In a bushland setting southeast of Melbourne, Branch Studio Architects builds a house embodying elements of earth, water and fire.
On a hilltop clearing in a large parcel of native bushland southeast of Melbourne, this house takes it’s name from an old aqueduct that circles the property sited in bushfire country. Nicholas Russo of Branch Studio Architects wanted to render the building “heavy and light” at the same time, making its materiality both reflect the site, and stand against it in more ways than one.
Key to the approach is a rammed earth wall that dissects the entire length of the house along an east-west axis. The rammed earth extends beyond the external walls to anchor the building into the landscape, organize the interior program, and support the heavy galvanized steel framework that holds up the roof, four decks and a verandah.
The floor plan comprises two intersecting rectangles arranged around the central wall. These rectangular floor plates intersect and overlap each other, eventually opening the house out to two main decks facing north.
Entry from the south links to a break in the central rammed earth wall, which funnels you into the living room. In this triangular space, a nine-metre wall of sliding glass opens to a similar-shaped deck and the two spaces unite as a near-rectangular living room, half inside, half out.
Designed around the idea of flexibility and transformable spaces, internally the house remains sparse, and although the living areas and bedrooms hint at a use, they are largely open and undefinable. The floor plan allows for the house to be configured as a one-, two- or three-bedroom home with adaptable living/studio spaces arranged within the main volumes. Only the utility areas of kitchen and bathrooms are fixed. The first floor is currently arranged as a generous master bedroom with ensuite.
Reoccurring rural qualities of earth and fire combine regularly throughout the design. A freestanding section of rammed earth in the centre of the living space houses an open fireplace on one side as well as a combustion stove on the other while the external mud-igloo pizza oven embedded into the rammed earth wall directly links the kitchen to the outdoors.
Resilience against bushfire is addressed through the siting, design and materiality of the house. Its predominantly non-combustible building fabric includes two blades of Corten steel encasing the internal stairwell, rammed earth for the key anchoring wall and galvanized steel as both structure and shields. Much of the structural steel work is embedded in the walls, with elements expressed externally as fascias that cap and enclose the deck and roof plates to eliminate the risk of burning embers becoming lodged within the timber framing. The house is also equipped with stainless steel water tanks and a fire-fighting pump.
Because the property is not connected to mains water, it relies on the collection and storage of rainwater. The large flat roof planes and box gutters are designed to maximize catchment and minimize runoff waste. Internally, the central rammed earth wall acts as a thermal mass when heated by the two fireplaces embedded within it. Assisting this in winter is a hydronic system pumping water heated by the combustion stove through pipes in the concrete floor.