Quiet renovation has a lot to say
Tucked away in a shady Ashgrove corner, sits a little building with a lot to say. Once a simple garage, typical of any post war home in the area, the space now modestly thrives as a space for natural health. Acupuncturist Megan Howell and her clinic are a compelling example of a careful approach to renovation we should all consider.
Her transformation of this humble building offers volumes about how we can create simple and nourishing spaces that are kind to our environment. The space is a delightful place to be, showing everyone who visits that time and thoughtfulness are superior renovation tools to large budgets and new materials.
Moving here with her family just a few years ago, Megan's innate care and concern for the world around her has naturally extended to her garden, so the clinic has quickly nestled into its new life under a sprawling Poinciana. Bird calls, gentle breeze and a never-ending shadow play really do make this spot a healing place to be.
“When we first bought the house, I certainly was not looking at the garage and thinking I would have the clinic here, by any means. When I eventually decided that I wanted to have the clinic at home, the structure was here – I looked at it, thought about it and could see that it would work,” explained Megan.
Her lifetime fascination with buildings, and experience of living in many, inform her ability to design. Years of "chipping in" on building projects, including the family home during her teens, have given her practical building brawn.
Remembering a New Farm garage conversion she lived next to many years ago, Megan's initial inspiration was focused on the ceiling’s potential. “I think the rafters were a big drawing card, and for me it makes it look quite barn like. I had seen another conversion years and years ago of an old garage with rafters. I think it happens a bit – sometimes old dairy bales have the same structure, so just that sort of vibe,” said Megan.
However this vision was not instantly shared by those she sought to work on the project. “It did definitely take quite a bit of convincing to get the tradespeople on board,” explained Megan, “the biggest things were getting a carpenter or builder and a plasterer who would do it.”
In addition to making the uneven and aged building structurally sound, Megan was determined to source second hand windows, doors and glass. She also wanted to preserve as much of the original panels and materials from the garage as possible. Following a handful of meetings with reluctant builders, she eventually found her man through word of mouth.
“I heard about this guy from a friend. The thing that surprised me the most, because I couldn't see it, and helped me understand why nobody else had wanted to touch it, was that the whole building was leaning slightly to one side. The carpenter put ratchet straps around it, straightened it and then put in extra the wall studs to hold it in place. I thought that was ingenious,” explained Megan.
Her appreciation is perhaps the most potent aspect of this little renovation's big lesson. It is easy to hold romantic and aesthetic appreciation for crooked buildings and sustainable design. It is also easy for the building trade to favour new development, where strong new lines are just so much easier to create. By walking an understanding line between both worlds, Megan's clinic talks about an important middle ground when it comes to renovating and redesigning our urban spaces.
“I did think that was very clever," continued Megan. "He then put all of the doors and windows in and I basically just found tradespeople as I needed them. Once one job was finished, I started looking for the next trade. The carpenters and the plasterers were the hardest to find. Everyone wanted to put a flat roof in it and line it."
Holding her vision for the ceiling firmly in her capable grasp, Megan persevered. “Eventually, I found a couple of guys who were 'kind of' happy to do it,” she laughed, “but it was interesting, because they said while they were doing it they were just shaking their heads at me the whole time. Even then, there were still some sizeable gaps, because they just couldn't get the lines straight. Every piece of plaster that had to go on the ceiling between the rafters is a slightly different shape, so they couldn't get it in place perfectly, leaving gaps next to each rafter that needed to be sealed. The painter did that. He is a friend of mine, so he spent a lot of time making it look good, and when the plasterers came back to get their final payment, even they were really amazed at what it looked like.”
And her perseverance pays; the exposed beams on the ceiling give the clinic instant light, character and space. Megan pares back her love of pre-loved and slightly worn objects and natural textures with her appreciation for clean contemporary lines, so the small space feels balanced and spacious. She knew going in to the project that she wanted to source second hand window frames and glass; these were later offset with clean white walls, modern blinds, floor and shelving. So the space reflects her character, yet stays simple, perfect for the building's purpose.
“I was lucky. I had a friend who had done some house restoration alongside his specialist work in old window restoration. He is into glass, and has worked with stained glass, leadlights and sandblasted glass art for a long time. Before he retired from his window restoration business he had an immense collection of old glass he had collected over the years. I was seeing a fair bit of him at the time that I was thinking about what to do. He was coming to me as a client quite regularly, as well as being an old friend, and I showed my ideas to him. He is the person that gave me the beautiful glass in the windows on the eastern side,” says Megan.
“The windows on the north face came from eBay. We picked them up one street across from us, and they were $2 each. I have always wanted a barn door - a split door - and I thought it would be really practical for this space, to let air through while maintaining a little bit of privacy. So I was really excited to have something I could put a split door on. The split door, the French door on the western side and louvre frames to the south all came from the demo yard in East Brisbane,” she said.
Her vision for the two groups of glass pendant light fittings did not require any such searching. Happy for an excuse to once again scour Victorian Living, Megan explained “when it came to the vintage glass, I don’t know why, but I had that picture in my head of how I wanted them to be. It was very strong and clear, right from the beginning. I knew that that once the ceiling was complete, I would put three pendant lights in each side, and that they would be at different heights, of that colour glass, and each of them to be a slightly different style of light. That wasn't something I had seen before – I had been to that light shop heaps of times over the years, so maybe it was just knowing that those types of lights were around, so I could create a picture in my mind of how to use them.”
“I went there and spent a lot of time choosing the six particular lights that I have. That was my splurge item! That was why I had been happy to get $2 windows, so I could have this one thing that was really beautiful,” she added.
The floor is Marmoleum, which could be considered our century’s version of lino. “It is made with cork and linseed oil and natural fibres, so it is 100% sustainable and recyclable. It’s a really fabulous product and I will use it again at the drop of a hat. It feels good and it functions really well. Because it has cork in it, it is quite cushioned compared to wood or concrete or tiles; it has that bit of give in it. And what is particularly good about it in the clinic is that it absorbs oils. When clients hop of the table, if they have oily feet, for a day you’ll see their foot prints and then they will just disappear. The eco credentials of it are really fabulous, and it comes in a massive array of patterns and colours. It’s a really good product, so I’m pretty happy with that,” says Megan.
And, true to her natural bent to make all plants, people and creatures around her feel comfortable, Megan paid careful attention to what went within, explaining that "the walls and ceiling are lined with a multi-cell reflective foil insulation product – it has a very high insulation properties and doesn’t take up much space so was good for this type of project. The difference in air temp between inside and out is noticeable in summer and winter."
Overall, Megan's design, choice of materials and discerning budget allocations have resulted in a space that is charming, nurturing, cost effective and gentle to the environment. The direction is at odds with the comparatively Herculean renovations happening on old homes in Brisbane’s inner city. So why? Are her choices driven by budget, aesthetics or environmental concerns?
“They are equally important factors,” said Megan. “I like spaces that people feel comfortable in. I think that because I am so into buildings and spaces, I feel like I care about the space, and what happens is that they feel good to be in. That is very much what has happened here. People feel very comfortable in the space, and so they relax, and that is good. That’s good for your health.”
“The light and the quality of the air movement and all of those things that happen here are really good… It is not until living in this house and having time in the clinic that my partner and I have really realised what a lovely spot it is to live in and to be. We are very lucky. We knew it was nice, but we didn't realise how nice – there is always a breeze, there is really nice light and it is always quiet – people love the quietness and the birds. You can always hear the birds and there are no traffic noises, so that creation of a retreat space has really happened.”