Architect Alexander Symes was tasked with building a completely self-sustaining off-grid house for his client on a remote farm in country NSW.
Symes is committed to a new approach in architecture committed to integrating technology like solar panels, insulation and rain pipes into the construction of the home.
The brief was “to create a future proofed home,” Symes said, which “could age in place, and that would be off-grid in terms of water, energy and waste.”
The architect designed the property so that it would be “future-proofed against the future climates, both in terms of water security and temperature rises,” but also be comfortable, beautiful, and a place where the client could entertain.
“The idea is to let the landscape be, and not alter it as much as possible. You actually feel like you’re stepping from the building to the landscape on a seamless level,” Symes said.
The architect achieved this by using materials like zinc and concrete. “The roof is really responding to the existing tree canopy,” he said.
“It’s taking the spirit of the landscape and the existing man made infrastructure that’s imposed on the landscape and trying to integrate it as much as possible.”
While the technology used is cutting-edge, the goal was simple: “Keep the sun in winter and block the sun in summer.”
To create a high performance home, the architect used software called Sapphire, which analyses where direct solar radiation hits “the thermal mass” across seasons and uses this mapping to inform the design of the off-grid house.
“With the thermal mass, whether that’s concrete or masonry, you want to insulate that on the outside, and in summer, you want to stop the thermal mass from being hit by the solar radiation,” he said.
This meant that the design was performance-first. “My interest is in high performance, low environmental impact dwellings,” Symes said.
The trend historically within the architecture and design community was to really put aesthetics first and for that to be the main driver, Symes said. “I think I think it is definitely shifting.”
“There’s a lot of practitioners who are either shifting, or they’re emerging and the sustainability is the core focus.”
Syme said what he tries to do is make the aesthetics of the home about sustainability. “And it be this idea that you can engage with the beauty of the solar panel, you can engage with the beauty of the rainwater capture, and how that goes into a landscape,” he explained.
The technology powering the sustainability of the off-grid house is integrated into the design.
“What I’ve been trying to develop over the last decade is this environmental, functional aesthetic that is an education tool,” Syme said.
His goal is to educate people around why they would incorporate these things into their house, “but actually to make them beautiful,” he said, “and a feature of the home.”
“That’s what I’ve been working on for a long time,” he said, adding that “this is probably the first time that I’ve been able to nail it. It’s very much present in my works after this and my current works.”
The skylights direct light into the square house’s central rooms, which don’t have windows.
“If you have a square form, it’s difficult to get daylight into the centre,” Symes said. By sculpting the skylights, they become part of the architecture of the interior rather than simply another functional element.
Non-traditional materials like concrete were also used in the home’s interior rooms.
Concrete is “not usually an aesthetic finish, it’s a structural finish,” Symes said.
Similar to the feeding troughs that informed the exterior materials, the concrete walls are “part of that rawness” of integrating the house into the landscape.
Materials found on the farm, like corrugated iron and metal, were integrated into the design.
“The idea was to have some steel structure on the cladding for robustness,” Symes said of the off-grid house.
“The walkthrough of the interior is the polished concrete floors, which have hydronic heating and cooling that’s powered off the solar panels.”