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By Winnie Stubbs
With a magazine, an architect practice and event space/ creative collective/ photographic studio between them, Sophie Lord and Ben Gray were feeling understandably overwhelmed by the pace of modern life. But rather than book a trip to a spa or cut back on their creative endeavours, they decided to start a new one: to set about creating a dream space where they could disconnect from their screens and reconnect with each other. A-Frame Kangaroo Valley – designed by Ben and Sophie and built by Green Smith Co using reclaimed, recycled and sustainably sourced materials – is the passion project of two unstoppable creative minds. Inspired by their commitment to creating a sustainable space and their kindness in documenting their journey (the A Frame Kangaroo Valley Journal is a treasure trove of insight into sustainable construction, and their Instagram page is what country-living dreams are made of, complete with impossibly cute puppy), we reached out to learn more about the way they live, work and create.
TCS: First of all, congratulations on the incredible work you’re doing. Together you seem to possess the perfect skill-set to undertake and document the journey of creating this space, but to take on such an ambitious task with a partner is still a monumental feat. I’m sure you have so much knowledge on the topics of conceptualising and creating which would take years to impart, but what advice would you give to couples considering taking on a similar challenge, specifically regarding working together?
Sophie: Don’t do it. haha. No, I’m just kidding with you. Working with Ben on this project has actually been so much fun. We both bring a unique skill set (Ben’s a registered architect and I’m an Art Director) and different life experiences (I’m a country gal, he’s a coastal boy) to the table so we feel stronger together as a team than apart. That’s not to say we don’t disagree, there’s been many a passionate debate about all kinds of functional and aesthetic aspects of this build, but we both always put forward a solid argument (for lack of a better word) and one of us always wins the other over to their side in the end. So I guess my advice would be to always be open to hearing each other out.
As for couples looking to tackle a build or a renovation together, I think there are two important things to keep in mind.
The first is what are your priorities going in? What are the elements of your build that you are unwilling to compromise on, no matter the cost or no matter how hard it will be to make your dream a reality? For us it was our timber. It had to be sustainable and locally grown and it had to be recycled where possible (and as we’re in a bush fire zone, it had to be hardwood). Any one of these things (sustainable, recycled & hardwood) alone are expensive, so adding all three of these architectural buzz words together really blew out our budget in the beginning. But we knew in our bones that the timber structure and interior cladding of the Aframe would be the heart and soul of our home, so we compromised on other aspects of the build to ensure we could remain true to our overall vision. And I’m oh so glad we did, our A-Frame structure, which is made out of 28 recycled telegraph poles that used to line a suburban Sydney street, and the New South Wales Spotted Gum interior lining boards are our favourite part of our build.
The second thing is to set realistic expectations for your budget. Depending on your block of land you’ll spend anywhere between 10k and 25k on reports. An architect (worth their weight in gold) will cost anywhere from 5% to 15% of your total build costs… and all of this before you’ve even broken ground.
TCS: You write on your website that the intention behind A-Frame Kangaroo Valley is to create a space for you to unplug from your screen-heavy careers, was there a particular moment wherein you realised that your lifestyles were unsustainably screen-heavy?
Sophie: We’re both 38 and have been working our arses off at our chosen careers for almost two decades now and I guess we are just approaching a place in our lives where we are able to take stock and reflect on just how crazy the last 10 years have been building businesses and travelling the world, we literally have not stopped.
We didn’t buy the land with the intention to slow down but the mental health benefits have by far been the most pleasant surprise. We’ve developed so many routines since we started camping on the land. Ben’s always up first and makes us a fire and fills the billy and then I set about making us coffee and tea. Our workday never starts until these little rituals are done. They sound insignificant but back home in Sydney, we’re not breakfast people at all. You won’t find bread on the bench or milk in the fridge and there’s no time in the morning to brew a cup of warm anything. Our life in the Kangaroo Valley feels more like how life is supposed to be – slower. We rise with the sun and sleep when it sets and the hours in-between are spent moving our bodies as we work to bring this acreage back to life. The more time we spend down there it becomes painstakingly clear just how wrong staring at a computer screen for up to 14 hours a day can be. As small business owners, neither of us are in a position to leave the computers behind (you know, bills!) but this block of land has forced us to think more about how we want our life to be, and structuring work around that, rather than squeeze life in around work. This perspective, the chance to breathe and opportunity to move, is a gift this block of land has given us, a gift we didn’t even know we needed, but we’re oh so grateful we have.
TCS: Being so busy (very inspired by how many beautiful creative endeavours you manage to juggle), what is your stance on the value of creativity for positive mental wellbeing? It seems as though you both thrive when engaging with lots of creative projects in your work – do you create to switch off too?
Sophie: I think if we’re not creating, we’re not learning, so of course it’s an important element of one’s general health and wellbeing. For us though, creating away from the computer screen always starts out as a well-intentioned means of switching off, but the problem is our entrepreneurial minds always turn whatever low key creative adventure we’re on into a fully-fledged business. We just can’t help ourselves… we have three businesses between us now and the A-Frame is shaping up to be the fourth with plans to share the space on Airbnb and build three other eco-cabins on the land as well as a workshop to host day classes like ceramics etc.
TCS: On the topic of mental wellbeing, have you noticed tangible reward from engaging so physically with the A-Frame Kangaroo Valley mission? Does gardening/ building/ manual labour leave you feeling amazing, or is it only exhausting?
Sophie: It’s both. We’re lucky to have 16 glorious acres to call our own and gardening, maintenance and good old fashioned hard labour, over creative pursuits, has been the key to improved mental health and physical wellbeing. Spend a day taking down 400m of barbed wire fencing or pushing wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of firewood up a hill, and I guarantee you, your mind will never have felt clearer. Life stresses like mortgages, running payroll, paying your BAS on time… they all seem to melt away when you have a shovel in your hand.
TCS: What has been the greatest challenge in the process so far, and what would you say has been the most magical moment?
Sophie: We’ve owned the property for almost two years now, living in a tent three days a week as we work to bring this long since neglected acreage back to life. There’s been many challenges along the way from figuring out how to eradicate 300sqm of spreading bamboo (also known as the devil in plant form) to more trivial things like getting used to taking a shovel and a roll of toilet paper into the bush every time nature calls. But really, just learning to live with whatever Mother Nature decided to throw at you that day is the challenge, be it floods, winds or fire we’ve come to learn that’s just life on the land. As heartbreaking as it can be, you’ve just got to get on with the job at hand.
As for the most magical moment? With no power, water or septic on site for the first year building our outdoor dunny and finally having a flushing toilet felt pretty damn magical to us, haha. But in all honesty, there have been so many magical moments. From seeing the SOLD sticker plastered across the ‘For Sale’ sign and planting our first tree, to watching our builders Greensmith & Co stand the first of the 14 A’s that make up the A-Frame structure. After talking about this triangle for two straight years it was pretty damn special to see what Ben Gray Architect created for us, lift off the page and come to life right before our very eyes.
TCS: Focusing quickly on sustainability, what would you say you’re most proud of with the design/ approach regarding preserving our planet?
Sophie: From our bathtub to our wood heater to our tapware, we’ve been really conscious to source from companies that are not only Australian owned and family-run, but companies that make their products locally too, further reducing our carbon footprint whilst also supporting local. I can’t encourage people enough, when shopping, to ask themselves: where was this product made? And by who? What are the materials being used? Is there a more sustainable option? Will I need to replace this product in 2 to 5 years? If yes, what else is out there that will last a lifetime? There’s something to be said for ‘buying well and buying once’. Our brass light fixtures may have cost us a little more than the plastic ones from Bunnings, but they will last a lifetime and will never need replacing or end up in landfill.
TCS: Once the building phase is complete, what do you expect your lifestyles to look like?
Sophie: Your guess is as good as mine. We honestly don’t know. With everything going on in the world right now it would be nice to just move to the Kangaroo Valley and live out our days stacking firewood, preserving lemons and swimming in the creek. But we have mortgages and bills to pay just like everyone else so I think we’ll be happy if we get to spend a couple of days a week enjoying some fresh air and screen-free time. There is so much work still to be done restoring the land, planting, fencing etc. Our list of things to do will keep us busy for the next decade at least.
TCS: And on the topic of lifestyle, could you map out what a perfect day at A-Frame Kangaroo Valley (once it’s complete) will look like?
Sophie: You’d wake up in the loft bedroom of Aframe Kangaroo Valley, snuggled under fresh white linen sheets (in spring/summer) or a warm doona and woollen blanket (in autumn/winter) to the sound of the kookaburras laughing up a storm in the old Mountain Grey Gum out the back. You’d slowly make your way downstairs and grind some fresh coffee beans and boil the kettle. If it’s chilly outside you’ll throw another log on the fire as the coals are still hot from the night before and sit and watch the fog lift slowly off the valley floor. In the warmer months, you’d spend the morning soaking up the Northern light in the living room, taking in the views of the escarpment or reading a book, and generally just taking things slowly as you shower or bathe in the 100-year-old clawfoot tub and change for the day.
Once out the door, you’d drive 10 minutes into the township of Kangaroo Valley, over the historic Hampden Bridge that spans the famous Kangaroo River, for such a late breakfast it’s basically lunch. You’ll order scrambled eggs and bacon (made with locally farmed chickens and pigs, of course) from The General Cafe and grab some of their famous Sourdough bread on your way out. You’d take a stroll around town and have a peek in all the shops before stopping in at Hampden Deli & Dining School for one of their famous grazing packs, another coffee and all the cheese you can carry before heading home and popping it in the fridge. Depending on the time of year you’ll have three to seven hours to kill before the sun sets. You might decide to explore the surrounding towns of Robertson or Berry or you might like to hike Drawing Room Rocks or Fitzroy Falls (all no more than 20 minutes away by car). A canoe trip down the Kangaroo River might be on the cards or you might just want to head back to the A-frame and be car-free for the afternoon – a swim in your very own private creek or a walk up Bunkers Hill are both on your doorstep options.
Whatever you do, you want to be done with it at least an hour before the sun goes down so you have time to prepare your cheeseboard, pour yourself a glass of wine and take up residence on the back deck to watch the sun dip down over the escarpment. If it’s chilly out you might be taking in that same view from the cedar hot tub or by the outdoor fire ring as the day fades into night.
Once night falls you’ll either stay outside by the fire and marvel at just how clear The Milky Way is away from the city or head inside, make a simple meal and spend the evening playing backgammon and enjoying a good red wine (by the fire if its cold) before slipping back into bed and doing it all again tomorrow.
A-Frame Kangaroo Valley is set to appear on Airbnb in March 2021, and we personally can’t wait to lock in a sunset from the cedar hot tub. To stay up to date with the build, follow A Frame Kangaroo Valley on Instagram, and visit the A Frame Kangaroo Valley website for a deep-dive into the intricacies, challenges and triumphs of sustainable construction. Sophie is also the publisher and editor of Hello May magazine, and along with Ben, runs The Workshop Sydney, a studio and event space in Sydney’s southern beaches. Ben’s architectural projects can be viewed on his Instagram page, and similarly spectacular sustainable spaces can be seen and lusted over via Greensmith & Co .
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