It Took Three Days to Ferry This Off-the-Grid Prefab to Its Remote Australian Site

Ever wonder what it takes to get a house to the end of the earth?

There's pretty much one way to get to French Island, an undeveloped patch of land some 40 miles off the coast of Melbourne, Australia: ferry.

So when Rowan Brown and Christian Lai Cheong of Lai Cheong Brown set off to build Brown's family a getaway there ("the obligatory house for the architect's parents"), they knew the remote site would be a challenge.

The house was designed to be lightweight for easier transport. The timber frame includes LVL components, and steel was used only where needed for subfloor columns and window lintels.

"The project is on an island not connected by road to the Australian mainland. This made it difficult to get contractors, materials, and tradesman to the site for what would have been a four- to six-month build," Brown explains. "We chose to go prefab because it consolidated most of the logistics into three days of moving, rather than months of ferries and barges for materials and manpower." 

Captured by drone, this photograph shows the prefabricated elements of the Brown house being transported to the build site on French Island by barge. 

Founded in Melbourne in 2011, the architecture firm focuses on adaptive reuse and remote-site construction. To meet the challenges of this particular(ly challenging) location, they partnered with Ecoliv, a sustainable prefab construction company based on the mainland in nearby Wonthaggi. 

While many are quick to think of prefab construction as simply assembling pre-designed, low-cost units or an opportunity for high-tech experimentation, Brown and Lai Cheong decided to take another approach. Here, they prioritized custom elements to create a 2,000-square-foot home made of two main volumes that could still be transported to the island by barge. 

A closer look reveals the home's spotted gum exterior cladding by Woodform and corrugated Lysaght Spandek roofing already installed. 

Getting the structure to the island was just part of the problem. The location is so remote that there isn't even a local council. That means that the house would need to be completely self-sustaining. Not just that, but the on-site construction would require accommodations for the tradespeople working on the project. Even the tides needed to be taken into account. 

With that in mind, the architects began by building a prefabricated service structure and garage before construction began on the main house. Careful planning would ensure the rest of the custom details—down to the Dulux paint—could be fabricated on the mainland using conventional technologies and shipped to the site. 

The kitchen features a Donard wood-fired stove by Stanley and tiles from Classic Ceramics. 

"The key was to get organized and thoroughly document the project before beginning," Brown says. "Understanding what all the transport infrastructure could accommodate and how things would work was critical. In many ways prefabrication was just an extension of the organization and panning." 

A courtyard at the center of the home offers an outdoor space with protection from the harsh coastal winds. The 270-square-foot patio faces south to enjoy views of the ocean.

Brown and Lai Cheong also used a number of off-grid solutions so that the house can sustain itself without tapping into the grid. The structure is solar-powered, it harvests its own rainwater, it can be heated by wood fire, and a worm-farm sewage system treats waste on-site. 

A Morsø space heater warms the living room, which features a rug from Halcyon Lake.

Though the house is located on a working farm, it isn't about roughing it. The architects paid close attention to the interior details—everything from the wide expanses of glazing by AWS (oriented to maximize views of the surrounding farmland and sea) to the Tom Dixon pendants that hang over the kitchen island. As Brown puts it, "Prefabrication allowed us to quickly and cost-effectively get an architecture standard of finish in a very remote place."

A rugged exterior of spotted gum cladding and corrugated Spandek material shelter the prefabricated, off-the-grid getaway. 

Cover photo by Jaime Diaz-Berrio


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