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Bringing Coldwater Cabin to life: a Q&A with Jennifer Hillhouse


Over the better part of a year, Jennifer Hillhouse and JC Lehuby – of Brisbane's Vieille Branche – renovated a shack in the heart of Tasmania into a cosy cabin for the weekend getaway of our dreams.

We chatted to Jennifer about how the couple brought Coldwater Cabin to life, which is situated on The Great Lake in Miena and on the doorstep of Cradle Mountain National Park. It took a lot of time, love, energy and dirty work to pull it together. But it was worth it!

Given Miena is one of the coldest towns in Australia (it snows in January!), it's the perfect place to slow down and cosy up (with Seljak blankets, of course). And while we might need to wait until a trip to Tasmania is possible, it's one of the first on our bucket list.

Coldwater Cabin is a step into a different world... 

Tell us about how you came to acquire Coldwater Cabin?
JC has had his heart set on buying a cabin on a lake, somewhere in the world, for his entire life. I am more of an ocean girl, but seaside shacks are waaay out of our budget! After loads of searching on realestate.com.au he found the shack for sale on the fifth or sixth page of a Google search. There was an error with the listing so it wasn't appearing in the realestate.com.au search. Because of this it had been on the market for two years and the owner was really keen to sell. 
Jen building a wall JC
Jennifer and JC
JC jumped on it, did everything he could to convince me that it was a good idea and we flew to Tassie to check it out. We looked at a few shacks in the area but when we first set foot in Coldwater Cabin it was one of those "this is the place" moments for me. Seeing past the actual state of the shack, I was won over by the high ceilings and view of the lake. A little preemptively, we named the shack "Coldwater Cabin" and I had started the Instagram account as soon as we'd left the first inspection  before even putting in an offer! 
First glimpse of shack
The pair's first glimpse of the shack
How much work did it need? What was the process of fixing it up?
It needed A LOT of work, and being our first reno we had no idea of exactly how much work that meant. The sink in the bathroom was being held up with a cricket bat to give you an idea... 
The first weekend we stayed there we removed the carpet which revealed the old timber floorboards. This made us optimistically launch into ripping everything apart. We drew up basic plans during that first trip and then, once back in Brisbane, had an afternoon brainstorming session with Brisbane architect and friend Mick Hellen, founder of Aardvark. He came up with a clever layout for our shoestring budget, which involved knocking out a few walls and moving the entrance of the house. We drew up a new simple plan so JC could do most of the build himself down in Miena. 
Jen
Jennifer and JC on their first morning in the cabin
In March 2019 we packed as much as we could (including our dog, recovering from a 4WD injury and a small noisy child) into our old Subaru and a trailer and drove down to Tassie. We even had a light car accident just as we were coming into Melbourne (we were run into) and the evening before our 6am ferry trip. We managed to limp onto the ferry with the help of a few friendly tow truck drivers on either end of the Bass Strait and then collapsed in a heap at the cabin. 
Drive down to Tas. Packed to the brim - No aircon & 40 degrees c
The drive down to Tasmania featuring the car packed to the brim, no aircon and 40 degree temperatures. Manou's face says it all!
The build itself was arduous. JC removed as much of the asbestos as possible and totally changed the lakeside face of the cabin to have loads of windows to bring the view inside. I was frantically sourcing second hand windows on Gumtree and Facebook Marketplace from Brisbane while JC was knocking out the exterior walls in the middle of a very snowy and windy autumn.
 No walls in the middle of winter.
No walls in the middle of winter
The initial build took about four months and then JC had to return to Brisbane for another project so we did shorter trips for final touches. My whole family flew down to help out with the painting - Mum was great on the No More Gap! Makes a difference, thanks Mum!
Jen's mum Sue painting the cabin
Jennifer's mum Sue painting the cabin

You've imported French antiques in the past as part of your Vieille Branche project (JC is French). What was your inspiration for furnishing Coldwater Cabin and how did you go about sourcing items?

There is a lot of Vieille Branche in Coldwater Cabin. We loved decorating the shack with a mix of modern ideas and the old rustic French farm furniture. When we started making the plans for the house we based it around specific pieces we still had in storage. Thankfully, Mick steered us away from this idea so we could approach the build a little more open-mindedly. 

Mick Hellen on the tools, building the front door.
Mick Hellen on the tools building the front door
We drove most of the furniture down to the cabin in the trailer and then shipped the last pieces in March 2020. The rug in the living room was actually the rug we used as a part of the setup for venue hire at Vieille Branche. So many couples got married whilst standing on that rug so it seems fitting that it continues its life being enjoyed by couples around the fireplace at the cabin. 
The rug! vintage furniture from France
The rug and vintage French furniture decks out the cabin
We plan on filling the walls with artwork as time goes by and have plans to build an art studio and run artist residencies once things are rolling a little more. 
We've heard it can snow there in January! What are your essentials when it comes to keeping cosy? 
SELJAK BLANKETS and bucket loads of them! Being a Queenslander, it is SO nice to actually enjoy an exceptional quality woolly blanket while sitting around the fire... all year round too! Escaping the Queensland heat and enjoying Ugg boots and blankets is music to my ears! There are two fireplaces in the cabin, so if necessary, it can get super toasty inside. I personally like only lighting the kitchen fireplace and wrapping up in Seljak on the day bed to soak up the view with a good book and coffee or wine.
 No walls in the middle of winter.
Jennifer and JC relaxing in the finished cabin (above) and Seljak blankets in the window nook (below)
Seljak blankets at Coldwater Cabin
You two aren't strangers to executing beautiful projects; makers markets, a fish and chip shop, a lush wedding venue, AND having your own pottery practice and brand... What does your creative process look like? How do you develop a project concept and take it where it needs to go? 
I think we probably naively launch into things and then figure out the processes and systems as we go. This has worked in some cases and failed in others so we're still learning – a lot of hard lessons have been learnt in our mistakes but we're getting pretty good at dusting ourselves off and dreaming up new ideas again. We're probably less naive now than when we started Vieille Branche so we approach things a little more cautiously with lists of pros and cons. JC and I work as a team on most of our projects and spend a lot of long nights discussing how to develop our ideas, set rules and systems to try to avoid future arguments and family meltdowns. Meltdowns do still happen but somehow we manage to pull it all together again. 
Kitchen/Bathroom....living and renovating at the same time.
The kitchen/bathroom – living and renovating at the same time 
finished kitchen
The finished kitchen
Even with trying to develop my own design brand and pottery work I ask for JC's advice continually. My head can become consumed with design and pottery ideas, so I try not to bore him with glaze recipes and design choices too much. Any potter's partner would relate to this, I'm sure.    
 
What advice do you have for others who are keen to embark on a DIY reno project like Coldwater Cabin? 
No matter how big the task is, just get started on one thing. Sometimes you'll find that you're building a rock wall in the garden rather than installing a window. When things feel totally overwhelming, try not to look at the enormity of the project and just start with the small steps... a big project is just a collection of small steps. Once you've started to make some progress things don't look so daunting. I run on lists and JC is starting to do the same, but he has a knack for keeping things in his head. 
Also, try to avoid buying an asbestos shack! Things would have been so much less painful if JC could have carefreely knocked down a wall without sealing the entire house and getting totally kitted out in protective wear. The stuff is horrible!
JC in Asbestos kit - starting to go a little crazy.
JC in his asbestos kit starting to go a little crazy
Try not to rush into decisions either if you can – let them sink in so you know you've made the right choices. And of course, have fun with your projects and be optimistic. Get to know your community and neighbours too. You never know what fun times are to be shared and are just around the corner! 
Coldwater Cabin is available to rent on AirBnB.

The cosy bed finished with a Seljak Pine and Ochre (above) and the front deck overlooking The Great Lake