By Joanna Tovia
In a radical departure from the baking-hot, tin-roofed living quarters endured by ranch hands and shearers on cattle and sheep ranches since European settlement, Luigi Rosselli Architects took a novel, eco-friendly approach with this project: They designed 12 rammed-earth apartments and dug them into a sand hill. With walls made out of soil and gravel from the excavated hillside and nearby river, the smart accommodation offers ranch workers a naturally cool escape from the extreme temperatures and harsh climate in the northern part of Western Australia.

Houzz at a Glance

  • Who lives here: Workers stay here for several months during cattle-roundup season.
  • Location: The Pilbara, Western Australia
  • Size: 12 earth-covered apartments adjoining a rammed-earth wall
  • Designer: Luigi Rosselli Architects

The 755-foot-long rammed-earth wall (the longest in Australia) meanders along the edge of a sand dune and abuts 12 earth-covered residences. Iron-rich, sandy soil was extracted locally to make the apartment walls, along with pebbles and gravel quarried from the riverbed. The result is a color palette that blends seamlessly into the landscape. The pavilion at the top serves as a meeting room and chapel.

Construction is often difficult in remote regions — transporting building materials and getting contractors to relocate for the duration of the project take some doing. Using what's already there is a smart move. "The use of earth from the site for walls greatly reduces the time and embodied energy of the project," architect Luigi Rosselli says.

The rear walls of the residences are buried under the sand dune. "The low embodied energy of the earth walls and the lack of need for air conditioning in the hot climate of the [ranch] are wonderful outcomes," Rosselli says.

The below-ground apartments are hidden from the other residences behind.

As the trees and other vegetation mature, the apartments will further blend into the landscape. Tim Davies Landscaping designed the gardens fronting each apartment and those on the rooftops.

The oval chapel overlooks a family cemetery and the ghost and river gum trees that line the riverbank beyond.

The project has received a Terra Award, a Unesco-supported prize that recognizes global excellence in contemporary earthen architecture design and construction. The Terra Award is the latest of three international awards for the project; ArchDaily also named it Building of the Year, and it won an Architizer A+Award.

The residences are stepped to provide a measure of privacy on each covered veranda. There are no internal doors linking the apartments.

The awnings are designed to keep the sun out during the hottest part of the day, but to invite the workers outside to enjoy the cool evening breeze … and possibly a beverage or two after work.

The awning roof is a Cor-Ten steel cyclonic shade frame, mirrored by a concrete slab on the ground. The concrete slab contains gravel and aggregates from the local river, which give its polished surface a reddish color.

The northern end of the rammed-earth wall tapers down to an older building used as a communal meeting and sitting area. A pergola made out of old drilling pipes provides a checkerboard of dappled light.

Inside, it's cool and comfortable thanks to the 18-inch-thick rammed-earth walls and the 3-foot-deep sand hill above. A restrained, natural and robust selection of materials and furniture is featured throughout.

Needless to say, any workers staying here love it and don't want to leave — the accommodation is a big cut above the rudimentary workers' digs that are standard on rural properties across Australia.

The chapel forms the apex of the sand hill. The architects originally envisaged the chapel as an open structure, but later added sliding curved glass windows to the design to provide protection from dust storms. The windows are strong enough to endure cyclonic winds unscathed. The hundred-year-old family cemetery lies below the chapel; the fence keeps the local fauna out.

Gold-anodized aluminum sheets line the ceiling of the chapel.

The roof is made of Cor-Ten steel sheets, forming an oblique cone and culminating with a skylight in the apex. The roof was fabricated off-site and transported in two halves. The glass-covered oculus, oriented to the east, was inspired by the Roman Pantheon.

A site plan shows the project and surrounding landscape.

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