The Clay House uses the twin concepts of a courtyard plan and the inherent mass of clay brick products to create an intimate and private house. The driving concept behind this design is that it can fit into a small block, and has high level of thermal comfort that doesn’t rely on artificial cooling and heating.

The architectural design is an open plan centered around a “solarium”, an indoor-outdoor space that acts as both the living area and courtyard. This space has a multilayered glass roof with operable louvres to control the level of light. By controlling the level of direct sunlight, the thermal mass of brickwork can be heated or cooled accordingly.

All the rooms of the house open onto this sky-lit space, which in turn opens onto a verandah facing the garden. The adjustable roof and folding doors on all sides of the solarium allow the occupants to adapt this room to varying degrees of openness and different uses.

The square form of the courtyard can be expanded on two, three or four sides, so that the exhibition Clay House is only one of many versions that could be built.

Historical or theoretical precedents

There is a long history of brick construction as the most secure form of home, dating back to Roman times.

Two notable designs in modern history include Mies van der Rohe’s scheme for a brick country house in 1924 that emphasised the planar nature of the construction with walls extending into the landscape. This emphasised the relationship of indoors and outdoors and the way brick can be used for both.

Joern Utzon, the architect for the Sydney Opera House, designed a number of housing schemes in Denmark in the 1950s, which were based around a private courtyard that faced out to the sun and light and opened onto public space.

Environa Studio has taken these two ideas of the solid wall that links indoor and outdoor, and the use of the well protected courtyard for private living, in the development of this House of the Future.

Why choose clay bricks?

Clay bricks and tiles offer four advantages that make them ideal. Firstly, bricks and tiles are solid and long-lasting. Secondly, they provide an ideal walling material for a courtyard house as they offer great security at the perimeter and excellent sound insulation. Thirdly, on the interior they provide thermal mass which means they can store the warmth of the winter sun. And finally, in summer when the house is opened up at night, this massing is cooled by breezes : the bricks can store coolth (a real word!) to offset the heat of the day.

A conventional cavity brick wall will perform better thermally than most other forms of construction, and the Clay House, with its insulated cavity and tile external skin, will outperform even traditional cavity brick.

How it all goes together:

The design will be preassembled in six individual modules. Each of these modules will be constructed using prefabricated brick panels. The panels will be joined together to form the external cavity walls and the internal walls. The pre-assembled modules have been designed for easy transportation and craning onto site.

What makes this house special?

The Clay House of the Future does not look like a typical brick house. The courtyard design provides a cross-ventilating, light-infused house with privacy and acoustic insulation from neighbouring houses.

The structure of the Clay House is a series of modular panels, 1200 wide, that bolt together to make the internal walls. This holds up the roof structure, which is insulated and can be landscaped.

The external face of the brick walls are insulated and then clad with a ventilated terracotta tile that is waterproof, can “breathe”, and offers security and thermal protection to the interior. This is often called “reverse brick veneer” since the bricks are on the inside, and the outside is an insulated veneer of clay tiles.

Internally, there is a wide choice of tiles including a full colour range, white, greys and black. One wall shows a double size brick module made from 300×300 bricks which have been diamond ground for accuracy and laid in a stack bond pattern.

The roof over the living area is constructed of two layers of glass with operable louvres sandwiched in between. The louvres can be adjusted to control light and shade to the courtyard living space. The external layer of glass has photo- voltaic cells embedded into it to generate renewable electricity that can be fed back into the power grid.

Could you buy one of these now?

The Clay House is a prefabricated module and although no prefabricated brick houses are presently available, this house and the solarium can be customised to suit any block and constructed in the traditional way. But who knows what will be possible in the future?

One of the design features that the architects believe will become increasingly popular is adaptable mobile furniture. As houses become smaller in area (to compensate for smaller sites, environmental concerns and increasing costs), flexibly designed furniture allows rooms to be used for different purposes throughout the day and in varying seasons. In the Clay House, a mobile kitchen can be wheeled into the solarium or verandah to become a BBQ, a table becomes a workbench or even a bed, and a bed can be used as a couch or day bed.

What are the implications for the future of housing?

Australians love their suburban housing, but the recent past reveals some problem, referred to as the 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 phenomenon. The average block is half the size of 50 years ago, but houses are twice as big. As a result, many new houses are two storey, with associated overshadowing and privacy problems, but have less occupants than before, down to an average of two in the cities. This is unsustainable.

Versatility in the Clay House plan allows a smaller area for a 3-bedroom house that can fit on a site less than 300 sq metres, whilst still offering car parking and a garden of at least 100 sq metres. This means we can fit 3 houses, all with privacy and outdoor areas, in an area where 50 years ago we had just one. In addition, it will have much greater thermal comfort without artificial heating and cooling.

Environmental features

  • Clay bricks provide thermal mass which saves heating and cooling costs. Thermal mass moderates the effects of “diurnal range” or daily changes in temperature, so the house retains heat in winter and is shielded against summer heat by “coolth”;
  • Bricks and terracotta tiles can be recycled, and manufactured in part from recycled waste;
  • Clay bricks and terracotta tiles are robust and extremely durable as demonstrated by their long service life in many traditional buildings. This means there is less waste as materials and finishes don’t need to be replaced;
  • Natural cross-ventilation breezes and sunlight are maximised by designing the house around a central “solarium” courtyard;
  • Operable louvres in the roof over the solarium can be opened to heat the thermal mass of the house in winter, completely closed to keep out the harsh summer sun or partly opened to allow light, but not sun, to enter;
  • Photovoltaic cells on the external roof harness solar energy which is used to provide renewable electricity to the house;
  • Rainwater is collected in vertical holding tanks between the internal walls, or in horizontal tanks under the house. Stored water can be cleaned and used as fresh water, and provides a large “thermal well” for hydronic heating and cooling panels to provide additional heating and cooling;
  • The house can be completely unbolted and moved to another site for reuse, or separated and recycled

About the Architects – Environa Studio

Environa Studio specialises in environmental architecture and has designed individual and multiple housing projects, commercial buildings and urban design schemes, all with a strong emphasis on sustainability and energy issues.

Headed by Tone Wheeler and Jan O’Connor the practice has won numerous awards and competitions. Award winning projects include a completely self-sufficient house for Edward de Bono on an island in the Whitsundays, and houses and studios for noted artist Marr Grounds on the south coast of NSW. Tone is a member of the RAIA National Environment Committee, and has been on faculty of 3 universities.