This Off-Grid House in Australia Is Designed to Withstand Bushfires and Cyclones

This Off-Grid House in Australia Is Designed to Withstand Bushfires and Cyclones

By Mandi Keighran
The bold, geometric form of this timber home by Ben Callery Architects offers refuge in the harsh Australian landscape.

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.

"We want the house to blend into the environment and feel like part of this place, not stand out," says architect Ben Callery.

"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 bathtub has sweeping views over the surrounding landscape, yet it’s still private thanks to the remote location. The black wall emphasizes the feeling of refuge.

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. 

In the living room, wall-to-wall windows frame views of the landscape to the east.

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 home is completely off-grid due to its remote location at High Camp.

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.

The home has two decks—to the north and to the south—one of which will always be protected from the wind. The doors can be opened to provide effective cross ventilation.

"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 home sits on a ridgeline with panoramic views in all directions. To the east, about four miles away, is a peak called Mount Piper.

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 bold geometric form is intended to offer refuge, while deep eaves provide shade in the summer and shelter from rain.

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."

A cushioned window seat with storage beneath it runs the entire length of the living room.

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.

The 100-acre site is former farmland. The clients plan to remove the weeds that have proliferated in the generations since colonial farming and replace them with indigenous flora.

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." 

The Stovax freestanding wood fire in the living room is used to heat the home. The concrete floor provides thermal mass, which helps maintain thermal stability.

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The home’s palette of materials includes spotted gum timber, concrete, and oriented strand board (OSB). The luster of the burnished concrete, the sheen of the timber, and the mirrored backsplash in the kitchen reflect soft ambient light and amplify the views beyond.

The picture window in the bedroom frames one of two trees on the site.

"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."

At dusk, the home emits a warm glow, appearing as a welcoming refuge in the landscape. The strong horizontality of the roof canopy visually accentuates the undulations of the surrounding landscape.

Site plan for Elemental House by Ben Callery Architects.

Elevations of Elemental House by Ben Callery Architects.

Related Reading:

11 Amazing Australian Homes

Ocean Breezes Blow Right Through This Modern Australian Beach Shack

Project Credits:

Architect of Record: Ben Callery Architects / @bencalleryarchitects

Builder: Keenanbuilt

Structural Engineer: Keith Patrick 

Landscape Design Company: Kathleen Murphy

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