Elemental House by Ben Callery Architects
High Camp VIC 3764, Australia
Elemental House is a completely self-sufficient retreat an hour north of Melbourne. High on the ridge-line of a steep hill the site has stunning views, but is also subject to the harshest of the Australian elements – sun, wind and the ever-present threat of bushfire. But rather than shy away, this bold little house confronts and embraces the elements, working with them to create a naturally comfortable home that immerse its occupants into the landscape. ‘Elemental’ refers to a relationship with the forces of nature but it also speaks to a desire for simplicity: an abstract geometric form and a reduced palette of materials, as we seek an architectural expression that embodies that spirit of freedom, adventure and minimalism that is synonymous with going ‘off-grid.’ The site is raw and windswept. Arriving form the city there is an arresting sense of quietness audibly and visually that heightens your senses. This quietness provides cues for the architecture. Our clients named the site ‘Woora Woora’ which means ‘Sky’ in the local dialect. Out here, the sky is expansive and beautiful, but we have a paradoxical relationship with it. It provides all that we need to go off grid, but also imposes those harsh elements that make this place inhospitable – winds up to 40m/second and the hot sun. Under this big hard sun you find yourself drawn to the shade of the few lonely trees on the site, craving shelter in a primal way. This intuitive yearning for shelter inspired our response. The form is a bold geometry. Low-slung, horizontal and squat, it is braced for impact. It is an elemental expression of the shelter that we seek from above. The large canopy overhangs the building dramatically. Eaves are deep in response to the sun and chunky to withstand the winds. The eastern façade embraces the stunning views. There are no doors on this side, the sheer valley is simply too steep and inhospitable. Instead a raised window seat allows you to occupy that precipice, immersing you into the landscape. To the north and south, decks with views of gnarly trees draw you out onto the ridgeline. With the prevailing northerly and southerly winds, one of these decks is always sheltered. The entire exterior is Spotted Gum timber. This Australian hardwood is so durable that it meets the bushfire requirements and does not need ongoing maintenance. It can simply go grey gracefully, quietly settling into its landscape. The internal palette is dark and moody, accentuating that feeling of shelter sought and found. By contrast the reflective sheen of the burnished concrete floor and timber ceiling increase the ambient light and amplify the views beyond. The materials are minimal, reflecting the quiet rawness of the site and our client’s brief for minimalism. Spotted gum is ceiling and cabinetry. Concrete is structure, thermal mass, benchtops and hearth. Oriented strand board bracing is appropriated as wall lining and cupboard fronts. Completely self-sufficient, the house provides all of its own solar power and rain water for household use.