A Place to Call Home – The Cobargo Santa Project by Breathe

Words by Jackson Hides
Architecture by Breathe
Photography by Pablo Veiga
Video by Cheer Squad
Styling by Atelier Lab
Suppliers Design by Tradelink, Fisher & Paykel, Taubmans, Accent Windows, Automatic Heating, BREC Energy, Fielders, Form Brick, Studio All

In March of 2021, The Local Project travelled to the town of Cobargo in south-eastern New South Wales to document the extraordinary story of David and Barbara Rugendyke. Dave and Barb, as they came to be known by the team, lost their home on New Year’s Day 2020 as fire ravaged through the Cobargo township. Through the generosity of Breathe and in partnership with Design by Tradelink, Fisher & Paykel and Taubmans, we are proud to present the Cobargo Santa Project.

Few Australians need reminding of the devastating bushfires that ravaged the nation across the summer of 2019/20. For those living in cities, the memories manifest as hazy days and sensational footage on the television, as the country was eviscerated at an alarming rate before our very eyes. Watching these events unfold from Melbourne, Jeremy McLeod, Tamara Veltre and their practice Breathe felt compelled to act. Reaching out to a local RFS fire chief in New South Wales, it was put to Jeremy that one family in particular was in need of assistance. Dave and Barb Rugendyke moved to Cobargo around 10 years ago, having previously lived in Canberra. “It was a very easy community to get in to. We were welcomed with open arms,” Dave recalls. Dave and Barb have fostered well over 400 children and having spent a number of years working in the public service in Canberra, Dave became a volunteer RFS firefighter in Cobargo. He also acts as the town Santa each Christmas, utilising a converted red tractor to drive through the township and hand out gifts. The Rugendykes had lost their home and all their possessions as the bushfire ripped through their property on New Year’s Day 2020.

Despite its modest size, Breathe ensured that the property is not only carbon neutral in operation but as resilient to future fire events as possible

Recalling Breathe’s first meeting with Dave and Barb, Jeremy explains that they were reluctant to accept his offer to design and oversee the building of a new home for the family. “Dave said to us ‘There’s over 400 people that’ve lost their houses around here. There must be someone who deserves this more than us. There must be someone that needs help more than us. Why don’t you help them?’ And Madeline [Sewall, Breathe Associate] responded ‘Well you’ve spent your entire life helping other people, so there is no one else. Dave – you’re a hero’.” The plea to assist the family eventually worked, setting into motion what became known as the Cobargo Santa Project – a new family home for Barb and Dave.

The design process was somewhat reverse engineered, with the architects first calling a number of suppliers and requesting components for the house. Jeremy started by reaching out to Fisher & Paykel and asking for appliances. Tradelink was then contacted for the donation of all bathroom fixtures and fittings, whilst Taubmans was also engaged at an early stage, offering the services of its coloursmith and customising over a dozen colours for the house. Fielders, BREC Energy, Form Brick, StudioAll, Accent Windows, Automatic Heating and a myriad of other suppliers were also called upon, each one answering the call and donating materials as Jeremy requested. “It was this incredible team of people that came together within the blink of an eye. And then I went back to Maddie and said, ‘Here are all the people that are donating these things, how do we design a house with this kit of parts?’” Jeremy recounts.

Breathe began by calling on the generosity of suppliers such as Design by Tradelink, Fisher & Paykel and Taubmans to make the house possible.

As a building, the Cobargo Santa Project sits delicately within the landscape. Modest in size, it possesses a homely charm that is no more present than when the Rugendykes are sitting around the outdoor table with cups of tea and their family nearby. “From a design perspective, this house is incredibly simple, efficient and really robust,” explains Madeline. “So, we’ve got the bedroom side, which has the bathrooms and the bedrooms, and we’ve got the kitchen, living and dining area.” Off this part of the house sits a small deck with a barbecue and outdoor dining setting, as well as a jacuzzi – a small luxury for Barb.

Where the building excels is in its sensitivity and consideration for the environment it sits within. Breathe ensured that the property is not only carbon neutral in operation but as resilient to future fire events as possible. “We wanted to think about the future should another bushfire event occur, as well as just deliver a better outcome that’s more sustainable,” Madeline reasons. “This house runs on a fossil fuel free system. We’ve got a hydronic heat pump system with a buffer tank. We designed the house with a pitched roof to shed embers if another fire event were to occur, and the roof also has a sprinkler system installed along the ridge line.”

The house is split into two wings, with an open-plan kitchen, living, dining area providing space for the family. Suppliers throughout who generously donated include Fielders, BREC Energy, Form Brick, StudioAll, Accent Windows, Automatic Heating.

The home’s sensitivity to the landscape and technical proficiency becomes even more impressive given the fact that the architects did not actually get to the site until the project had finished being built, owing to the COVID-19 restrictions and border controls throughout 2020. Ever one to champion others and shift the attention from himself, Dave beams that “it was amazing that Madeline was able to include the movement of the sun, the layout of the site and the lay of the land” all from the Breathe office in Melbourne, where the project was designed. Ably assisting in this ambitious venture was the builder Jason of Davis Construction, who, alongside Breathe, was determined to get the Rugendykes into their new home in time for Christmas – a feat that was eventually achieved.

Dave and Barb are quick to acknowledge that whilst they have received an undeniably positive outcome from a position of total despair, it does not come close to replacing what they or the community lost. Scores of families in regions like Cobargo are still waiting for insurance or building assistance after all this time. “That’s the saddest part,” explains Barb, “a lot of people out there are still living in a caravan.” As Jeremy outlines, “building prices have gone through the roof because everyone’s trying to rebuild. And so even people who were insured, now their insurance won’t cover the cost to rebuild what they had because of trade prices.”

The picture painted by Barb and Jeremy is certainly grim, but it is this exact scenario that drove Breathe to pick up the phone in early 2020 and make contact with Barb and Dave. It is also a scenario that Jeremy hopes to see repeated many times over in the months ahead. “What people need is help in really practical things. So, if you’re an architect, please offer your services pro bono to deliver a project from start to finish. If you’re a builder or a tradie, please think about coming down here and doing some work to help deliver some houses. And if you’re a supplier, think about donating some materials to help bring down the cost of building.” Jeremy explains that services such as Architects Assist are available and willing to connect any firms, builders or companies unsure of who or how to help.

Dave Rugendyke taking in the view with a cup of tea (right) and as Santa with his sled (right).

If the fires of New Years’ Day 2020 changed the Rugendykes lives for the worse, one thing that is equally true is that the efforts of Breathe, their builder Jason and suppliers like Tradelink, Fisher & Paykel and Taubmans have since changed it for the better. As Jeremy acknowledges, the Cobargo Santa Project is “one of the projects that we’re most proud of.” Seeing the way Dave, Barb and their children have taken to their new house, it becomes painfully apparent that although people in bushfire ravaged communities need houses, what they long for most is, in fact, a place to call home again.

The Local Project travelled to Cobargo in March 2021 to document the Cobargo Santa Project across four days. We would like to extend our deepest gratitude to the Rugendyke family for sharing their story with us and for welcoming us into their home.

This project was made possible by the kindness of design and construction professionals. For anybody interested in assisting communities like Cobargo, contact Architects Assist here.