When Ron Litjens and Kate Hawkins’ Flowerdale home was surrounded by fire during the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, it was a wakeup call. They loved living on their secluded block surrounded by bushland but knew fires would always be a threat, so they began what would become a seven-year search to find a new home.
They looked across Victoria, from the Great Dividing Range to the Grampians, before settling on a unique new home: the historic Butter Factory in Yea.
The Yea Butter Factory was originally built in 1905 and made butter, which was transported by train and ship, to be sold at markets in England. Just 15 minutes from their Flowerdale home, it ticked all the boxes: located on five acres in the middle of town, they would be less vulnerable to bushfires while still maintaining the privacy and serenity they were used to. They were also eager to take on a project, whether it be a large area of bushland they could maintain or, as they found in the Butter Factory, a renovation.
It was 2016 by the time Ron and Kate bought the Butter Factory and, soon after, they began the mammoth task of restoring the old building to its former glory. However, in 2019, Kate sadly passed away from cancer and, with the loss of his wife and Covid lockdowns halting building works across Victoria, Ron took a break from the project.
By 2020, it was all systems go again and, with sustainability at the heart of this project, Ron got in touch with RACV Solar to install a suite of renewable energy solutions.
"This building was originally designed with sustainable principles, albeit what they knew about sustainability at the time. I just see myself as extending that with new technology."
We’d initially met Ron through RACV’s Solar in the Regions program, which saw RACV donate $1 million in solar energy systems for bushfire-prone communities, including Yea.
Ron was a member of 2030Yea Community Energy, a community group dedicated to driving energy efficiencies and the adoption of 100% renewable energy in the town, who we were liaising with during the program. While we were working together, we got to know Ron and the work he was doing to restore the Butter Factory and he engaged us to come on board to deliver the renewable energy elements of the renovation.
After scoping out the site and its needs, we designed and installed a 10.3 kilowatt solar system with Trina solar panels, Enphase microinverters and a Tesla Powerwall battery. We also put in an Apricus solar hot water system and a Jetcharge ChargeMate electric vehicle charger.
These new additions complemented the other work Ron was doing, including installing LED lights and double and triple glazing the windows.
"We had always planned to restore the building so it could be used to support environmental and sustainability projects. As it turns out, the building is now a great example of sustainability in its own right."
This project is a labour of love for Ron, who is peeling back the layers of the old building and discovering new features with each stage of the renovation. He’s doing it all by hand, having even engaged the local pottery group to hand-make tiles to match those used in the original building.
While the renovations have been underway, Ron has made the Butter Factory available for the Yea community to use for whatever they like, free of charge. Over the past few years, it has played host to community events, markets, concerts, even a wedding.
Today there are local artists using the Butter Factory’s various spaces as studios and galleries, with sculptures made on site now decorating the grounds and a couple of local artists showing their art in one of the Butter Factory’s many rooms.
“It was important to us when we bought the Butter Factory that the community be able to use the space,” says Ron. “Not only does it bring them on this journey with us, but it gives me a chance to see what the Butter Factory could be used for once the renovations are done – what works well in this space and what doesn’t.”
Ultimately, Ron is renovating a unique, beautiful and sustainable home for himself. However he’s also passionate about restoring this historic building and creating spaces for the community to enjoy as well. And ideally he’ll end up with a space that can earn a bit of money too, enough to cover the few running costs that will remain after the energy generation and sustainability components he’s installed.