Two years ago, Beth and David Hawkins bought some land in the historic Victorian town of Beechworth that was subdivided from The Old Priory, a landmark guesthouse and former convent built in the 1800s.
On the couple’s block was a building many would consider the opposite of grand, and most likely ripe for demolition – an old timber and corrugated iron shed holding a blacksmith’s workshop and bric-a-brac from the previous owner.
But for them, this was the star attraction.
Dave, a builder for almost 40 years, spotted the place first, and his well-trained carpenter’s eye noticed the thick timbers and the old-fashioned methodology used to put the shed together.
“I could tell it was really well-built,” he says. “You don’t see that sort of stuff now – everything’s built with trusses and pre-fab frames and things. I was really in awe of the structure itself.”
When he showed Beth, she encouraged him to contact the agent, envisioning the rare home it could become if they championed its raw materials. “She talked me into it,” Dave says.
As luck would have it the shed was indeed available to buy.
“It was lucky in a way for us, and it was lucky in a way for the building because it’s a beautiful building and I think most people would demolish something like that, whereas we never had that intention [of that],” Dave says.
Most people probably couldn’t see the potential, but the couple had already done several property projects together, with Beth – an oncology nurse who’s also trained in design – doing the interiors.
They decided from the outset to have the new floor plan designed around the constraints of the original timber framework. “We didn’t want to mess with it,” Beth says.
While it appears historic, the blacksmith shed was only built around 35 years ago, meaning it was free of heritage constraints. That said, a high level of craftsmanship was needed to build additions around the existing structure.
The original shed roof now forms the home’s internal ceiling, allowing the tin and beams to feature prominently throughout the house.
“I wanted to enhance the old world look, and preserve all the carpentry work and skill,” Dave says.
Above the original roof they laid insulation, then topped that with a new white tin external roof, creating a “sandwich” that helped give the property a six-star energy efficiency rating.
A mezzanine floor was put in, accessed via a spiral staircase, for an upstairs bedroom and en suite.
Downstairs are two more bedrooms, each with its own en suite, with vanities handmade by Dave.
Crafting the vanities meant a piece of his family’s history found a permanent home in the shed conversion – Dave had been holding onto a slab of silky oak for years that had belonged to his dad, waiting for the right time to use it. Now it holds up a copper hand basin.
“I moved nine times in nine years because I was a builder,” he says, “and every time I’d [take] this piece of silky oak. So I was really glad to find a spot for it eventually.”
The ground floor also has open and flowing living spaces, including a lounge room, dining area and large kitchen with island bench and recycled timber benchtops.
Polished concrete floors are used throughout the living spaces, to which Dave added a bit of a Beechworth flavour with some pink and grey granite in the slab, a nod to many of the buildings in town – a look that’s “sort of uniquely Beechworth”.
The setting itself is something you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere – while just a few minutes’ walk from Beechworth’s main shopping strip, the surrounds are distinctly historic.
“[The home] backs onto the relics of the old Beechworth hospital and sits in the back of The Priory, and it’s in a laneway where you could be in the middle of Germany,” Beth says. “The setting’s very European.”
While converting the blacksmith shed was both the most fun and “probably the most radical” project Beth and Dave have completed so far, they recently decided to put it on the market.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed their plans of doing a lap of Australia this year in their caravan, so they’d made the shed their home while completing the conversion.
But the couple, who also own a farm on the Murray River at Bonegilla, want to be free for travel and other projects – once the time is right.
“I don’t think anybody knows what the future holds at the moment,” Dave says.