Sarah Collins and Justin Kennedy’s two bedroom unit in Belgrave was built in the early ’80s, shortly after the Ash Wednesday bushfires, by a clever local couple called Ross and Janice Gasking. Thinking there would be a greater demand for bushfire-proof housing in Australia, Ross and Janice travelled to Arizona and Minnesota to study earth-sheltered housing. After returning home, they began experimenting in the Dandenong Ranges area. They built a few bunkers, and an earth-sheltered home in nearby Upwey before designing and building this property, which is one of four units cut into the surrounding hill.
Incredibly, Sarah and Justin had the good fortune of meeting Ross and Janice quite by chance one weekend, at a local garage sale! ’We met Ross and Janice by sheer coincidence at a garage sale they were hosting that we turned up to after following a sign on a street corner’ says Sarah. ‘It was late in the day, getting dark, we never go to garage sales and yet we decided to go to this one. We turned up and very quickly figured out that these were the people who had built our home’. Ross and Janice shared with Sarah and Justin the original house plans and photos of their home being constructed. ‘We couldn’t believe our luck. It was the craziest coincidence of our lives. In fact we no longer think of it as a coincidence…’ Sarah admits.
Sarah and Justin have been here six years. Before moving here, they were living in a rented townhouse at the Pentridge Prison residential development in Coburg. They didn’t really intend to move to the hills, but a series of events somehow drew them to this special little house.
‘Friends of ours had moved to the hills right at the same time we got a notice saying our Pentridge Prison townhouse was up for sale’ recalls Sarah. ‘AS A JOKE, over dinner, our friends said “You should move up here!” and then spent all evening telling us the merits of the area. To appease them we got onto a real estate website and our house was the first thing to come up. We realised that the mortgage repayments would be less than what we were paying in rent.’ It needed a LOT of work, but Sarah and Justin could instantly see the potential of this unusual property. ‘It had great bones, and to us it was the perfect first home’ says Sarah.
The pair have extensively renovated their home, with the assistance of Jeremy Bacon at Fortis Build, and Gareth Ward from Wards Civil. They changed the flooring, painted throughout, put in a new kitchen, new windows and doors, demolished an ’80s beige bathroom complete with spa bath, switched out every single light, added wardrobes and further storage, put in a new bathroom and laundry… the list goes on! Outside, they’ve also levelled and landscaped the backyard, and cladded the exposed exterior walls of the house. No mean feat! The results are, quite honestly, pretty spectacular! For a property that is technically ‘underground’, this home is surprisingly bright and breezy, with a connection to the outdoors from almost every room.
For Sarah and Justin, home is a sanctuary. From the street, their property is barely visible, protected by its unusual design. It’s also a comfortable and extremely energy efficient space – ‘In summer we never even contemplate putting an airconditioner on (the house doesn’t have one)’ says Sarah. Living in a small footprint home with a baby has been testing at times, but Sarah is grateful for the efficiency of small space living. Everything has a place, and there simply isn’t room for unnecessary ‘stuff’. ‘it’s taught us about the economy of small space living’ Sarah says. ‘We hope we’ve made decisions here that will stand the test of time’.