The Aim
Our Home
Design Criteria
The Retrofit Design
Environmentally Conscious Features
Environmentally Friendly Materials
Landscape and Water
The Construction
Interior Design

The Aim

Team UOW Australia took up the challenge of choosing to demonstrate how to retrofit a 'fibro' home, to transform it into a sustainable 21st century net-zero energy home. The aim was to upgrade an existing building to inspire Australian homeowners and the local and national building industry, and to accelerate the development and adoption of advanced building energy technology in new and existing homes.

Through the application of innovative technology and clever design, the Illawarra Flame showcases a radical, yet affordable and achievable blueprint – a benchmark for retrofitting a typical Australian ‘fibro’ house. Our philosophy was to transform existing houses into stylish, affordable and sustainable homes for the future.

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More videos including Chinese and English subtitled versions of this video on our Videos page.


The fibro home is a distinctive expression of Australian domestic architecture. These houses were built in great numbers during the post-war period to a standard design, using a minimum of materials. They are ubiquitous to the suburban streets of Australia's capitals and regional centres.

We believe that this retrofitting approach has the greatest practical potential to achieve significant economic and environmental gains across the Australian domestic built environment. When compared to a new-build project, the Illawarra Flame presents a challenge that is intensified by the physical form of the existing building and by the social and cultural values, and expectations, that come with the history and context of the existing building.


Our Home

The Illawarra Flame project name was inspired by the Illawarra Flame Tree, which is a species native to the eastern seaboard of Australia. This tree is not only a natural icon of our region, but it also resonates with our project in many other ways, including its spectacular transformation, to a profusion of red blossom when flowering in spring, mirroring the transformation of our retrofitted house.

Team UOW Australia chose to design the retrofitted house to appeal to older clients nearing retirement. Many of these people are "empty nesters" - parents whose children have moved on, and who no longer require the floor space of a large family home. The Illawarra Flame house is perfect for these clients looking to downsize while ensuring a clean energy future for their grandchildren. Design decisions were made according to the principle of aging-in-place, to ensure that the house can be enjoyed by the client for as long as possible.

Team UOW’s Illawarra Flame was the first home in any Solar Decathlon competition to address the issue of upgrading existing building stock, an essential task for a sustainable future. The Illawarra Flame demonstrates how a ‘fibro’ house, a common and extremely energy-inefficient Australian icon, can be modified and retrofitted to be an ultra-sustainable home for the future. 

Team UOW retained the essential architecture of the dwelling to ensure the retrofitted building will sit comfortably in the suburban environment and be socially accessible to the market. The basic building form and architectural features were determined by the existing building, and have been retained where possible to provide an affordable and practical solution to preserving existing housing stock, while reducing the waste associated with demolition. Certain features of the house were modified to enhance the functionality of the layout, and to increase natural lighting, solar access and cross flow ventilation, to greatly improve the liveability of the home.


Design Criteria

The house made its way to China in shipping containers where it was then constructed during the designated 15-day period before being judged in 10 different contests over the course of the Decathlon. Team UOW had to adhere to both the Solar Decathlon China Building Code and the Solar Decathlon rules. Throughout the entire process, our house underwent three re-builds - once at the UOW Innovation Campus, once at the Solar Decathlon China and again at the Innovation Campus where it will remain as a living laboratory. 

Team UOW used the Living Building Challenge as a guide for material selection. Each component or material was selected for low embodied energy, high recycled content, minimal impact on air and water quality, non-hazardous formulation (avoiding constituents such as formaldehyde, PVC, lead and mercury), local production and 3rd party accreditation, wherever possible.

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Video: The Illawarra Flame House - Engineering and Solar Application. See more videos on our Videos page.


The Retrofit Design

The paramount concern of the design and construction of our house was obviously protecting and preserving the environment through measures such as decreased energy and water consumption. At the same time, we wanted to create an architecturally beautiful house that embodies the history and location of the infamous ‘Aussie fibro’ house and is affordable and accessible to Australians at large. Additionally, we were concerned with the liveability of the house and so have focussed on improving its thermal and acoustic comfort, its functionality, and in turn, occupant wellbeing.

  • The third bedroom of the original home has been removed and converted into an open plan living and dining area.
  • The roof structure over the living area has been modified to incorporate clerestory windows, providing increased lighting and natural ventilation to the living areas.

  • The open plan living area enhances the connection between the interior and exterior environments, providing a link between the occupants and the natural surroundings.
  • Spacious decking on the north and south sides of the house provides opportunities to embrace the changing climate throughout the day and the seasons. Shading structures above the decks provide shelter from the elements and encourage outdoor living.
  • The original bathroom and laundry have been replaced by two pre-fabricated PODS, after removing the existing walls. Clip-on pods to both bedrooms provide wardrobe space for the main bedroom and a foldout daybed and reading space for the spare room.
  • To allow for transport, rapid re-construction, and compliance with competition building codes, the foundations were completely redesigned and a steel frame was used in conjunction with the timber found in typical ‘fibro’ homes.


Environmentally Conscious Features

The house exhibits an abundance of environmentally friendly features. It is solar-powered, naturally ventilated and well insulated due to the use of materials such as DOW Thermax and Knauff EarthWool. The house boasts impressive controls such as the monitoring of energy consumption and the HVAC (air conditioning) system. A grey water treatment system, slow sand filter and rain water capture system ensure water is conserved and reused in the home. The landscape of the house provides composting facilities, a reed bed, vertical green walls to promote food production. The house also exhibits various innovative techniques such as state of the art photovoltaics and a photovoltaic-thermal solar system.

  • Team UOW has significantly improved the insulation of the Illawarra Flame to R5.0 in all areas and increased the air tightness of the building to improve the energy efficiency of the home.
  • Windows have been upgraded to high performance double-glazing with innovative ACCOYA timber window frames and are sized for optimal natural lighting, natural ventilation and reduced energy consumption.

  • The air conditioning system is a unique combination of a photovoltaic thermal (PVT) air system coupled with a Phase Change Material (PCM) thermal store, which provides heating and cooling to the home, and balances thermal loads between day and night and ensure a high standard of indoor air quality when conditions do not permit effective natural ventilation.
  • The Illawarra Flame boasts a 9.4KW Photovoltaic (PV) system comprising two types of PV cells. A thin-film CIGS array operates on both the north and south sides of the roof and works well in low and diffuse light. A poly-crystalline PV array, over a substantial section of the roof, generates power at high electrical efficiency.
  • The PVT system removes hot air from underneath the CIGS solar panels, increasing the electrical efficiency of the panels and providing space heating in winter and night-sky radiant cooling in summer.
  • A thermal mass wall constructed from 90% recycled content, including crushed terracotta roof tiles from the ‘original’ house, recycled glass and a low-carbon cement mixture, aids temperature regulation in the home.

  • Two pre-fabricated PODS, containing many of the technological improvements required for a net-zero energy home, have been designed to complement the original building, and to be cheaply and efficiently manufactured off-site.
  • Original timber wall frames have been reused in the decking and shading structures. The original roof tiles have been crushed and reused in landscaping, and as thermal mass in walls. The interior incorporates up-cycled furniture and recycled materials.
  • The Building Management System (BMS) integrates the PVT, PCM and weather station modules into a functional HVAC system. The system also monitors energy production and consumption and incorporates a building control feedback display to provide real time feedback to occupants, allowing them to modify their behaviour and save energy.
  • To reduce the electrical demand of the Illawarra Flame, the original incandescent light bulbs have been replaced with highly efficient LED lights.
  • During the rewire of the home  non-priority line has also been added allowing all standby items to be switched off at one point when the occupant is not home, or when they are not required.


Environmentally Friendly Materials

  • Earthwool with 80% recycled content
  • Recycled Australian Hardwoods removed from demolished houses locally
  • E-Zero board for joinery items
  • Reconstituted recycled timber wall linings
  • Low embodied energy steel coatings
  • FSC certified Timber
  • Low VOC Paints
  • HDPE Pipe as a replacement for PVC 


Landscape and Water

Inspired by four fundamental natural elements – Sun, Water, Wind and Earth – the landscape design creates outdoor ‘rooms’, each focussed on different uses and purposes. The SOLAR LOUNGE includes seating opportunities with a sheltered southerly aspect to enjoy the Chinese sun. The WATER LOUNGE is bordered by a rainwater harvesting system, which offers an aesthetic and practical display of water and its uses. The WIND ROOM uses plantings to accentuate the movement of wind in the landscape. The EARTH ROOM includes circulation space through mounded ground profiles and large rocks displaying strength, stability and form.

Materials in the landscape are reclaimed or recycled including hardwood and crushed terracotta roof tiles from the original fibro house. The planting species were chosen because they are local to the Illawarra and therefore enhance local habitat while having extremely low water and maintenance requirements. Strategically placed planting provides passive shading, improves air quality and increases privacy.

  • Passive shading systems are fixed over western windows to minimize radiant heat gain during summer, while allowing solar radiation to enter during winter.
  • Appropriately placed shade plantings reduce home energy consumption and improve air quality.
  • A vertical garden on the front deck provides a low-maintenance vegetable garden and improved local air quality and aesthetics.
  • Aquaponics and composting significantly reduce household waste, provide fertility to the landscape and grow a variety of vegetable species and edible fish with minimal input or maintenance.
  • A specially constructed reed bed and slow sand filter treats the home’s greywater. This water can be reused for irrigation and for use in clothes washing.
  • Rainwater is harvested from the roof and directed to a 2.4m3 rainwater tank.

In order to reduce the overall water consumption of the Illawarra Flame, a specially constructed reed bed and slow sand filter treats greywater from the home. This, along with rainwater collected from the roof, can be used for irrigation and clothes washing.

Team UOW’s aquaponics system grows a variety of vegetables and edible fish species with minimal input. The fish in the tank produce nitrogenous waste, which is periodically pumped into the crushed terracotta garden bed. The plants in the bed remove the nutrients, leaving high quality water which returns to the fish tank. This produces a large quantity of food relative to the system footprint, while using far less water than traditional garden beds.


The Construction

It took over a year of planning and three months of construction (and deconstruction) for the team to complete the initial build of the Illawarra Flame house. 

Our time lapses use multiple cameras so you can see first hand all the hard work and precision that went into the Team UOW Illawarra Flame House!

Check out the original construction and rebuild of the Illawarra Flame House below.


The Original Build - TAFE Illawarra Institute

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The Rebuild - UOW Innovation Campus

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See more videos on our Videos page.

Interior Design Concept

“The aim of the interior design for the house was to reflect Australia’s unique lifestyle and aesthetic: relaxed, chilled-out and comfortable. Incorporating elements of ‘making do’, the use of found materials, and salvaged items which is part of our history, and providing innovative storage to make the best use of the small space. The interiors reflect Australian landscapes such as the outback, coast and bush through colour palette, material use, texture and references to aboriginal design.” – Alexandra McPaul, Interior Designer

The built finishes were kept neutral so that they are less likely to date. Colour was introduced in soft furnishings and artwork, allowing the feel of the interior to be changed when required. With the target market in mind, consideration was given to providing spaces and accessibility. Vertilux pleated blinds were specifically chosen for their insulating properties.

When selecting items for the interior, supporting Australian designers, manufacturers and using natural materials, was our priority. Several key local designers/products are featured including:

  • Cloth Fabric by Julie Paterson (printed hemp textiles)
  • INSTYLE textiles (all LIFE textiles, EthEco wool products)
  • Trent Jansen (recycled sign stool) and
  • Ross Gardam (FSC timber lighting)
  • Florence Broadhurst prints

Much of the furniture in the living spaces has been ‘upcycled’, bought in used condition, sanded back and oiled; and then reupholstered to look new again. Consequently, the choice of upholstery fabrics was vital in giving these old items a contemporary edge. When choosing the soft furnishings, it was essential to find high quality materials which were locally manufactured, had minimal impact on the environment  and were attractive.

For the Illawarra Flame house, we specifically used products from the LIFE textiles range by INSTYLE, an Australian owned company.

Julie Paterson from Cloth Fabric designed a number of the prints used in the house that mirror features of Australia. ‘Two Up’ and ‘Stoney’ reference the rounded organic shapes reflective of waterholes and dams throughout Australia. Australian botany features in several of Julie’s designs including ‘Banksia’ - amazingly resilient plants that can endure extreme heat and drought. The ‘Boardwalk’ design featured on some of the dining chairs and the bed linen, encapsulates the boardwalks commonly found along Australian beaches. ‘Looking for water’ is a design that speaks of drought. These references to the Australian landscape, among others, were essential to creating an interior design which reflects our country.

UOW Art Curator, Phillippa Webb worked with Alexandra McPaul to select artworks which make the interior design sing and reflect the region, the landscape and indigenous Australia’s beautiful aesthetic.

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