Rolling country views, a pony, dogs, a beautiful solar passive new build, a lovely family and two pet sheep who are convinced they are people – this wonderful home visit was one of my favourites and I’m so pleased to share it here today with these gorgeous photos by Heather.
Nestled in the Perth hills in picturesque Stoneville, this family home is special – it is proof that building on a budget does not need to mean you have to automatically go the project home route, but that you can have a beautiful custom-designed, completely individual and eco-friendly solar passive home.
I first published this story on the original part of my blog here, but as one of my most-read (and most-Pinned!) Home Envy stories, this one deserves a reboot.
“I had grown up with horses in rural Ireland and when we migrated to Australia we did so with the dream of eventually designing and building our own home in a rural location where we could keep horses and raise a couple of ‘free range’ kids,” says Irene. But finding the perfect block of land was a challenge.
“We wanted a north-facing slope situated within easy commuting distance of the city with enough cleared land to provide protection from bushfires and grazing for horses, and ideally close to local shops and trails for riding and cycling,” says Niall.
Their dream finally started to come true in 2012, when they purchased a five acre property with lovely views of forest and rolling fields in the Perth Hills suburb of Stoneville. Irene says they immediately loved the location and its cultural significance. “The site is located directly opposite the Heritage Trail which runs along the path of the original Mundaring Loop rail line from Perth and now offers a wonderful public amenity for walking, riding or cycling,” Irene tells me. “Once we had found the right property everything else came together quickly as we both knew what we wanted and how to achieve it.”
Their aim was to create an energy efficient house that would be beautiful, functional, affordable and, above all else, a family home.
“We love the functional honesty of the Australian rural vernacular – older farm houses, wool sheds etc,” says Irene. “As in these traditional buildings, lightweight sheet materials are offset against the richness of natural timber with elements of rustic brickwork.” With its timber-framed windows, wraparound veranda and pretty gardens, what I love is that this home very much looks like a house but the steel exterior also brings to mind the typical Australian shed.
Coming to Perth from Europe and with years under their belt designing houses, Irene and Niall bring two pairs of fresh eyes to the West Australian home design and building field.
“There is a cultural acceptance and local reliance on the ‘project home’ building industry for private housing in Western Australia,” says Niall. “This is an industry that relies heavily on catalogue designs and does not build to suit the challenging climate that we experience or address individual client requirements. In a harsh climate such as ours we should be looking carefully at the unique characteristics of a site and the materials and building forms we employ. We need smarter, location sensitive housing. We need to think carefully about what we want from a home; what is really important for a particular individual or family.
Niall and Irene say there is a common perception that there is a much higher cost associated with the bespoke house.
“This isn’t necessarily true,” says Irene. “With a good understanding of how to work with budget, local knowledge and a sound understanding of the industry it is feasible to deliver a custom-designed home for the same budget as an equivalent standard ‘project home’. We need a change in mindset and a rethink of how to design and build our West Australian homes.”
I visit Niall and Irene’s own custom-designed West Australian home on an early summer’s day that quickly turns unexpectedly rainy. I am introduced to their kids, Oisín, 12, and daughter Aoife, 11, as well as their pets, Brego “the best little pony in the world”, Cruise, a sweet 15-year-old whippet, Dinah, a young Catahoula leopard dog, and two sheep, Sean and his girlfriend Barbara, who were bottle fed as orphaned lambs and don’t quite grasp that they are sheep.
Irene, Niall and I sit around the kitchen table drinking coffee while rain beats on the tin roof and elderly Cruise drifts blissfully in and out of consciousness on the couch. The house is still in the finishing touches stage when Heather and I visit for these photos –the walls unpainted, the floor still concrete – and there is a nip in the air, but inside the house is a perfect temperature. And despite the storm clouds gathering, the home’s solar passive design meant no artificial lighting is needed – a big difference to my own 1970s house on a dark day. While the house was still in the finishing bits stage, I thought it was so lovely and had such a pleasant, calming feel to it. It was the kind of house where I visited and lingered annoyingly because I didn’t feel like leaving yet.
The home, which has 200sqm of living space, was carefully designed as a passive solar home and has been carefully oriented along an east-west axis. Wide canopy eaves shade the external walls in summer but allow the winter sun to reach all the principal rooms through large north-facing windows.
While energy efficiency housing is generally something one characterises with modern houses of the past decade, interestingly Niall and Irene drew on features of the West Australian houses of yesteryear to design theirs.
“Traditional West Australian houses built prior to the 1950s and the post-war project housing boom typically had high ceilings which were vented into the roof space, combined with low level wall or floor vents that allowed cool air from the floor space below to move up through the house,” says Niall.
“As the cooler air warmed, it would rise and escape through the roof space, effectively acting as a natural air-conditioning system. The high ceilings ensured that the warm air could move quickly to the upper part of the room keeping the living spaces cool.”
Niall says on larger properties, tall roofs extended into wide verandas, providing a shade canopy to protect the house below. “We employed similar techniques in our own home with high ceilings throughout fitted with adjustable ceiling vents,” he reveals. “A central raised ridge vent runs for half the length of the house and uses prevailing breezes to create a strong chimney effect drawing hot air out in summer. Combined with high levels of insulation in walls and ceiling, low-e glazing and ceiling fans in all rooms, the result is a house which stays cool all summer.” Using a local Builder, Warden Constructions, to build the house to lock up stage, the build time was just four months!
Internally the concrete slab and brick walls provide thermal mass to stabilise temperatures all year round and the long roof extends out over the car port at the west side of the house providing additional shading from the hot afternoon sun in the summer.
“The narrow plan carefully places doors and windows opposite each other providing excellent cross ventilation and passive cooling at night,” says Irene. “We typically experience cool summer nights in the Perth Hills allowing the house to be purged of warm air at night. The modest, considered use of brick and heavily insulated frame also contribute to ensuring we do not experience the typical Perth build-up of heat as the summer progresses.” The home uses solar hot water and is wired to allow for the installation of solar photovoltaic panels in the future.
The entire family adores their new house. “We love our new home – all of it,” says Irene. “From a practical viewpoint, we’ve been very pleased with how well the house has performed environmentally. It has exceeded all our expectations. Spatially we love the high ceilings; the volume of the living area and how it integrates with the elevated deck as one large indoor-outdoor space all opening up to the northerly view.”
Love sustainable home principles and always dreamed about building or renovating to a unique design of your own? “We would be very happy to give advice to anyone interested in designing a new home or renovating their existing home,” says Irene. “We place a particular focus on sustainable living and energy efficient homes.”
I am always getting emails asking for recommendations for builders for difficult sites – well Irene and Niall don’t shy away from them!
“We love to work on tricky sites with distinctive character; places with interesting topography or that are caught on the side of a hill, places that are exposed to wind, places that have an interesting history or have an odd aspect,” says Niall. “These are many of the qualities that from a traditional ‘home builder’ viewpoint make a site difficult to build on and this is quite true when dealing with generic catalogue designs. For us, they are the very qualities that inform how a house should work. How we respond to a place, work with the landscape, take advantage of views or catch the breeze and the sun is what makes that house unique, of its place and unrepeatable in any other location.” You can them through Coveney Browne Design at Maya x
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Irene Coveney and Niall Browne, their son Oisín, 12, and daughter Aoife, 11, who live with their pets Brego “the best little pony in the world”, Cruise, a 15-year-old whippet, Dinah an 18-month-old Catahoula leopard dog, Sean the sheep and his girlfriend Barbara bottle fed as orphaned lambs and several chickens.
A new-build, custom-designed solar passive country home on a five acre property
Stoneville, Western Australia
Niall and Irene both hold Honours degrees in architecture and designed their home under their own boutique design company
Veranda, rolling country views, open-plan kitchen, living and dining, four bedrooms, one designed to be large enough as a second living space for the kids when they have friends over, home office, paddocks, stable, chook pen
Heather Robbins of