Project Feature

“A Wonderful Sense of Freedom” – Elemental House by Ben Callery Architects

High Camp, VIC, Australia

Rose Onans

Set high on a ridge overlooking the plains, valleys and mountains of north-central Victoria, the Elemental House by Ben Callery Architects is a small off-grid idyll that is about “shedding the excesses of modern society and using only what is needed”.

“Like a traveller going abroad with all of their worldly possessions on their back, there is a wonderful sense of freedom that comes with having what you need and no more”, says Ben Callery. The Elemental House was designed with this principle in mind for a semi-retired couple who, after a busy working life in Melbourne, sought a place of retreat and the freedom of living with less. “While Marie Kondo is teaching us all to ditch the excess consumer stuff that we have accumulated, these clients wanted to have less in the first place”, he explains.

The Elemental House is the first completely off-grid design by Ben Callery Architects. Photography by Dave Kulesza & shoot styling by Bea+Co for The Local Project.

The site on the 100-acre property was chosen for the spectacular panoramic views.

The design began with the beautiful yet rugged site in High Camp, fifteen minutes outside of Kilmore. The clients had recently purchased the 100-acre property that was blessed with incredible views but lacking in mains services, meaning the new build would need to be entirely off the grid. “This presented an exciting challenge for us”, recalls Ben. “We have built many energy efficient houses that incorporated sustainable technology but we had never done a completely off-grid house”. 

With 100 acres of land at their disposal, clients and architect spent time on the land to choose the house site. Where the plains hit the hills in the middle of the block is a ridge with a 180-degree panoramic vista over a steep valley towards Mount Piper, 7km away to the east. Along this ridge two lonely trees, each around 100 metres apart, “act as nodes, almost like the axis of a compass”, says Ben.It intuitively felt right to locate the house between these two natural features right on the edge of the precipice that drops off to the stunning view to the east.” 

Architect Ben Callery taking in the views from the Elemental House.

While the view is breathtaking, the site at the top of the ridge was at the mercy of the harshest of Australia’s elements – wind, sun and fire. With little natural shade, the design needed to deliver appropriate shade and orientation to avoid overheating.

The design finds the freedom in living with less. Photography by Dave Kulesza & shoot styling by Bea+Co for The Local Project.

While the view is breathtaking, the site at the top of the ridge was at the mercy of the harshest of Australia’s elements – wind, sun and fire. With little natural shade, the design needed to deliver appropriate shade and orientation to avoid overheating. Bushfires are known to travel faster up hill, contributing to a challenging bushfire attack level of BAL-29. The wind, meanwhile, is N3 “which can get gusts up to 41m/second, the equivalent of low-level cyclonic region winds”, explains Ben. 

Such challenging conditions had a deep influence on not only the design, but the core identity of the Elemental House. Passive solar design means deep eaves provide shade from the sun in summer while still capturing the winter sun, and a burnished concrete floor provides thermal mass. Openable windows are positioned to facilitate cross-ventilation, creating natural cooling, and the size of the glazing is designed so as to withstand the forceful gusts of wind on the ridge.

“From within, the timber-lined ceiling and deep eaves create a strong horizontal plane which acts as a visual datum, emphasising the contrast of the dramatic undulations in the surrounding valleys and mountains, the underside of this form is lined with timber that drawers the eyes of the occupant out to these views”.

“The form of the building robustly responds to these harsh elements”, says Ben. The over-scaled canopy providing shade is “like an Akubra hat”, visually floating over the lower form and accentuating the boldness of its response to the harsh environment. “From within, the timber-lined ceiling and deep eaves create a strong horizontal plane which acts as a visual datum, emphasising the contrast of the dramatic undulations in the surrounding valleys and mountains”, he continues. “The underside of this form is lined with timber that drawers the eyes of the occupant out to these views”.

A restrained palette of materials reflects the design’s commitment to using only what is essential.

The over-scaled canopy is described by the architect as being ‘like an Akubra hat’, the iconic Australian bush hat that provides generous shade from the beating sun.

In all of these aspects, the Elemental House returns to its central ethos of doing more with less, consuming less materials, water and energy in a compact footprint. “We asked how the architecture can express this ideal of minimalism and self-sufficiency”, explains Ben. While it was necessary to integrate off-grid technology such as solar panels and batteries into the design, “beyond that, [we asked ourselves] can we create an architectural expression that embodies this spirit of using less?”. The brief questioned the need for many modern conveniences such as dishwasher, washing machine, dryer and even a television, but does not sacrifice some little luxuries“namely, the comfort of a freestanding bath with a view for miles over rolling hills without another soul in sight. As with human senses, the removal of some comforts heightens the experience of the others”, Ben reflects.

The architectural elements of geometry, light and dark enhance the interaction with the landscape. The form, with its oversized canopy, abstracts the requirements of shelter. Internally, darkness “emphasises the unique brightness of the Australian outback from which refuge is sought”, Ben says. “Like sitting under a shady tree on a hot summer’s day, and the dark shade only emphasises the glare of the harsh sun surrounding you”. 

The bath with its magnificent views is one of the simple luxuries highlighted the otherwise minimalist approach. Photography by Dave Kulesza & shoot styling by Bea+Co for The Local Project.

The ideal of minimalism and self-sufficiency is felt too in the material palette, which is restrained to OSB (oriented strand board), glass, timber and concrete. Spotted gum cladding, a sustainably-sourced timber that will weather and change colour over time, reflects the impact of this harsh environment. Exceptionally durable even when untreated, it meets the requirements of the fire rating in a simple yet fitting response to the conditions of the site. 

OSB kitchen joinery captures a raw materiality, but painted black it is visually subdued, creating a calm backdrop. Burnished concrete floors and in-situ cast benchtops and hearth convey a sense of weight and durability, yet the burnished quality simultaneously produces a subtle lustre. “So, while the eaves are designed to block out the harsh direct summer sunlight, the floor reflects soft ambient light and the unobstructed broad sky creating a calming feel of retreat”, explains Ben.

The burnished concrete floor provides significant thermal mass and creates a beautiful soft lustre as the light reflects off it.

Photography by Dave Kulesza & shoot styling by Bea+Co for The Local Project.

For a couple who have led a busy life of travel, calling inner-Melbourne home, the clarity and self-sufficiency of the Elemental House offers a return to a simpler mode of being that deepens their connection with the landscape. In this way, the project emphasises a very particular form of minimalism that goes beyond the aesthetic and to a deeper ideal that finds freedom in eschewing excess and choosing to live with only what is essential.

With 100 acres of land at their disposal, clients and architect spent time on the land to choose the house site.

The architectural elements of geometry, light and dark enhance the interaction with the landscape.

Photography by Dave Kulesza & shoot styling by Bea+Co for The Local Project.

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