Elemental Exposure – Mansfield House by Robbie Walker

Words by Sarah Sivaraman
Architecture by Robbie Walker
Photography by Dave Kulesza
Video by Dan Preston
Styling by Jess Kneebone
Furniture Great Dane
Objects Pan After

Nestled into a rocky outcrop in Victoria’s High Country, Robbie Walker has designed and built an off-grid family home with integrity, beauty and the grit to withstand the extremes of its surrounding environment. Balancing openness to the exceptional views against the imperative for shelter from the elements on the exposed hilltop, Mansfield House is a home of two halves. Part glass pavilion, part concrete bunker, the building responds to the dichotomous demands of inhabiting a place inhospitable and awe-inspiring in equal measure.

Mansfield House presents a panoramic view across the rugged and expansive landscape of Taungurung country – this terrain and its unruly weather conditions are formative to the home’s design. The north-facing half of the house features double-glazed, floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides, framing the most exquisite views. “To the east is Mount Buller, and then to the west you get these crazy sunsets and when the lake’s full you get to see [Lake] Eildon,” Robbie explains. A concerted effort was made to privilege the vast scenery with minimal obstruction from the building. Robbie recalls standing on the hilltop in the early stages of the project and taking in the view from where the living room would later be situated. “That’s the best bit, where you just get to dream. We’d even build timber window frames for where the end of the house would be so you could pick what you could see.”

“Getting to spend a lot of time on the block made me realise how wild it is up here. It’s freezing, it’s windy, or it’s boiling – you get everything up here.”

Robbie spent a great deal of time on the land during the design process, familiarising himself with the full scope of the conditions. “Getting to spend a lot of time on the block made me realise how wild it is up here. It’s freezing, it’s windy, or it’s boiling – you get everything up here,” he explains. With this knowledge, the house was designed to harness the power of the relentless sun and to protect and cocoon its inhabitants when the weather turned. “We get a lot of sun, so on a sunny day in winter, which is most days up here, that room just gets so much solar heat gain and becomes a really warm room,” he says. Conversely, on a sunless winter day, fireplaces at each end of the generous living area provide alternative warmth. This heat is dispersed through the house via vented fans, a simple heat distribution system that “hippies and country houses have used forever,” Robbie says.

In contrast to the openness of this glazed front portion of the house, the back half is walled with a solid two skins of core filled concrete block and functions as a retreat from the extreme elements. “When it’s wild and windy, it’s a bit scary,” Robbie explains. In these conditions, the rear of the house is “just like a concrete bunker. So, when you’re in the storm, you can come back here and it’s quieter; you don’t feel anything moving. It just feels solid and safe.” During summer, despite eaves providing plenty of shade, the harsh sun streaming in heats the northern side of the house. In this instance, the heat distribution system works in reverse, transferring cool air from the sheltered concrete half of the building. Failing that, relief comes in the form of solar-powered air-conditioning. Such comprehensive protection and shelter are entirely necessary for an off-grid home in such an exposed location. There is nothing to hide behind – “your building just has to work,” says Robbie, “otherwise it’s a horrible place to be.”

Exposed concrete block, polished concrete floors, plywood panelled ceilings and plywood cabinetry occupy the airy kitchen and living area, their simplicity deferring to the impressively vast view.

Mansfield House was carefully designed to be built as sustainably as it functions. “The rooms are designed to be the width that blocks work in and are also designed to fit sheets of plywood,” Robbie explains of his low-waste process. “In the living room, there’s not one plywood offcut and not one brick that’s been cut and thrown away.” This feat required plenty of forethought and was not without its compromises. In the kitchen, the dimensions of each cabinet unit make use of a whole sheet of plywood. Modules of these were used, eventually informing the width of the kitchen.

The simple, robust materials that made this low-waste approach possible fittingly respond to the home’s context. “Being in the mountains, I don’t think it would have suited too refined a material like a plaster or marble,” Robbie reflects. “It needed to be raw, because it’s raw and wild up here; it’s rugged.” Exposed concrete block, polished concrete floors, plywood panelled ceilings and plywood cabinetry occupy the airy kitchen and living area, their simplicity deferring to the impressively vast view. The textures of these materials meet in a dynamic way, with light reflected from the concrete floors and the grain of the ply bringing a sense of warmth and softness to the defined open space. In the bedroom, a wall of precise plywood cabinetry is interrupted only by a window framing the robust hillside beyond. Practical elements, such as the aluminium power cord casing, work with the steel bedside table and the minimalistic timber bed frame in a triumph of decisive lines and forms, repeated more softly by their shadows cast on the concrete blockwork. In the bathroom, fixtures and fittings are again stripped down to their most raw, unadorned material form. The simplicity is potent and seems to magnify the materials, making the colour of the copper pipes richer, the shadows in the mortar joints more striking.

Within this stylised and unassuming aesthetic, a distinction must be made between raw and industrial. Rather than merely building in the simplest way possible, there is an elegance to the use of materials and the way they interact with one another. The steel screen that veils the glazed façade at intervals exemplifies this approach. Constructed simply of gantry mesh, the application and combination transform a humble industrial material into a delicate architectural detail. A resultant sense of unity underlies the raw materiality of the home, and Robbie describes the attention this demands. “I’ve learnt over the years that the simpler materials take more energy, more labour and more thought to make it not look like an industrial building.”

Quietly yet confidently responding to the demands and opportunities presented by the mountain region, Mansfield House is a true labour of love. The residence not only tells of an intimate engagement with the site and the natural elements, but it also realises a personal vision and articulates specific design sensibilities. Above all, it exemplifies a lighter way to build and live on, or rather within, the land.