Rugged Bruny Island, off the southeast coast of Tasmania, is about as far away from Rochester, New York, as you can get. Just ask Amy and Bob Tait, who call both places home. Plane-hopping from Rochester to Chicago to Los Angeles to Sydney and finally to Hobart, then driving two hours south and catching a ferry will get you there in about 30 hours. A long haul for a vacation? Perhaps, concedes Amy, but nothing a good novel, an in-flight movie, and a glass of wine can’t fix.
During a "once in a lifetime" trip to Australia a few years ago, the Taits fell in love with picturesque Tasmania, Australia’s southernmost island state. Back in the States after their sojourn, Amy—whose background is in real estate—surfed the Internet looking for Tasmanian properties. She found 500 acres on Bruny Island up for sale and before you could say "advanced search" had flown halfway around the world again to check it out in person. "As soon as I set foot on this property, I knew it was the one," she recalls. "It doesn’t reveal itself to you all at once, there is just so much to discover."
Like all pioneers, the Taits then turned their thoughts to shelter. They found the Hobart firm of 1 + 2 Architecture, and began a long conversation with directors Mike Verdouw, Cath Hall, and Fred Ward. According to the architects, the out-of-towners were extremely receptive to notions of a contemporary, sensitive response to the rugged waterfront site.
"Initially they came to us and asked for a log cabin in the woods," Ward recalls. "We explained that here we don’t really call it ‘the woods’ and that we don’t really do log cabins. They were very open to our suggestion that the house be a contemporary Australian response."
The design—resolved via countless emails and conference calls—was largely driven by the remoteness of the location, which called for complete self-sufficiency.
The Taits’ site has no municipal water, power, or sewer connections, so the architects had to balance their clients’ modern needs with certain practical considerations.
"It’s all new to me," admits Amy, who is grateful that an onsite caretaker keeps things ticking when they’re not there. They got most of their wishes—hot tub, dishwasher, clothes dryer—but had to agree to a smaller one-level house instead of a larger double-story design. "There was some compromise on their part," says Ward. "We couldn’t have heated a really big volume."
The house observes passive solar design principles, and most of its power comes from six photovoltaic cells mounted on a disused shipping container parked in a sunny clearing about 100 feet from the house. The architects angled the solar panels on a tilted roof to make the most of the intense sun in this somewhat ozone-depleted region. "We like to recycle where possible, so the shipping container was a good cost-effective option," says Mike Verdouw.
Rain collects in two 2,600-gallon tanks nestled in the shade near the house and the water is channeled underground, via four-inch conduit, into the kitchen and bathrooms. Portable gas cylinders fuel the hot-water system and the cooking appliances. Bathroom and kitchen waste is collected underground and processed in a septic tank before being dispersed around the garden via a network of subterranean trenches. Rod Cooper, who designed this passive system, encouraged the Taits to plant native shrubs along the trenches, as the plants absorb the nutrients from the waste and the rest seeps into the earth or gets evaporated by the sun and wind.
Lightweight, inexpensive, low-maintenance building materials were deemed essential, especially given the site’s access difficulties and the foul weather during construction. The structure is a combination of galvanized steel and timber on a raised steel sub-frame floor, and the exterior is clad in oiled timber planks. Inside there’s low-fuss plasterboard, polished hardwood flooring, and neutral-toned carpet.
At present, the Taits visit their remote island hideaway once or twice a year to steal some quiet moments before heading back to work, school, and other commitments in Rochester. Eventually, they plan to scale things back and make much more time for Bruny Island. "The seasons are opposite, so we’ll be able to have summer in Rochester, then a second summer in Tasmania," says Amy, with more than a hint of glee.