Grand Designs Australia: Big little build


A small but mighty home pushes the limits of engineering

House: East Melbourne Mini Skyscraper
Location: East Melbourne, Victoria
Date commenced: July 2014
Date completed: June 2015
Cost: $410,000

Colour Palette: Nordic describes this palette perfectly. Blonde timber with neutral black and white accents exude simplicity. The single colour accent of turquoise keeps it contemporary

Land is like an ice-cream sundae — the bigger, the better. But this simply isn’t a shared mindset for eco warrior Ralph Alphonso, who took the limitations of space to the extreme when he decided to build a four-storey home on just two car spaces. As a globe-trotting photographer, Ralph is a man who understands the fragility of nature, harnessing his knowledge to push sustainability boundaries and build the greenest house in Australia, and perhaps even in the world.

Occupying a three-bedroom house in East Melbourne, Ralph is a man who is never at home. Fixated on the idea

Ralph truly unlocked the potential of the site by going so high
of “working out exactly what you need and not using more than what’s required” is the premise behind the creation of this mini skyscraper that boasts a tiny 5m x 4m footprint. With sustainability serving as the beating heart of this operation, Ralph couldn’t find any case studies of eco homes that provided a complete picture when it came to materials, occupancy and recycling contents — so he decided to make his own. Spanning four levels, each floor is, of course, multipurpose. The first is a garage/shower/hybrid office, the second houses the kitchen/living/dining space, the third is the bedroom suite and the fourth, an open outdoor space with a hot tub.

Beginning the build in July 2014, the first — and one of the most expensive forays ($30,000) — was tapping into geothermal energy by drilling 65 metres into the ground. The concept of geothermal energy works by pumping the year-round temperature of the ground around the house, ensuring a pleasant temperature without the need for heaters or air-conditioning. By September, a tiny slab was laid, packed full of steel, pipes and geothermal equipment, serving as the anchor for the prefabricated timber and glass sheets that were all manufactured off-site.

In an effort to boost productivity, all the walls and floors were manufactured by machine, with Ralph predicting the cassettes from the timber factory would take just a day and a half to assemble in full height. With disaster striking on cue — proving partial failure is part of innovation — the holes in the cassettes were too small for the anchors and had to be made bigger by hand to move past this “massive nightmare”, according to builder Daniel.

But the decision to use prefab components soon paid off when three levels were constructed in a speedy two days. Once the cassettes were completed, installing state-of-the-art windows and cladding the exterior was next on the agenda, with a whole house essentially built in just six months. In January 2015, the cubbyhouse status of the build was lost thanks to the installation of the front glass façade, running the full front of the building. Ralph truly “unlocked the potential of the site by going so high”, observes Peter Maddison.

Inside, sustainable timber very much reigns supreme, with a prominent staircase
doubling as a structural and design feature. Custom building many of the furnishings, minimalism is key here, with only the bare necessities present. A sofa flips over to reveal a dining table, foot stools turn into dining chairs and herb gardens are right outside the window. Everything has been thought
of with painstaking consideration to the environment.

If there’s one word for this eco creation, it’s ‘custom’. With Ralph dubbed the “quiet overachiever” by Peter, this home is “grand, albeit miniature”, defying the odds to successfully challenge the status quo, proving you can build a house that takes from the planet, but gives even more back to it.


Written by Annabelle Cloros
Photography by Rhiannon Slatter

Originally from Grand Designs Australia magazine, Volume 5 Issue 1