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How Michael and Ruth saved by using recycled materials to rebuild their O’Connor home

Michael Dobbie and Ruth Arkell, with daughter Sophia have recycled  their old home by maximising the amount of material reused from their old house.Michael Dobbie and Ruth Arkell, with daughter Sophia have recycled their old home by maximising the amount of material reused from their old house. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

When Michael Dobbie and Ruth Arkell bought a 1940s, double-brick, ex-govie house in 2009, the pair fell in love with the colour and texture of the Canberra red bricks.

When it was time to renovate, rather than go the knock-down-rebuild route, the couple tried to re-use as much of the material in their old home as possible.

The ex-govie, originally built and leased by the government, was built in 1948 and sits on a 1166 square-metre block of land in O’Connor.

How Michael and Ruth saved by rebuilding their home from recycled materials
  • The couple has saved money by maximising the amount of material reused from their old house. They've reused or resold almost all the 'Canberra red' bricks in their new build, reused or re-purposed floorboards into cupboards.
  • The couple has saved money by maximising the amount of material reused from their old house. They've reused or resold almost all the 'Canberra red' bricks in their new build, reused or re-purposed floorboards into cupboards.
  • The couple has saved money by maximising the amount of material reused from their old house. They've reused or resold almost all the 'Canberra red' bricks in their new build, reused or re-purposed floorboards into cupboards.
  • The builder team, from left, Adrian Plummer, Bruce Plummer, Ryan Plummer manually dismantling the original house to salvage Canberra red bricks in good condition for cleaning and reuse in new house.
  • The couple has saved money by maximising the amount of material reused from their old house. They've reused or resold almost all the 'Canberra red' bricks in their new build, reused or re-purposed floorboards into cupboards.
  • The original double brick ex-govie house beginning to be dismantled. Bricks are salvaged by hand and stacked for cleaning prior to re-use in the new replacement house.
  • The couple has reused or resold almost all the 'Canberra red' bricks in their new build.
  • The couple has saved money by maximising the amount of material reused from their old house. They've reused or resold almost all the 'Canberra red' bricks in their new build, reused or re-purposed floorboards into cupboards.
  • The couple has saved money by maximising the amount of material reused from their old house. They've reused or resold almost all the 'Canberra red' bricks in their new build, reused or re-purposed floorboards into cupboards.
  • The couple has saved money by maximising the amount of material reused from their old house. They've reused or resold almost all the 'Canberra red' bricks in their new build, reused or re-purposed floorboards into cupboards.
  • The couple has saved money by maximising the amount of material reused from their old house. They've reused or resold almost all the 'Canberra red' bricks in their new build, reused or re-purposed floorboards into cupboards.
  • The couple has saved money by maximising the amount of material reused from their old house. They've reused or resold almost all the 'Canberra red' bricks in their new build, reused or re-purposed floorboards into cupboards.
  • Instant character for a new feature wall. Builder, Bruce Plummer, standing proudly in front of the wall of sliding doors he manufactured that are clad in ash timber salvaged and remilled from the original house roof and floor structural timbers. The doors slide back to reveal a kitchenette constructed from cabinets and recycled spotted gum benchtop also salvaged from the original house.
  • The couple has saved money by maximising the amount of material reused from their old house. They've reused or resold almost all the 'Canberra red' bricks in their new build, reused or re-purposed floorboards into cupboards.
  • The couple has saved money by maximising the amount of material reused from their old house. They've reused or resold almost all the 'Canberra red' bricks in their new build, reused or re-purposed floorboards into cupboards.
  • The couple has saved money by maximising the amount of material reused from their old house. They've reused or resold almost all the 'Canberra red' bricks in their new build, reused or re-purposed floorboards into cupboards.
  • The couple has saved money by maximising the amount of material reused from their old house. They've reused or resold almost all the 'Canberra red' bricks in their new build, reused or re-purposed floorboards into cupboards.
  • The couple has saved money by maximising the amount of material reused from their old house. They've reused or resold almost all the 'Canberra red' bricks in their new build, reused or re-purposed floorboards into cupboards.
  • The couple has saved money by maximising the amount of material reused from their old house. They've reused or resold almost all the 'Canberra red' bricks in their new build, reused or re-purposed floorboards into cupboards.
  • Michael Dobbie, Ruth Arkell, and daughter Sophia have recycled their old home by maximising the amount of material reused from their old house.

The couple, who are biomedical researchers at the Australian National University, wanted to transform the red bricked house they bought for $957,000 into an energy efficient one that could also save them money.

“We were keen to substantially renovate the original house rather than take the simple knock-down, rebuild option because we wanted to retain the red brick exterior and other architectural features of the remaining ex-govies that pepper the area,” Mr Dobbie said.

The red bricks, stamped with “Canberra Commonwealth” were produced by the Yarralumla Brickworks between 1913 and 1976 and were used to build many of Canberra’s early buildings.

'Canberra red' bricks were salvaged by hand and stacked for cleaning prior to re-use in the new replacement house.‘Canberra red’ bricks were salvaged by hand and stacked for cleaning prior to re-use in the new replacement house. Photo: Supplied/Michael Dobbie

They wanted to save as many as possible.

“The obvious, but not necessarily simple, solution was to carefully dismantle the existing brick walls, thoroughly clean the bricks, and re-use,” he said.

It took five weeks to dismantle the home, and about 10,000 bricks were reused, saving about $1-$2 a brick.

The building team, from left, Adrian Plummer, Bruce Plummer, Ryan Plummer, manually dismantling the original house to salvage Canberra red bricks in good condition for cleaning and reuse in new house.The building team, from left, Adrian Plummer, Bruce Plummer, Ryan Plummer, manually dismantling the original house to salvage Canberra red bricks in good condition for cleaning and reuse in new house. Photo: Supplied/Michael Dobbie

“We were fortunate to form a team with an architect and builder who were amenable to the idea of reusing material salvaged from the original property,” he said.

“Dismantling and reusing added another layer of complexity to the already complicated building process. Fortunately, this is the fourth house that the architect had built using these principles.”

Mr Dobbie said the success of the project was dependent on architect Robbie Gibson from Green House Architects, and builder Bruce Plummer of Erinvale Homes.

They didn’t just save the bricks. They also salvaged structural roof and floor timbers. Mr Dobbie said the timber that had been hidden from view in the original house now displayed “their natural beauty and the tell-tale marks of their history on the site”.

“We salvaged and re-used the timber kitchen cabinets which were hand-made by the previous owner and benchtops that was previously recycled spotted gum,” he said.

“We also re-used previously recycled hardwood Brushbox timber flooring for external cladding, and re-used softwood pine flooring for wardrobe shelving.”

The project even ended up saving the couple money.

“Up front, our ethical demolition process cost about $15,000 more than a standard ‘flat-pack’ demolition. However, we have recovered more than $15,000 in materials for use in our house and sold for other projects,” Mr Dobbie said.

They recouped more than $10,000 by selling salvaged items for other projects and they decreased the cost of waste disposal. Large volumes of roof tiles, metal, concrete, and Gyprock plasterboard were sent for reprocessing.

“Additionally, a range of other materials including appliances, windows, doors, roof tiles, timbers, light fittings, ducted heating system, fireplaces, water tanks, pavers were salvaged and sold or given to other like-minded people in the city and region,” he said.

“A Japanese teahouse was constructed from the timber decking, roof trusses used to construct a native animal shelter, and windows for a ‘tiny house’, an “earthbag house”, a farmhouse B&B, and a cubby house.

“There are stories within stories. While this was time consuming to salvage, clean up, and advertise, it provided a fascinating entrée into a broader community of recyclers and their projects.”

The development now has three bedrooms, with two additional guest rooms in an “apartment”, which is joined to the house. It has a total of three bathrooms and two living areas.

Mr Dobbie estimates the property to be worth more than $2 million.