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Aside from a resident ghost known to the estate agent and a few squatters, the wreck had been empty for two decades. Yet to a client who had always fancied living in a cottage, the ”gutted” 1880s Sorrento limestone house had instant appeal as a potential family holiday house. ”I loved its sense of history,” she says. ”I love old-world things.”
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To restore the four-room original structure and extend it to the side and back so it had modern convenience and capacity to accommodate several generations, the client approached Blairgowrie building designer Ray Watts with a brief and a warning: ”It’s the worst dump you’ll ever see.”

And it was that, Watts says. The locally quarried limestone, so characteristic of heritage Sorrento, is soft and, where rain had been getting to it for more than a century, it had decayed.

All the brackets were missing from the front verandah and the grey Colorbond roof looked totally wrong. Behind the cottage were lean-tos and bibs and bobs of rooms that were all falling down. Even the 80-year-old cypress pine at the front was such a mess, it was blocking access to the site and to north-easterly views over a picturesque sports oval.

For a comprehensive restoration of the cottage that turned it into a parents’ retreat with two bedrooms and a sitting room, plus a new extension that added a capacious main living area and a back wing with two bedrooms, bathroom and laundry, Watts won commendations from the National Trust, the local council and the Building Designers Association of Victoria. He says the council’s heritage assessment of his plans elicited no changes at all.

The Mornington Peninsula Council Heritage Award for ”sympathetic extension” acknowledges that what the designer did was not the usual contemporary addition to a period house. Instead of adding something so modern that the differentiation reads as stylistically opposed, with the encouragement of his clients Watts made the new front facade from local limestone and added a new galvanised roof and verandah canopy, so that from the street it now unifies nicely into the mostly pale patina of modest old ”Narbeth Cottage”.

In adding the roughly 112 square metres of living-dining-sitting area that includes the back limestone wall and a new limestone chimney breast as features in the big, open family space, and which bathes the room in a soft luminosity when the setting western sun penetrates it, Watts did something equally clever.

Instead of raising what he calls ”one thumping great roof”, he broke the ceiling profile into several components that include a raked gable roof rising to five metres, and a lower, slanting skillion that reflects the shapes of Narbeth’s original lean-tos as well as the profiles of the neighbouring heritage housing that are visible through the many sash-style windows.

”The mid-roof has the same pitch as the old roof; it picks up on the roof lines around it but can’t be seen from the front,” he explains. ”We got it pretty right, I think. I love it.”

To further break down the volume of the great room and to conceal much of the essential steel substructure, a large supporting beam and three uprights run across the centre of the space. These have been boxed in rusticated wood, which again blurs the sense of any stark or startling newness.

Rather than being an ”academic monument” to modern architecture, Watts has used all sorts of other devices and details that look as though they could credibly belong to a period house.

The back bedroom wing has wooden dados on the lower portions of the walls and its hallway bellies into a wide, square bay window that may, in future, have a day bed installation ”as an extra bed, or where people could read books”, the owner says.

”It’s all very relaxed,” the designer says. ”It looks old, but is nice and new and comfortable, with many flexible rooms.”

”I didn’t want this to be a showpiece,” the owner says. ”I wanted it to be a home. An old cottage with a new life that would keep the family together as we all get older.”

The garden, dominated by the enormous and expensively tidied cypress that is also characteristic of old Sorrento, is the next job.

The owner intends to plant a hedge of lavender across the front and Watts is keen to see what happens when it gains a picket fence.

”When the fence goes up – a white picket fence – it will be really cute,” he says.

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