Sustainable Building Design

Prefab – The sustainable building solution

I’ve divided the information here into two main areas: the prefab construction and all that entails (materials, costs, the environment, recycling existing materials); and the solar passive principles that are guiding us in terms of orientation, heating, cooling and thermal mass. Enjoy!

Paul Adams from Fairweather Homes is my extremely talented (and patient!!) architect. Paul is also an expert in prefab. This means that my house will be built off-site. In some circles, prefab has a reputation for being lower quality and not as aesthetically pleasing but I’m hoping my build will help combat that perception. I’ve included some images of Paul’s projects which I think are beautiful and I’m going to do my best to explain why the quality is actually better with prefab for a sustainable, completely off-grid house.

Prefab assembly
Prefab house exterior
Prefab house bathroom
Prefab house exterior

Prefab Assembly Process

These are the 3D images Paul has prepared to show what my eco friendly house will look like.

So why use prefab for your sustainable house?

There are many reasons! In the McGraw-Hill Construction SmartMarket Report of US firms who use prefab for sustainable houses and building design, they found that the build time decreased for the majority of participants surveyed, with the majority seeing a decrease of 4 weeks or more.

Time is money for your sustainable, off-grid house! If you have to move out and pay rent, or you have to pay a builder to be onsite for an extra month, that’s a lot of extra money down the drain. In fact, 42% of survey respondents saw a reduction in the budget of 6% or more.

These cost reductions are mostly due to the reduction of builders’ time on site. If you live in a high-density area like me, with very restricted access for builders pushing up time spent, that can really add up.

The other point to make is that the costs are fixed. If I were to do a “normal” build, there’s no guarantee that the quote would match the price that I end up paying given the frequency with which costs blow out during the construction process. There’s also the quality of the build. With prefab, things fit together properly because they’re constructed in a factory ready for assembly on site.

When it comes to waste, prefab is definitely a winner compared to traditional methods. 76% of the firms surveyed in the McGraw-Hill report said that prefab decreases the amount of their construction site waste, with 41% reporting decreases of 5% or more.

Prefab also allows for a more meticulous selection of sustainable building materials.

I have specified that I want the build to be primarily wood and to have no concrete. My selection criteria for build materials are based on a hierarchy that includes:

  • recycled/reclaimed/up-cycled materials
  • low carbon/low embodied energy materials
  • materials from a renewable resource
  • materials that are recyclable
  • materials that sequester carbon
  • materials that provide good thermal performance
  • materials that are durable/resilient; and
  • materials that are aesthetically pleasing

Paul’s prefabricated building elements are constructed using lightweight timber-framed floors, walls and roof which is pre-clad, insulated and pre-lined where possible. These are conventional construction materials pre-assembled in a factory to achieve efficient construction time on site.The structural timbers – natural solid framing timbers, LVL-engineered timbers and plywood bracing materials – are sourced from Australian and New Zealand plantation timbers. With this supply chain, they are able to seek chain of custody verification of the source of these timbers through the Forest Stewardship Council or other certification systems. While these materials would all be considered new, they are from a sustainably managed renewable resource that also sequesters carbon into the building fabric.

Prefabricated construction materials we will be using to build my sustainable, off-grid urban house

External cladding

For external cladding, the preference is for timber-based products and I will use Shadowclad or Weathertex products for the same reason as above, i.e. it’s a locally produced timber product with durability characteristics. These products can also be painted to suit style and colour scheme.

We would also look at recycled/reclaimed timbers for feature timber cladding elements. On boundary walls, we’ll need to look at a product that is compliant with fire-rated walls. There are a number of possibilities but they generally tend to be cement-based. The preference would be to utilise a Magnesium Oxide board (MgO)o rHebel panel.


Windows can be from a variety of sources. Paul encourages double-glazed, timber-framed windows due to their inherent thermal performance and ability to build from a renewable resource. Other approaches may be to rescue new windows from factories that are surplus stock, built in error, returned etc. Bespoke timber windows can also be sourced using reclaimed and recycled timber.


For internal wall and ceiling linings plasterboard is to be reduced or excluded from the build. This gives the opportunity to look at lining with other products that are either reclaimed or timber based such as limed plywood, reclaimed timber lining boards etc.


Due to the site conditions and requirement to have a suspended floor for sub-floor water storage and management, Paul will be supplying a long-span timber subfloor with a plywood lining. This will be a suitable substrate for natural/recycled timber or other floor linings.


  1. Wall: rendered masonry – retained and painted
  2. Roof/gutter/flashings: new metal – colour to satisfy heritage controls as well as integrating with solar panels
  3. Doors & windows: existing timber retained and painted

Cladding ideas (dark lining)

  1. Abodo
  2. Weathertex
  3. Chhply


  1. Stramit


  1. Wall: vertical groove cladding painted dark/charcoal colour or charred timber look
  2. Wall: feature timber cladding: natural timber vertical board and batten
  3. Roof: Contemporary long span profile Colorbond dark charcoal colour
  4. Doors & windows: Timber framed and either natural finish, oiled or painted exterior
  5. Vertical garden: steel mesh (recycled?) oxidised colour with dark colour back lining
  6. Decking: natural timber

Water Engineer Needed

We are calling for EOI to design a residential water recycling system.

Solar Passive Principles

The house won’t have any heating or cooling installed, so our clever, sustainable building design needs to use the sun to heat the house up in winter and keep the sun out during summer. I’ll be adding more information once I get the thermal dynamics report back from the thermal assessors. These are our plans so far:



The right orientation depends on the climate you live in. For climates that require heating in winter, it’s best to have your living areas facing north. I’ll only be discussing my solution and the climate I live in at the moment, but if you’d like to learn about optimal orientation in other climates, this government site is really useful, especially the diagram on the right. I’ve circled the orientation that is most like my house. Unfortunately the layout of my property is such that the first half of the house is comprised of bedrooms and the living areas face southwest.

We are keeping the bedrooms where they are so I can’t do much about that. But Paul has changed the design of the back end of the house so that the living areas are separated from the bedrooms by a courtyard. He has also raised the ceiling on the living area and included a north-facing window. You can see in Paul’s first drawing below that the living areas will be protected from the sun during summer by eaves which cover the windows.

Passive Solar Heating

This involves keeping the summer sun out and winter sun in. We are achieving that through building design, placement of windows and eves, and thermal mass.

Thermal mass

Coming soon!

Passive Solar Cooling

Coming soon!