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Hats off

Inspired by the broad brim of an Akubra Hat, this sustainable property on a NSW cattle farm was designed to capture the surrounding rural vista and exist self-sufficiently within its landscape.

Photos Barton Taylor

Author

Laura Valic

Off-grid, sustainable and comfortable. These were the requirements specified by a couple to HIA member builders Blue Eco Homes for their new home on a 314-hectare cattle farm in central NSW. While not initially intended to be their primary place of residence, the owners wished for a cosy, compact space for when they visit and spend time there – a space that would celebrate the sunburnt countryside and, importantly, would allow them to ‘age in place’ in the years to come. Following a highly collaborative partnership between client, builder, architect and engineer, the end result is a delightful and unconventional dwelling that sits modestly within its rural setting and is reflective of Australiana in both its looks and performance.

Dubbed the ‘Upside Down Akubra House’ for its likeness to an inverted Akubra hat, the design by Alexander Symes Architect is distinctive for its large, skillion Colorbond roof which maximises water catchment and provides shade throughout the warmer months. A circular hole punctuates one corner of the roofline to mirror the round outdoor fire pit below, while corrugated metal cladding and recycled timber accents wrap around the exterior. The architect’s creativity is evident in other aspects too; noticeably in the placement of the 8kW solar panels – which surprisingly perch not on top of the house but along an adjacent awning that covers the entryway and doubles as the carport. 

 

‘With the home being in the middle of a bull paddock and affected by drought, it was important for the clients to feel comfortable that they were not adding to the issues,’ explains Joe Mercieca, a builder for nearly three decades and owner of Blue Eco Homes. ‘As the home is off-grid, it was also important to minimise the resources used.’

Experts in sustainable design and construction, the Blue Mountains business was a natural choice for the owners (despite operating around 400km away from the property) since they had successfully worked together on a previous project. Blue Eco Homes’ focus on providing eco-friendly housing and healthy living for their clients, emphasising the importance of sustainable building products and respecting the environment in all of their work practices, has made it into the award-winning company it is today.

But the remoteness of this build was one of the biggest challenges for the team to manage. 

‘There was a lot of planning and researching for the right contractors and materials as there is with most architectural builds,’ Joe says. ‘Being five hour’s drive away from site meant we needed to be confident in the local contractors and suppliers. The right processes makes the task easier.’

 

Once onsite, the first thing Blue Eco Homes completed was the installation of a 120,000-litre water tank to ensure a stable water supply throughout construction since there were no service connections available. With the area also in drought, water was a significant consideration. While the house would be connected to, and run off, the rainwater tank, a new water bore was also installed, along with an exposed roof water collection system – designed this way to prompt conversations about water efficiency. The installation of an aerated wastewater system would also enable black and grey water to be treated and reused for landscaping. 

Although not overly large, the striking Upside Down Akubra House includes three bedrooms, two bathrooms, an open-plan living area, with a study nook, as well as a generous storage room. Internally, the use of concrete in the floors (polished) and walls (off-form) provide thermal mass to retain heat in winter. Aesthetically, its resulting coolness is offset by the warmth of the Blackbutt and pine joinery along the ceilings, in the kitchen and on several walls in the bedrooms. Timber also frames the large double-glazed doors and windows that capture the panoramic bushland vista, with the sliding doors opening out from the kitchen/dining onto a bluestone patio and barbeque space – all conveniently sheltered by the roof’s extensive overhang.

The layout optimises solar gain to not only supply plenty of natural light into the home but to control internal temperatures. To achieve this, Joe says the floor plan, window to wall ratio and roof all respond to the natural climatic conditions of the site: ‘Extensive micro-climate analysis and weather data help to form the positioning and orientation of the dwelling, window openings and window proportions’.

The home’s internal temperature is also controlled with an in screed hydronic heating and cooling system as well as a heat recovery ventilation system (which circulates in fresh air and exhausts stale indoor air). Thanks to the 8kW solar PV system and 74kW battery storage, the home’s energy needs are met sustainably and cost-effectively, while a diesel generator is available for backup.

 

Overall, the client’s brief for a robust and self-sufficient house was met using a combination of high-tech solutions, simple low-maintenance materials and thoughtful passive solar design. ‘The clients regularly tell us how much they love being in the house,’ he says. ‘We’ve had a few phone calls to help them to learn how to drive the house and get best out of it. This usually takes people about 12 months to master.’

The Upside Down Akubra House’s sustainable credentials were rewarded with the 2020 HIA Australian GreenSmart Custom Built Home award – just one of four that Blue Eco Homes took home this year in HIA’s sustainable awards program. ‘We were very excited [to be recognised],’ Joe says. ‘We feel very honoured and proud.’

Besides the awards program, Joe says the advantages of being a HIA member is the networking opportunities and ‘having a great industry body watching your back and providing support when you need it’. A member of the NSW Training and Membership Committee, he says encouragement is always given to other members to join these committees because they are an integral part of HIA. 

‘Members draw on each other’s strengths to evolve into a better representation for the industry. Small, medium and major builders all stand to gain, sharing knowledge and working as one.’ 

 
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Upside Down Akubra House at a glance

Builder: Blue Eco Homes

Architect: Alexander Symes

Engineer: Ascent Consulting Engineers

Award: 2020 HIA Australian GreenSmart Custom Built Home 

Location: NSW

Materials:

  • Roofing: Colorbond custom orb, Lysaght, Peterson Metal Roofing
  • Internal finishes: Pine lining board, Bunnings
  • Structural steel: One Steel, Mags Engineering
  • Walls: Zego feature (external and internal); Lysaght wall cladding (external);  recycled timber battens and trims (external) 
  • Windows: Blackbutt frames and double glazed glass, Evolution Windows; Velux skylight
  • Doors: Simmons Timbers, Southern Cabinetry and Joinery
  • Flooring: Hanson polished concrete, SBT Concrete; Blue Stone 20mm stone tiles, Eco Outdoors
  • Kitchen and vanities: One Steel, Mags Engineering
  • Heating: Radiant Heating cooling and heating system
  • Fittings: four-star toilets; five- and six-star tapware; LED lighting.
 

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