Cordwell Lane

Peek into the past

An intensive restoration of a historical cliffside cottage showcases and celebrates the beauty inherent in ancient and new construction techniques.

Photo courtesy Trevor Mein


Gabrielle Chariton

Captain James Kelly, born in Parramatta, NSW in 1791, was one of the early colony’s leading mariners. In 1815, the sea adventurer circumnavigated Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and in 1818, he became the first European to settle on Bruny Island – a wild, windswept landmass located off the south-eastern coast of Tasmania – after the Colonial Administration awarded him a 100-acre land grant.

Some years later, perhaps in the 1830s, Captain Kelly built a weatherboard cottage on the northernmost point of his land holdings: at the edge of an ocean-front cliff flanked by two pristine sandy coves, overlooking the Southern Ocean.

The cottage – which we now know as ‘Captain Kelly’s Cottage’ – is one of the oldest standing examples of Australian colonial architecture – a style characterised by its simplicity.

‘There’s no ornamentation, no decoration, no extraneous detailing,’ explains Scott Cordwell, co-owner of Tasmanian building firm and HIA member Cordwell Lane.

‘By necessity, everything was built for purpose, fashioned out of the material that was available at the time’ – which, in the case of Captain Kelly’s Cottage, was timber, pit-sawn on-site; convict-made bricks; and small panes of glass brought over from England.

However, by the 2000s, the cottage was dilapidated and time-worn, its colonial charm buried beneath decades’ worth of unsympathetic, crudely-constructed additions and alterations. Fortunate, then, that the building’s current custodian, Melbourne architect John Wardle, was intent on uncovering its hidden stories, and respectfully re-instating its integrity and functionality as a home and as a piece of architecture.

Cordwell Lane
Captain Kelly's Cottage
Photo courtesy Trevor Mein
Cordwell Lane -  living room
The living room insertion was constructed almost entirely from Tasmanian oak
Photo courtesy Trevor Mein

‘I think the principal aim [for owner and architect John] was very much to capture the informality of the built technique, to explore how the cottage was put together, and to really to bed down the detail of the construction in a historical manner,’ Scott Cordwell explains.

Cordwell Lane was engaged to oversee this highly sensitive project, which essentially involved restoring the two discrete structures of the original house – the veranda-fronted cottage which consisted of four rooms and a bathing area; and the detached kitchen – and constructing a contemporary living space ‘insertion’ to bind the structure into a seamless whole.

The first stage of the complex 18-month build was to strip the away all the ugly additions to reveal the home’s beautiful ‘bones’. The unusual construction techniques that Scott and his team uncovered describe a different era: mortice and tenon jointing in the framework; used in the absence of nails and screws by men who were trained to build ships rather than houses. The historical ‘nogged’ brickwork walls, where the wall is framed in timber and bricks laid between the studs in the cavity, ready to take a coat of limewash. The weatherboard cladding, split from trees felled on surrounding land.

‘We actually dismantled it, brick by brick, stick by stick, and totally rebuilt the whole thing from the ground up’

These old sections of the home were carefully and faithfully restored.

‘We actually dismantled it, brick by brick, stick by stick, and totally rebuilt the whole thing from the ground up. Where the timber was past its use-by date – and most of it was – we replaced it with new Tasmanian oak, to match the existing oak,’ Scott says.

‘Where we had weatherboards that needed replacement, we had new boards milled on the same profile as the existing ones at a local sawmill.

‘We removed 70 per cent of the brickwork and cleaned it up and the re-laid it, using the same technique bricklayers used back in those days and the same sand and cement mortar, no plasticisers.

‘The owner was fascinated by the provenance of the bricks, which were locally made on the island. So he didn’t want to cover that back up.’ Instead, the walls in the kitchen are left unlined; the aesthetic of the space is defined by their reddish hue and charmingly uneven construction.

These little windows into the past are everywhere: sections of timber wall panelling are scrubbed bare; a square of original, miraculously preserved wallpaper (which is actually newspaper) still adorns a bedroom wall; an exposed door jamb reveals the old joinery methods.

Cordwell Lane
The finished home, transitioning seamlessly between centuries, is a true celebration of the built form, past and present
Photo courtesy Trevor Mein
Cordwell Lane
Sections of timber wall panelling are scrubbed bare
Photo courtesy Trevor Mein

Scott says that while they ‘meddled’ very little with the original construction, modern-day necessities such as insulation and electrical wiring were incorporated.

‘We didn’t want to impose anything over the top of [the original structure] in a way that you can see it’s been interfered with. But there is a disguised overlay in there of modern building compliance.’

Bridging the divide between the bedroom and kitchen areas is the new living space; an unapologetically contemporary structure clad in spotted gum and capped by a dramatic, angled roofline that sweeps up and away from the veranda. Extensive areas of double glazing bring the spectacular water views inside.

Harmony between old and new is achieved by the overarching design principle: the visual focus of the interiors is the materials themselves – structure and decoration are one and the same.

The living room insertion, Scott says, was constructed almost entirely from Tasmanian oak, which lines the ceiling, the walls and the floors. Detailing and texture are introduced by way of intricate joinery techniques.

‘Where the timber was past its use-by date ... we replaced it with new Tasmanian oak’

‘The walls are lined in segments, so every board is cut into small lengths and then put in with the junction between all the boards set out in a grid pattern, so it’s got a lot of geometric set-out to add visual interest … the small lengths are no greater than 900mm long,’ Scott explains. ‘It was very labour-intensive.’

This incredibly well-researched, painstakingly executed renovation project has attracted a multitude of industry accolades. In May, it won the 2018 HIA Australian Renovation/Addition Project award, and more recently, it was selected as one of the 20 winners of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Awards for International Excellence 2018.

The finished home, transitioning seamlessly between centuries, is a true celebration of the built form, past and present – and, ultimately, was an incredibly rewarding project to work on.

‘It was very satisfying to see the old structures come back to life again,’ Scott says. ‘And I’ve got a team of young carpenters who would never have had the opportunity to do something like that, so within that there’s a lot of satisfaction.’

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