Ken and Harriet Aitken’s ‘handmade house’ has been built from the salvaged remains of Brisbane’s lost history.
Brisbane’sheritage has not always been respected. There are a number of historic landmarks that can no longer be found in the city – but remnants of them can be found in Ken and Harriet Aitken’s unique home.
In 1979, Ken Aitken – inspired by a love of nature and a desire to be self-sufficient – bought five acres in a rural locality south of Brisbane, which he says may as well have been “the back of Bourke” at the time.
“I have a great interest in natural things,” Ken, now 70, says. “I love the bush. That’s why I decided to buy five acres out here, and build a handmade house out of recycled timber and stone.”
WATCH: Explore Ken and Harriet’s handmade house
Ken, a landscape designer and contractor, attended a lecture delivered by influential Melbourne architect Alistair Knox about the homes he was building from recycled materials and mudbrick in Victoria, and decided to apply Knox’s practices to the construction of his own home.
Ken’s timing was fortuitous. Queensland’s then-Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen was notorious for his willingness to demolish Brisbane landmarks, with more than 60 buildings falling under his watch in the 1970s and ‘80s.
By keeping his ear to the ground and taking his truck where the rubble was, Ken was able to salvage material from a number of historic Brisbane locations, including the old Brisbane Supreme Court on George Street; South Brisbane’s Seafoam Flour Mill; Stafford’s Woolscour Sheds; Fortitude Valley’s Rex Theatre; and settler’s huts erected in Boonah in the 1800s.
While some of the locations Ken retrieved material from, including the Mount Crosby Pumping Station and Annerley’s Boggo Road Gaol, are still standing and are now Heritage-listed, most of these places exist now only in memory – and in Ken and Harriet’s house, where stone and timber once consigned to the scrapheap now lives on as flooring, walls, support beams, coffee tables, TV stands and more.
“Brisbane heritage meant nothing then,” Ken laments.
“Brisbane heritage meant nothing then.”
“Nothing was valued,” Harriet agrees. “Joh always said the number of cranes in the skyline was the most important thing. There were no restrictions… these were the days of Joh pulling down all the beloved old buildings, like Cloudland and the Bellevue.”
The Aitken family lived in a caravan for four years while Ken built the house, and Harriet learned to trust her husband’s vision.
“I moved up here from Melbourne, and this wasn’t the house I thought I’d live in,” she laughs. “Of course, in those days, you just went along with whatever your husband did. There was no questioning it. I couldn’t see his vision like he could – I just had to have faith in him to create something wonderful, and he did.
“Everybody was building McMansions at the time; it was all very white and modern. But I married a man who was very keen on nature and living synergistically. We say it’s an ‘inside-outside’ house… you don’t know where the inside starts and the outside stops. It’s very attuned to nature.”
For his part, Ken never doubted himself, even as friends mocked his seemingly eccentric ideals.
“I had complete faith in what I was doing,” he says matter-of-factly, “because I’ve always been able to see things that other people couldn’t see.”
“I’ve always been able to see things that other people couldn’t see.”
While Ken was responsible for building their handmade home, Harriet has long since embraced his aesthetic, and is responsible for its eclectic interior design, populated almost entirely with secondhand items.
“I’m a great op-shopper,” she says. “I think it’s important for young people to understand that you don’t actually need much, and you don’t need things that are brand-spanking new.”
Ken and Harriet’s son, Anthony, has come to share his parents’ view. He runs a timber recycling business on the property, and has even built an adult-sized treehouse to live in.
“He’s really caught the vision,” Harriet says. “He’ll inherit the house eventually, and he wants to continue Ken’s legacy.”
“It’s a question of valuing things that other people don’t value,” Ken adds.
“Or, I suppose, taking things that other people don’t value and making them valuable.”