When a Melbourne couple nearing retirement approached Australian architect Ben Callery to design a "little weekend getaway," he saw it as an opportunity to realize his dream of creating a completely off-grid home. The result is the Elemental House, a spectacular, self-sufficient timber dwelling designed to withstand the harsh elements of its location.
"The clients wanted something modest with a connection to the amazing landscape," says Callery. "They didn’t want too many modern conveniences—no TV, dishwasher, or washing machine—but that doesn’t mean you can’t have any luxuries. The deep soaker tub with views for miles is definitely a moment of luxury."
The home occupies a small 33' x 33' footprint, with one bedroom, one bathroom, and a living room with an open-plan kitchen. The living space is oriented along the ridgeline to embrace the spectacular view to the east while still receiving the warm northern sun, and the home opens to timber decks to the north and south—one of which will always be sheltered from the wind. The north-facing bedroom receives passive solar gain, and both it and the bathroom frame views of the two trees on the site.
The home sits on 100 acres of former farmland in High Camp, an hour north of Melbourne. Given the remote site, Callery was convinced that finding a builder would be a challenge. "We were very lucky that one of our regular builders, James and his team at Keenanbuilt, wanted to build it," he says. "They saw a 3D rendering that we posted on Instagram during the design stages and fell in love with the idea of building this beautiful off-grid retreat."
The location has little access to water mains, electricity, and sewers, so the decision to go completely off-grid was based on both ideals and financial practicality. The house has 24 solar panels that offer sufficient power on even the most overcast winter day. Rainwater is collected in two tanks, heating is provided by a wood fire, and a 5kW split-system air conditioner provides cooling.
"Arriving at the site by car from the city, there is an awesome sense of quietness and nothingness, except for the rustling of the long grass in the wind," says Callery. "Out here, you feel so exposed. There is no shade, except for two gnarly trees. As the sun beats down, you find yourself craving shade, drawn to these two trees in an almost primal way. That intuitive craving for shelter from above definitely informed our approach to the design."
The site is also subject to some of Australia’s harshest elements. The winds are rated N-3—the equivalent of a low-level cyclone—with gusts of up to 89 mph. There is also the ever-present threat of bushfire, particularly with the steep slopes and strong winds.
The response to this harsh environment is a bold geometric form that offers an inviting and solid refuge from the elements. The depth of the eaves provides shade in summer and shelter from rain, while their chunky form is a structural response to the heavy wind loads. The house is oriented to bring the northern sun into the living room and bedroom, and the north and south facades can be opened for cross ventilation. High levels of insulation and double glazing give the home a thermally efficient envelope.
The windows are the maximum allowable size with the high wind loads, and they needed to be 1.31 feet above the ground on the eastern facade, due to the risk of bushfire. "We turned this into an opportunity to install a window seat along the whole facade," says Callery. "It completely immerses the occupant in the panoramic vista."
The external timber is spotted gum, an Australian hardwood that is so durable it complies with bushfire rating requirements. "We briefly considered using corrugated iron, for its low maintenance properties and ubiquitous reference to the rural vernacular," says Callery. "But we’re not interested in referencing colonial precedents. We are searching for an expression that feels elementally of this country." The timber needs no maintenance and, over time, will develop a beautiful grey patina and gracefully settle into its surroundings.
Inside, dark and moody finishes—including oriented strand board (OSB) painted black— emphasize the sense of shelter. In contrast, the burnished concrete and luster of the spotted gum timber ceiling amplify the natural light. "The architect remains quiet, allowing the place to be the hero," says Callery. "The lines in the ceiling draw the eye out and provide a horizontal datum that emphasizes the undulating landscape beyond."
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"This whole process—the design and build and now seeing the clients enjoying using the house—has been so rewarding," says Callery. "They send us photos of the inquisitive kangaroos who come right up to the house and the shy koalas that are occasionally in their trees. They love it."
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