This house in the desert keeps itself cool and generates its own power


July 9, 2014

Dunn and Hillam architects has won been honored by the AIA for its Desert House project

Dunn and Hillam architects has won been honored by the AIA for its Desert House project

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A house built in the demanding environment of Alice Springs, Australia, has been honored by the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA). Dunn and Hillam's Desert House was designed to withstand the extreme desert conditions while remaining energy efficient. The AIA cited the project's "genuine sensibility to environmental management in this specific climate."

Dunn and Hillam was asked by its clients to design a house that would allow them to make the most of living in Alice Springs, taking into account its climate and spectacular scenery. The clients requested that the house engage with the surrounding landscape, that it provide multiple places to be use depending on the time of day and weather, and that it minimize energy usage.

In tackling the brief, Dunn and Hillam said it took an approach of "hardcore pragmatism and innovation, respect for the landscape and context and a belief in doing things better for the future." The house is cut into the rock and uses the thermal mass of the rock to regulate its internal temperature.

A fly-roof is employed to help reduce the internal temperature of the building. The fly-roof sits 600 mm (24 in) above the insulated roof, creating a pocket of warm air during the day. This creates a "thermal draw," helping to pull cool air up from the rock below into the enclosed central courtyard and creating the house's own micro-climate. The cool air can then be drawn into the building through low windows around the courtyard.

A hydronics system is also used as means of helping to regulate temperature. Slabs of flooring concrete are cooled using water that is pumped through them. During the winter, solar-heated water can be added into the system to warm the house if need be.

Dunn and Hillam explains that, as well as being heavily insulated, the Desert House has no thermal bridging. This means that the chance of cool air leaking out of the house (or warm leaking in) is minimized. Similarly, temperature in different sections of the house can be managed independently.

In addition to managing its temperature using low energy thermal processes, the house also generates its own electricity using a 5KW photovoltaic array. Rainwater tanks, meanwhile, are used to collect water for use in the hydronics system.

The Desert House has an area of 260 sq m (2,799 sq ft). Its temperature is regulated at 18-20ºC (64-68ºF).

Source: Dunn and Hillam

About the Author
Stu Robarts Stu is a tech writer based in Liverpool, UK. He has previously worked on global digital estate management at Amaze and headed up digital strategy for FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology). He likes cups of tea, bacon sandwiches and RSS feeds. All articles by Stu Robarts

As with all these articles about houses there are a lot of nice pictures but a complete lack of detail.

For example, it says it generates its own electricity. OK, how much, how do they store it for use at night, how many days autonomy does the storage give and so on.

With so much glass are the windows double or triple glazed and has the glass been treated to cut down heat ingress?

How is the temperature regulated to within 2ºC - a passive system will not give that close a regulation especially if people open doors and/or move around inside.

It would appear that the house uses a lot more electricity than can be supplied by the few solar panels on the roof, therefore I think we can assume there is a lot that we are not being told.


also, "Desert House" looks like it cost about "Three Million Dollars".

So it does not have much application to normal people.

Who can build houses into rock, underground, and put $50,000 on the roof in PV cells?

Is this thing off the grid, or does it use more than it produces?



the Desert House has no thermal bridging. ==what does that mean? it has air locks? the doors don;t open? what?

they already said it was ''heavily insulated'' so what does ''no thermal bridging'' add to the mix?

how much does 5kw solar cost? is there a storage system?

how much does that 2nd roof cost? what about wind? that thing looks like a huge sail ready to fly off



@ivan4 it says it generates its own electricity. OK, how much..= enough to run a small BW tv

Jay Finke

All the above plus pricetag? How much does it cost to accomplish all this?


and who could take an EXISTING house, and do ANY of this?

just like in the world of the future, we will all have jet packs.

monorails and moving sidewalks in the sky will go everywhere.

the world of 1970.




all this proves is that if you a ton of money, you can add some energy features

is this news?



Some medium windows have shutters, other very large ones, not. Are they IR filters?

I would like to know the price/sq.' and energy usage, e.g., is it necessary to use electricity to heat or cool? If so, how much, what %? Passive solar like this should use no energy.

I have not seen so much energy saving technology in one house, e.g., 1. Photovoltaic. 2. Thermal sink (mass) 3. Radiant heating/cooling. 4. Thermal draw. 5. Super insulation. 6. Air tight. 7. Rainwater collection 8. Central courtyard. 9. Compartmentalized temp control.

Don Duncan
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