to make best use of the northerly aspect to bring in as much natural light in winter (to warm the house from the sun) and then to provide a cross ventilation in summer to take advantage of the westerly breezes to cool the house.
Good insulation is vital to a successful formula and ensures that when you heat a house it stays heated, and when you cool it its stays cooled. Making sure there are no gaps for air to enter the house in winter and insulating verandahs and gaps in windows is vital to good passive design. I always spend a lot of time and money making sure this is done properly and I never use toxic fiberglass insulation bats, there are now many affordable eco friendly options out there to choose from.
For me passive design also means designing everything so it limits the use of water wastage and energy output. Putting in rain tanks, preferably gravity fed if possible, use of reed bed septic systems that allow you to recycle and re use your grey and black water systems and having houses sit off the ground for airflow and ease of access to white ants and moisture should there be any. All my homes have high ceilings, this creates a sense of spaciousness, it allows for high windows to allow more light in and it allows the hot air in summer to rise and flow out.
A passive solar house must face north, and it should have a thermal mass in the form of a concrete or earthen floor, or a southerly solid wall to absorb the heat in winter which the house then holds and releases overnight to keep the house warm and the reverse in summer. The house is also designed to use solar, gravity fed rain tanks and a septic system that allows the best use of both grey band black water back into the land.
Where do you source your recycled materials?
I try and source everything second hand that’s important to me, and it’s also my taste. I collect from all over the place second hand building centres, ebay, old timber yards, farms in the area, old shops, op shops, auction centres and places I used to know in Sydney…but 98% of the materials and interiors I used to build up for all our homes came from this area.
Can you tell us about your current home and decorating style?
We brought in an old farm house from another valley and then built a huge barn style living, lounge and kitchen space and joined them together. This is my dream home in many ways and by far the biggest project I have done to date. This house is combination of an old existing house that we retrofitted with big windows and insulated throughout and built a new old looking barn with 5metre ceilings, a fireplace and large doors and windows that slide open to the view.
This house has spectacular views over the valley below, sea breezes and a north aspect ….and I got to really have fun with this home in terms of my design ideas and my chance to really build a permaculture style house and farm. I had lots of fun with creating a distressed look throughout with architraves and doors all painted in different colours and it has a really nice playful feel to it. All our water is recycled back into the orchard and veggie garden, we have solar and bore water and rain tanks and all the stuff that makes us as self sustainable as we can. We have a large fireplace for winter and I get to sleep outside on the verandah with my children and be in nature most of the time.
Can you tell us about the vintage farmstay holiday house and hut?
I have a vintage farmstay holiday house on our 8-acre biodynamic permaculture farm in Bellingen, that’s only 5 min from town, which I rent out for people wanting a pet friendly getaway. We lived in this house whilst we built our home on the top of the hill. It’s a great two-bedroom space, with high ceilings and windows, lots of light and it has a great collection of paintings and furniture that I have owned and loved myself. There is a young orchard below the house, an outdoor bonfire area and a short stroll down to the creek for a paddle or a picnic. We want people to come and enjoy our farm life and be inspired to go home and think about their carbon footprint, or to be inspired to go home and start growing some food for themselves or have a few house chooks to enjoy. We want people to see a different way of life that is self sustainable and very fulfilling.
I have also recently refurbished and renovated a shed in the mountains one hour from Bellingen in Hernani and turned it into a fantastic little rustic getaway in the wilderness for horse riders to enjoy and for bushwalking and hiking enthusiast. It’s a quarter of an acre and sits within a TSR (travelling stock route).It’s the last piece of privately owned land on a TSR in NSW (so they tell me). It has over twenty 100-year-old fruits trees, pears, cherries, peaches, nectarines and plum trees on the property and has breathtaking walks right outside the front door. The hut is surrounded by the New England national park and the guy fawks national park.
The hut sleeps 9, has a fireplace and this heats the hot water system. There’s an outhouse bathroom which opens into the bush and a loft with enough headroom for kids to squeeze in. There are no plugs in the hut, so a chance to get away from gadgets, computers, etc.…. plenty of board games, card games and books to enjoy. Good old fashioned fun. There’s also a great bonfire area to enjoy.
We get a very broad spectrum of people staying at our holiday homes, we try and present the houses and the hut exactly as they are…..and we are very clear about our style and our environmental stance…and we do this because we don’t want uptight, fussy, 5 star visitors staying with us…we try and create affordable enjoyable holiday homes where I would love to stay if I was travelling.
We get the full spectrum of people staying at our farmstay but we mostly attract the 30-40’s crowd with young families which is our target market, since they get to show their children a different way to live here and enjoy being in nature, surrounded by our farm animals, plus they get to buy fresh biodynamic produce and eggs directly from the farm they are enjoying.
What or who inspires you and what do you hope for?
We hope that we attract people that get what we’re trying to do in terms of our style and recycled furniture, and that they leave inspired to go home and stop buying new stuff to keep up with the Jones’s, that they might try growing some of their own food again and buying a few chooks for their backyard. I would love our farmstay and wilderness hut to rejuvenate people’s spirits and help them reconnect with nature and living a simple life.
I love living in Bellingen and raising my two beautiful daughters here. I love living on a farm with my chickens, horses, cows, alpacas and sheep. I’m passionate about growing seasonal produce and we now sell our certified biodynamic produce at the Bellopy organic farmers market. I love sharing our farm with our guests and giving them a taste of what is possible when you step outside the square a little and create a new sustainable paradigm to live in….and everyday I feel grateful for the life I have here.
The person who inspired me to live this way and whose home is my inspiration is now dead- her name was Sheila Carroll and she lived in Alford house in Ilford. Her home and farm is the first place I visited in my life in my early twenties…that I said to myself “I want to live like this one day”…… “I want this kind of life for myself” so I owe this to her….we share the same chook addiction and she died on her farm in her mid eighties…much loved and much missed.
I want to live here too Susan. How about you?