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Earth sheltered home

A home built into the side of a hill is cooler and not as susceptible to temperature fluctuations.

For Peter Hardy, owning an earth-sheltered home had long been a dream.

After experiencing both the 1980 and 1983 Ash Wednesday fires, he knew the risks that came with living in the Adelaide Hills.

So when the time came to retire to the family property at Biggs Flat several years ago, he wanted a home that would be able to stand the test of flames.

“We had both Ash Wednesdays – the ’80 and ’83 – and Dad and I both fought those – we stayed and defended and so I really appreciate the power of a bushfire, because the first one, especially, was really hot – a really hot burn,” he recalls.

“And I knew that there’s a vulnerability up in the Hills here, so that was pushing me towards a fire-resistant structure as well.

“The time period since (Ash Wednesday) means there’s a lot of fuel accumulation, so whenever we have another bushfire, it’s going to be another hot one.

“So that was a consideration as well, that if we’re up here and the fire comes through, it’s going to have to bear quite a bit.”

Peter and his wife, Frances, moved into their earth-sheltered, bushfire-resistant home about 18 months ago.

The home, designed by Adelaide Hills-based designers ShelterSpace, is completely off-grid and nestled into a hillside, which, along with its thick concrete outer shell, high fire-rated windows and shutters and lack of roof-space, helps to reduce the risk of damage during a fire.

“These houses are built almost to keep out all of the elements – soil, water, fire, wind, just with one house,” ShelterSpace building designer Dale Lloyd says.

With three sides of the house surrounded by the hillside, courtyards sunken into the back of the home provide cross ventilation and natural light without compromising fire safety. “The courts at ground level are fire-rated … if you imagine a hole in the ground, the theory behind it is they’re not susceptible to the same wind-load in a fire event that the front of the house is,” Dale says.

“You’d probably get stuff (embers) drop down, but again they don’t have the wind behind them to try and find a hole.” Several of the design features that make the house more fire resistant also help to make it more sustainable – something that was important to Peter when he was designing the home. “Secretly I was wanting to be off-grid,” Peter says.

“But that decision was easily made because of the cost of actually connecting to the grid.”

Because it’s built into the side of a hill, the home is cooler and not as susceptible to temperature fluctuations.

Power comes from solar panels and a back-up generator and rainwater is used instead of piped water.

Much of the work that didn’t require an expert was done by the Hardys, from the excavation of the site and the stone facade (featuring stone excavated from the site), to the flooring, waterproofing and internal painting.

“I got a bit of confidence through using YouTube,” Peter says.

“If I didn’t know what to do and Dale wasn’t around I’d have to research myself and YouTube was really good.”

Despite its views over to Mt Lofty, the home is unobtrusive – something Peter says is important.

“I want this to blend right in,” Peter says.

“I never wanted a house to be a monument to me or anyone else, I wanted to keep it as subtle as possible.

“We’re not seen by any of the neighbours from here, so it blends right in and the landscaping that we’re planning is going to enhance that even further.”

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