Warburton’s so-called arch house is settling into its environs after a fascinating construction process, Andrew Cooke writes.
Tyrone Jaspers beckons me into a utility room in a corner of his home, which is nestled into the side of a hill overlooking the Upper Yarra valley. “Take a look in here,” he says, showing off the extraordinary exposed skeleton of his “arch house”.
Inside the room, aside from a hot water unit and other functional paraphernalia, are giant steel beams, polystyrene formwork, concrete and a plywood ceiling. Above that, unseen from the room, are layers of polypropylene, soil and plants – a “living roof”.
Tyrone and his partner Hailey Cavill count themselves as among the lucky ones to have lived the dream of building their own home. And it is a home like no other – an open-plan, creative, energy-efficient and functional space that is based on a single, 80-metre curve and which draws inspiration and amenity from its natural environment.
Hailey and Tyrone started out with a blackberry-covered 1.5-hectare block that included a decommissioned water reservoir; or as they describe it, a “giant concrete-covered hole in the ground”. The block took Tyrone four months to clear, mostly by hand, and the concrete was removed.
Apart from the grass-covered roof and stunning billabong that was created out of the reservoir, the house’s distinctive curved shape reflects its connection with the environment. Inside, there is a sense of natural warmth – despite the tiled floors – thanks to a gas-powered hydronic slab heating system, supported by a wood fireplace and a north-facing sunroom that is both a beautiful space and a source of heat. Warm air is circulated throughout the double-height main living area by an enormous steel fan on the curved ceiling.
There are bedrooms, bathrooms and office spaces at each end of the open-plan kitchen, dining and lounge area, as well as spare bedrooms and a guest living area on the mezzanine level. Outside Hailey and Tyrone’s bedroom is an outdoor shower and small Balinese garden. Tyrone is also currently working on a Balinese-style summer house that will have a deck overhanging the lake, and building a workshop where he will create his sculptures.
Tyrone, who describes himself as an artisan builder and sculptor, has built houses for clients in Melbourne, King Island and further afield. Hailey comes from a public relations background and is a “marriage broker” who develops mutually beneficial relationships between big businesses and charities. Successful completion of the house encouraged her that she could achieve big goals, so this year she is writing and self-publishing a book on “the power of doing good”.
Overall, the couple say that building the house – which cost about $690,000 – strengthened their relationship. “We have a policy that anything that goes into the house, we both have to agree on,” said Tyrone. They devised a system of “five elements” – aesthetics, cost, function, environmental footprint and feng shui – for discussing issues as they arose during the build.
“The five pillars forced us to discuss things, and to weigh them up. Do we need something, or do we want it?” said Hailey. “It gave us a stronger platform for discussion. It took some of the emotion out of decision-making. So, yes, it’s going to cost more, but is it going to look better, is it going to be more sustainable? So then eventually we could settle on something, rather than just opinion, opinion, opinion.”
“I think a couple of people would have said that it would have killed our relationship, because building a house is a stressful thing and it brings up everything in a relationship that is potentially problematic, but in our case it put us in a stronger place because we were clear about our roles and our communication.”
The entire building and planning process was filmed and featured on the television show Grand Designs. “Watching the show (beforehand) got us inspired in the first place, and when we saw the design for the curved house I thought ‘we’ve got to put this on the show’, so we took a little video of us standing next to the concrete monster (reservoir) and two weeks later they said ‘you’re in’,” Hailey said.
However, featuring on the show changed the construction process slightly and resulted in the couple spending more money than they budgeted for. “Being on Grand Designs probably forced us to do things a little differently,” Tyrone said. “I love to do things myself – in fact I would rather do it all myself – but because of time restraints (for the TV show) I got other people in to do bits and pieces, which cost.”
Another important part of the process, for Hailey at least, was carrying out a feng shui assessment of the property and using a feng shui expert to advise on their plans. While Hailey was a strong believer in the Chinese system, Tyrone was somewhat sceptical. “There is no evidence either way that it worked out, but it does feel great,” he said. “Architecturally it added a few nice lines that I quite like.”
“And at the end of the day it was the feng shui assessment of the concrete reservoir and his advice to remove the whole thing that had us go down this path of reshaping it and I’m really glad that we did,” said Hailey.
Local architect Alvyn Williams, who designed the house, was responsible for the strong relationship between the form of the house and the landscape in which it sits. “Firstly it comes through asking all the right questions and really getting to know the site well. So I asked Hailey and Tyrone a lot of questions and then did a very thorough site investigation. And living in Warburton on the side of a hill myself I obviously have a lot of experience with that,” said Alvyn, who runs Soft Loud House Architects.
“I have designed a number of houses with grass roofs, including my parents’ house at Steels Creek, and that also had a curved grass roof. I’ve done a few other similar designs in the past but they are the only two in the Yarra Valley. When you are an architect you have a thousand ideas every day but only one or two ever get to fruition. So the Warburton arch house is quite unique.”
The German-designed system for the “living roof” hasn’t gone completely to plan and remains a work in progress. It is patchy in sections and the fact that it was a monoculture, using a grass from Queensland, has been problematic. Tyrone has spent time planting other species on the roof, however, and is confident that it will reach its full potential with care and patience. “There’s not many green roofs in Australia so there wasn’t a ‘green roof centre’ where we could go and talk to people. We were flying blind a little bit, which is another reason the budget blew out a little bit in the end,” said Hailey.
The couple live among, and within, their completed and in-progress creative projects. Sculptures, paintings, glasswork and recycled materials, many of them beautiful and evocative in their own ways. In the entry hall is a painting by Hailey that has echoes of pointillism dot paintings. In the main living area, a giant sea anemone created by Tyrone with tentacles of repurposed plastic and aluminium tubes encasing LED lights. Works of art, in a work of art.