written by:
March 1, 2009
Originally published in Prefab Now

A few years ago, while working with the indigenous communities of remote Arnhem Land, in Australia’s Northern Territory, architect Sue Harper became passionate about prefab.

Prefab of corrugated steel on stilts in the Australian outback
Remote living, especially on an island, requires a fair degree of self-sufficiency. Dangar Island has a limited water supply, so all the roofs on the Flood house were designed to collect rainwater and channel it into a 6,600-gallon tank.
1 / 4
The Dangar Island house utilizes many eco-friendly tricks of the trade seen in much of modern Australian architecture. North-facing skillion roofs on the main pavilion and the bathhouse usher in the warming winter sun.
2 / 4
wood floor glass windows house in tree island off Australia
The kitchen has a view to the Hawkesbury River.
3 / 4
Because of the relative inaccessibility of Dangar Island, all building materials needed to be brought in by barge and carried to the site from the pier.
4 / 4
Prefab of corrugated steel on stilts in the Australian outback
Remote living, especially on an island, requires a fair degree of self-sufficiency. Dangar Island has a limited water supply, so all the roofs on the Flood house were designed to collect rainwater and channel it into a 6,600-gallon tank.
Project 
Dangar Island House

A few years ago, while working with the indigenous communities of remote Arnhem Land, in Australia’s Northern Territory, architect Sue Harper became passionate about prefab. She saw local builders struggling with standard on-site construction methods in their efforts to bring housing and public buildings to rural communities—and, in response, started thinking about designs for prefab components that could be easily transported, erected, rearranged, and dismantled. In the late 1990s, Harper and her environmental engineer husband, Andy Irvine, moved back to Sydney, but they vowed one day to return to the far-flung region with a prefab system that would make lighter work of building in the outback.

By coincidence, Harper found herself dusting off those drawings a little sooner than planned—the catalyst was a commission from a young family who wanted to set up a home on Dangar Island, a picturesque parcel of land in the middle of the Hawkesbury River, an hour’s drive north of Sydney. Those planning to build on the island need to be aware of a few things: that the only access is by boat, that the locals don’t like having their peace disturbed, and that the risk of bushfire is high. “The solution had to be lightweight, flexible, fire resistant, and involve minimal time on site and minimal impact
on the environment,” explains Harper.

Harper and Irvine first set about designing and building a prototype on their own property, which is on another island, near Dangar Island, and also accessible only by boat (it took about 30 trips in a small motor boat to ferry all the components across). Their plan was to thoroughly test the system before embarking on the Dangar Island commission. “Our prototype was just big enough to allow everything to be tested for strength,” says Irvine. “We have a great structural engineer in Max Irvine [no relation], and when he called in to see us, we would tie ropes to it and try to pull it over, jump up and down on it, and shake it, change some bracing around, and try it again. Max is into what we are trying to do and is working on ensuring the structure will be able to withstand cyclonic winds.”

The pair’s flexible system consists of modular frames and panels that can be bolted together in countless configurations. A smaller diagonally braced section above each larger frame means that the components are self-bracing. Bolted together, they form a sturdy skeleton that can be filled in with prefabricated, interchangeable panels of almost any material—glass, solid materials, even canvas or palm leaves. For the roof, corrugated-steel panels proved a portable and easy-to-install choice, and for the floor, precut plantation-grown hardwood strips have been used throughout.

“Because the system is self-bracing, it doesn’t rely on the wall material for structural strength,” Irvine explains. The panels—uniformly 7.5 by 4 feet to minimize waste—are fabricated off site, and fix onto the frames to create windows, walls, and doors, which can be rearranged or replaced to suit the occupant’s changing needs. “The key aspect of the system is its flexibility,” says Irvine. “You can build part of a house and use cheaper materials for the panels, then when time and money allow, you can bolt on more rooms and replace the panels with something better.”

Harper conceived of the Dangar Island house as three pavilions joined by suspended walkways, weaving in among tall gum trees (none were sacrificed) and disturbing as little of the undergrowth as possible. The pavilions are elevated on steel posts to capture river views and allow breezes, lizards, and rain runoff to circulate freely underneath. The main pavilion houses the kitchen, living, dining, and deck areas, with three bedrooms and a bathroom below. Glazing to the north means the upper area, particularly, is bathed in winter sun. Covered walkways lead to a separate bathhouse and a painting studio. Harper wanted to create a house that would encourage close contact with the natural surrounds—this home practically insists on it. 

No sooner had the architect-engineer duo finished the design process than the initial clients had a change of plan and decided not to proceed. But Liam Flood, a builder who had worked on many projects with Harper, saw the design, fell in love with the concept and the steep, north-facing site, and decided to take on the project as owner/builder. “For Liam, we needed to create additional spaces, have more substantial walls and openings, and an increased level of finish,” says Harper.

Because of the flexibility of the steel-framed panel system, she was able to simply add new rooms—pop-outs as she calls them—onto the original design without making any structural changes. Additional rooms (in this case a larger kitchen, plus laundry, storage, and office areas) needed only to be bolted onto the main structure, and actually “pop out” into the tree canopy.

As with the early prototype, all the building materials had to be taken across to the island by barge (requiring about six trips in all) and physically moved around the site, so the entire project was broken down into portable components weighing no more than 175 pounds that could be carried by two people. “This was the first water-access building job I’d ever done,” notes Flood. “It was made all the more challenging by the fact that I don’t like water and I can’t swim! But I’ve worked with Sue and Andy for seven years, and we make a pretty good team. We’re always talking about ways to design buildings so that they can be packed into containers and shipped anywhere in the world.”

It was particularly important that the house be assembled as quietly as possible—to keep the peace with the neighbors—so on-site fabrication was kept to a minimum. Apart from the occasional use of a truck (one of the few on the island) and a mini-crane to put up the steel, the builder moved his equipment around the site using, of all things, a wheelbarrow. Despite the difficult access and site considerations, the construction process was swift—just over three months. “One of the great things about Liam is that he can deliver high-quality results in a fast-paced environment,” says Irvine. “That’s why he has become so interested in this kind of work.”

Harper and Irvine have enjoyed the process of refining their prefab system, and seeing it work so well in its island setting. But for now, they’re turning their attention back to Australia’s far north to further develop their system so that it will work in the harsh outback, providing shelter and community buildings to remote and under-resourced indigenous populations. 

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

San Francisco dining room with chandelier and Eames shell chairs
Brooklyn-based RBW's work—from diminutive sconces to large floor lamps—shape these five interiors.
February 09, 2016
Glass-fronted converted garage in Washington
These garages go behind parking cars and storing your drum sets.
February 09, 2016
Modern Texas home office with sliding walls, behr black chalkboard paint, concrete walls, and white oak flooring
From appropriated nooks to glass-encased rooms, each of these modern offices works a unique angle.
February 09, 2016
picnic-style table in renovated San Francisco house
From chandeliers to pendants, these designs make the dining room the most entertaining space in the house.
February 09, 2016
Midcentury house in Portland with iron colored facade and gold front door
From preserved masterworks to carefully updated time capsules, these homes have one thing in common (other than a healthy appreciation for everything Eames): the conviction that the '40s, '50s, and '60s were the most outstanding moments in American architecture.
February 09, 2016
Modern living room with furniture designed by Ludovica + Roberto Palomba
These oases by the sea, many done up in white, make stunning escapes.
February 08, 2016
A Philippe Starck standing lamp and an Eames chaise longue bracket the living room; two Lawrence Weiner prints hang behind a pair of Warren Platner chairs and a table purchased from a River Oaks estate sale; at far left of the room, a partial wall of new
Texas might have a big reputation, but these homes show the variety of shapes and sizes in the Lone Star State.
February 08, 2016
Montigo gas-burning fireplace in spacious living room.
Built atop the foundation of a flood-damaged home, this 3,000-square-foot Maryland home features vibrant furniture placed in front of stunning views of a nearby estuary.
February 08, 2016
Studio addition in Seattle
An architect couple sets out to transform a run-down property.
February 08, 2016
West Elm coffee table, custom Joybird sofa, and matching Jens Risom chairs in living room of Westchester renovation by Khanna Shultz.
Every Monday, @dwell and @designmilk invite fans and experts on Twitter to weigh in on trending topics in design.
February 08, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment living room vertical oak slats
For the modernists among us, these spare spaces are a dream come true.
February 08, 2016
The square fountain at the courtyard's center is a modern rendition of a very traditional feature in many Middle Eastern homes.
From a large gathering space for family or a tranquil sanctuary, these seven designs feature some very different takes on the ancient idea of a courtyard.
February 08, 2016
stdaluminum 021
Since windows and doors are such important aspects of your home, it’s always a good idea to take the time to evaluate how they fit within the lifestyle you want. Whether you’re in the middle of constructing a new home, or you’re considering replacing your current setup, there are multiple elements to consider when it comes time to make the final decisions. Milgard® Windows & Doors understands how vital these choices are to the well-being of your home and has developed ways to turn the process into a journey that can be just as enjoyable as it is fulfilling. Not sure where to start? We gathered some helpful insights from their team of experts to help us better understand what goes into the process of bringing your vision to life.
February 08, 2016
modern fire resistant green boulder loewen windows south facade triple planed low-e glass
These houses in Broncos Country prove modern design is alive in the Rocky Mountains.
February 08, 2016
french evolution paris daniel rozensztroch living area eames la chaise butterfly chair moroccan berber rug
A tastemaker brings his distinct vision to an industrial loft with a centuries-old pedigree.
February 07, 2016
senses touch products
The haptic impact can’t be underplayed. The tactility of a material—its temperature, its texture­—can make the difference between pleasure and discontent.
February 07, 2016
senses taste products
Ambience is a key ingredient to any meal—materials, textures, and mood all impart a certain flavor.
February 07, 2016
senses smell products
The nose knows: Though fleeting and immaterial, scent is the lifeblood of Proustian memories, both evoking and imprinting visceral associations.
February 06, 2016
design icon josef frank villa beer vienna
Josef Frank: Against Design, which runs through April 2016 at Vienna’s Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, is a comprehensive study of the prolific architect, designer, and author.
February 06, 2016
senses sound products
From an alarm to a symphony, audio frequencies hold the power to elicit an emotional call-and-response.
February 06, 2016
Italian Apline home with double-height walls on one facade.
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 05, 2016
A built-in sofa with Design Tex upholstery marks the boundary between the two-level addition and the bungalow. Leading up to the master bedroom, a perforated metal staircase, lit from above, casts a Sigmar Polke–like shadow grid on the concrete floor.
From a minimalist Walter Gropius design to a curving sculptural stair, these six stairways run the gamut.
February 05, 2016
distant structure lakeside prefab norway facade stones green roof
Dwell has traveled all over the world, from Tasmania to Indonesia, to report on modern houses.
February 05, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment master bedroom atrium
Get ready for a weekend of rest with these sleepy, little cocoons.
February 05, 2016
lamp show 99 cent plus gallery 0
At Brooklyn's 99¢ Plus gallery, 30 artists and designers re-imagine the lamp in an illuminating light show.
February 04, 2016
Hidden storage stairwell with raw brass hardware
Having ample space to stow items is a daily struggle—peep these modern homes for some ideas on maximizing your square footage.
February 04, 2016
modern fairhaven beach house blackbutt eucalyptus living room Patricia Urquiola sofa
Whether it's along a coast in Australia or the French Alps, wood provides a natural touch in these interiors.
February 04, 2016
Glass and steel sculpture in Printemps store of Paris.
In the Paris' venerable Printemps department store, two Toronto-based firms were tasked with enlivening a new atrium and creating a unique experience for visitors. YabuPushelberg, partnering with UUfie, designed this stunning steel "sail" embedded with vibrant dichroic glass.
February 04, 2016
Monochromatic Master Bedroom in Copenhagen Townhouse
Whether it's to maximize limited light or create a soothing interior, these five projects go white in a big way.
February 04, 2016
EQ3 Assembly quilt by Kenneth LaVallee
The new Assembly collection from EQ3 celebrates up-and-coming figures in Canadian design. Discover this newly appointed class, which debuted at Toronto's Interior Design Show, here.
February 03, 2016