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It’s fitting that a new project on Melbourne’s former Kodak Photography plant is as eye-catching as its predecessor. For starters, ‘Edgars Creek House’ was built unconventionally front to back, with a towering, rammed-earth facade greeting the street.
Behind it is a sustainable, custom-built house that pushes the boundaries of energy efficiency and sustainability, with materiality at the forefront of building innovation in Australia.
The building challenge was accepted by HIA member Damien Collins, Director of Never Stop Group, and architects, Breathe Architecture.
‘If it is just a flat block of land with a square box house, I’m not interested in it. So, I need something that’s going to challenge me and my team, and keep them on their toes,’ Damien says.
The client was a family of three, who commissioned a highly sustainable brief to create a fossil-fuel free ‘urban retreat’, located in the northern suburb of Coburg. The house needed to connect seamlessly with the surrounding bushland, not only embracing Edgars Creek Reserve at the rear, but also elevating the effect by bringing nature front and centre into the heart of the abode.
The project made a promising start, since the corner site earmarked for the build was the most picturesque of the whole block. But it was later discovered to be on an uncontrolled fill site, sitting unwanted with many layers holding no technical capacity for bearing.
Added to the mix was the incredibly steep site, loose underfoot.
‘It actually had a 45-degree slope on two sides,’ he says. ‘Everything we were building on was like mountain goat sort of territory.’
As a result, scaffolding was difficult, as was building the formwork to pour the concrete because there was nothing stable to push against. But then a win: ‘We had an initial design for about 80 concrete bored piers, but we were able to work with the engineers and workshop that down to 52 screw piers. That was one of the biggest value management aspects of the job,’ Damien says.
Construction on the facade was tricky too. ‘We had this huge rammed-earth wall that was the finished facade – it couldn’t be damaged, you couldn’t bump it with anything and you couldn’t lean anything on it, so we had to protect it all the way through,’ he says.
Meticulously handcrafted and matched to the sandstone cliffs nearby, the wall remained unscathed due to temporary structures in place and is now punctuated by two cut-outs. ‘It’s kind of like a turret out of a castle, and that gives you a view down into that reserve,’ Damien explains.
Crucially, it sets up the house with excellent thermal mass and cross ventilation, avoiding the need for any artificial airconditioning. Its floor plan is divided into three pavilions, sitting on screw piles that go down to about 5.5 metres to make the most of the existing trees and view to the creek. Connected by a brise soleil (‘sun breaker’) breezeway, the three pavilions for living, sleeping and bathing each border a central courtyard that connects the house to the landscape.
But it’s the raw and textured breezeway that does the heavy lifting, bringing the outside in with an internal garden, and providing each pavilion with access to fresh, open air, lined by natural timber battens featuring locally sourced FSC Ironbark shiplap cladding.
‘There’s 22,000 stainless steel screws that went into the job between the cladding and the decking. And every single one of those screws can be removed and the piece of timber that it holds in place can be reused at the end of the building life.’
Furthermore, there’s no glue, adhesives, chrome or VOCs across the entire build. At every opportunity, materials were either recycled, recyclable, used minimally or sourced locally, including recycled Victorian Ash flooring, and recycled brass and copper fittings.
In the living pavilion, the urban retreat comes to life with a second rammed-earth wall forming a double-sided fireplace, and a sunken lounge facing Edgar’s Creek Reserve with wrap-around views.
‘The corner of the house is cantilevered and hovers out there into the bush. And you see nothing but bushland,’ Damien says.
In the bathing wing, there’s another innovation. An in-situ bath was formed and poured as part of the slab, which had to be protected throughout the whole build and turned into a bathtub at the end. Damien and his team also created fold-down timber deck hatches that lay down over the top of the bath, transforming it into a shower.
As a result, the clients bathe in rainwater, and use town water for their toilets thanks to a three-stage water filtration system that removes chlorine and fluoride.
‘It is the opposite of what everybody else is doing on every other project,’ Damien says. ‘But it makes perfect sense.’
Insulation also played a large role in the build, and the team workshopped many different junctions and flashing details to create a ‘giant sandwich’ that was airtight and watertight, bolstered by Damien’s strong plumbing background.
There’s R2.7 insulation under the slab, while the walls are R5.2 and double thickness with double insulation. The roof has R6 insulation too.
‘We had to have this batten system that packed out the walls enough to allow the external insulation to go in, and also still hold up the really heavy timber of the Ironbark cladding,’ Damien says.
Today, the house is fossil-fuel free in operation with a 7.2-star energy rating. It includes a 10,000-litre underground rainwater harvesting system, an electric heat pump for hot water, and provisions for both hydronic heating and rooftop panels with battery storage.
It also recently won the 2020 HIA–CSR Victorian GreenSmart Sustainable Home award.
‘There was a lot of risk, and there were a lot of additional hours that I personally put into it, but we are super proud of it from the outset and we were really excited to be involved in it,’ Damien says.
It has leapfrogged Damien’s work calendar too, with several impressive projects locked in for the Never Stop Group in the near future. A reward in itself.