Australian sustainable design: The challenges, what we’re getting right, and where to from here

This article originally appeared in Domain:


The drive behind building more environmentally friendly residential homes is coming from individuals, not government bodies, and cookie-cutter developments are holding us back, according to a think tank assembled to address the issue of implementing sustainable design.

The chair of the discussion, organised by LG Electronics, was architect and TV host Peter Maddison, who argued that changing our behaviour was key to these kinds of properties having their maximum benefit.

“In my view, sustainability is a lot bigger than just green stuff,” Maddison said.

“We can put the best solar panels in the world in our house, and that’s a terrific contribution,” he said. “But, if we leave the lights on all night, what’s that mean?”

He said that having travelled around Australia to document cutting-edge buildings, he’d seen individuals embracing sustainability as leading the way.

Architect and Grand Designs Australia host, Peter Maddison, speaking at the event.

Edge Environment chief executive Jonas Bengtsson said much emphasis was put on improving operational efficiency and thermal performance, but building materials were a big blind spot.

“There is no regulation around materials,” he said. “Maybe 50 per cent of the energy is actually in the stuff that goes in, and we’re not even looking at that from a regulation perspective.”

Difficulties dealing with local councils and a lack of awareness around how people can partially embrace a more sustainable lifestyle, or take a standard-build and adapt it to its building location were raised also as impediments.

For many people, being sustainable was building a “big square house” and then putting solar panels on the roof rather than incorporating it into the design holistically.

Maddison said sustainable buildings needed to be tailored to their environment.

“The way we go about making shelter, making buildings, should be quite different, if you’re in Queensland or in Tasmania,” he said.

The LG NeON R solar panel.

“We haven’t got a national style that we could say is Australian particularly and so it should be, because we have this incredible climatic difference that we’re dealing with.”

Maddison identified the Queenslander as a localised style of housing that was adapted to the climate, but one that had largely been left behind in the “mad development” of our suburbs,

The sizes of our homes was also a factor, although affordability was driving younger generations to smaller homes.

“The average Australian home is the biggest in the world. Bigger than the UK, bigger than the USA,” Maddison said.

“Why don’t you, instead of getting a 40-square metre home, think about living in a 20-square metre home? You can get an architect, and you can get all the whiz-bang stuff you want, and still coming out on top.”

Differences in the building codes between states and the limitations of star ratings systems were also considered roadblocks.

“In Victoria, you do six stars, but you don’t have very strict water and energy control,” said Tracey Cools, head of a sustainable building consultant firm. “But, NSW has some energy control which I think is really important.

“We’ve had a huge lift in targets of thermal comfort last year, and that has been a really big learning curve for the industry to meet those targets,” she said.

Technology expert Charlie Brown raised the issue of cost, in terms of a standard build versus a more sustainable home. Build costs for an architecturally designed home are about 30 per cent more than an off-the-shelf design.

But while solar installation costs and savings could be easily predicted, the “elastic” costs associated with home building and renovation made it hard to determine how much a project could wind up costing.

“We talk about these kind of thing things, and you all want to do better with it,” he said. “But, you just don’t know the steps of how to do it.”

But as electricity prices go up, installing solar systems at home would remain appealing for residents looking to save money.

Sustainability manager at Frasers Property Australia Rory Martin said the key to getting big developers on board integrating solar panels was getting the payback period for installing solar down to less than seven years.

“That’s the average tenure for a house these days,” he said. “The benefit doesn’t go to a developer, it goes to the customer. You have to help the developer figure out how you’re going to sell it to someone.”

He said competition among developers meant the conversation had to shift from the cost of sustainable houses to the value they held for consumers.

Outside of the developer model, organisations such as Pingala were dedicated to making solar gardens more accessible, while hosts LG have plans to roll out a Home Energy Management System on the Australian market, to allow homes owners more control over their solar panels and potential energy savings.

Solar in particular has been welcomed by Australian home owners, with increasing numbers installing panel and battery systems.

The LG Sustainable Design Leaders Forum was held Sydney last  week.

‘A space is more than four walls’: Why it pays to hire an Architect

By Jenny Brown

If you’re up for a new house and want the cheapest, most expedient route to getting one, then stop reading here because numerous construction companies operating in nuovo suburbia will give you an off-the-peg, mass-produced product that one architect refers to as “the Kmart house type”.

If you want a more individual home that you’ll probably live in for a decade – at least; that will have spaces to subliminally enhance your sense of wellbeing; and vamped market appeal, then go to an architect or credentialled building designer.

Highly trained spatial experts, architects spend six years at university and more as interns, learning how to do all of the above and more. And if you haven’t worked with an architect before, fear not: it can be easier and less financially onerous than you think. Plus, it’s a move that has a multiplicity of other dividends.

As blue-chip realtor Sam Gamon, of Chisholm & Gamon, tells it, “the term ‘architect-designed’ is an affirmation that adds to the buyer pool because it gives confidence.”

Gamon says, “if buyers see something thoughtful and well designed with a good floor plan, they’ll definitely pay good money”.

If that well-designed property has a “name” architect attached it can carry weight because it’s part of the brand story, he says.

While that’s a boon for selling your property, most architects concentrate on making a shelter you’ll want to keep because, as Nick Russo of Branch Studio Architects explains, it looks, and perhaps more importantly, feels so right.

Architecture is experienced not only by the eyes but in a kinaesthetic way. The body has keen if subconscious proprioception of its near surrounds.

This is the sense of feeling comfortable and “at home”, or unsatisfied and unsettled. How is that so? Russo suspects it’s because “we are wired to enjoy the company of nice things”.

Russo implies that this includes a suite of elements including lovely materials, a marvellous quality of natural light, sustainable performance and all-round good proportions. “How do you put a price on the way a space makes you feel?” Russo asks. “A space is more than four walls. A good space can improve your mental health and wellbeing.

“When you’re in a house that’s not right; that has flabby spaces and is what we call ‘a fat house’ because the scaling is all wrong, it’s like being with someone who is singing out of key.” Architecture is not a short-term commodity, his practice partner Brad Wray, says.

“Its value and benefit is the total of the design process. Good architecture is all thought through and on every project since we started, we’ve both really enjoyed pushing the budget and working out how we can best tailor our best approach to the budget.”

An example Branch makes for the proposition that architects are often talented aesthetic value-add merchants is a rammed earth main bedroom pavilion extension to a Westernport home that looks like a million dollars but was costed at barely a third of that

“It’s got quality,” says Wray.

Actually one big space separated by cranked oak-veneer joinery as it moves through five different floor levels, Russo tells that the high-end impact derives from “the balance of the composition, the light and the [mainly cost-effective] materials working together”.

As Nick Russo says, “good architecture is about maximising the outcome”. Photo: Peter Clarke

He explains: “Everything relates to everything, materially and environmentally and it’s nicely detailed and beautifully made”.

That’s it folks: that, in essence, is the long-term value of wonderful, original, interesting architecture.

As Russo says, “good architecture is about maximising the outcome”.

Accessible architecture

Nine years ago, Melbourne architect Robert Harwood started My Architect, a company that offered a staged process of design services, from concept discussion and first draft drawings right through to planning permits, construction costing and supervision, to the lock-up realisation and then, even onto the landscaping.

It allowed people who had never connected with the profession an easy place of entree.

Demystifying what it is that architects actually do – “which is strategic thinking and keeping it all simple” – Harwood says, was the rationale of a company that now has “a boutique team of eight or nine selected architects” operating in Melbourne, Geelong, Sydney and Adelaide and that conducts at least 15 client meetings each month.

My Architect breaks down and prices projects in eight to 10 stages to a finished product.

Harwood says that the majority of opt-in, opt-out clients take the first-stage option of a $1550, two-hour concept meeting that discusses the client vision, and helps them put a frame and budget constraints around the idea.

“That’s a really low-cost but useful stage because it gets them going on the road,” he says.

About 25 per cent of starting clients build a bespoke home that chances are, Harwood says, they’ll live in for more than 10 years. “It is custom built and has considered every detail of their lifestyle,” he says.

This Article link below:

New Pop-up Cafe project

RNA Architects are excited to announce a new pop-up cafe concept for Cafe Veneziano. The cafe pod is design to be fully transportable and should appear in such locations as Melbourne Airport and Southern Cross Station. Watch this space...

What to consider before renovating

If property is one of the biggest financial commitments you'll make, then renovating and extending  – with costs ranging from $250,000 to well, the sky's the limit – is likely to be your second biggest lifetime outlay.

From a rosy distance it appears an exciting adventure in architecture. But having seen hundreds of refurbished houses and met similar numbers of designers and clients, I'm aware of the minefield of mistakes that too often catch out the uninformed.

The first and most critical is:

Get real
About the site, the budget, the scale of additions and that any relationship with an architect or designer is a little marriage. With snags in council planning, it could take years, so best if you get on well.

Choose carefully
Track down a designer whose work you have experienced in 3D and have genuinely felt comfortable in. Don't necessarily go for the trendy names you've seen in magazines because we inhabit rooms, not photographs.  

You can often visit a designer's own homes or their past projects to confirm, firsthand, that you really like their work.

Not all designers have taste
An aesthetic sensitivity is not inborn. I've been rendered speechless by a huge addition to a glorious Federation villa that was inspired by a sheep-shed. The interior fit-out gave a third personality to an irredeemably butchered house.

Keep an open mind
Yes, it's your money, but the worst outcomes result from clients engaging a professional and then either bullying them or overruling their educated suggestions. The best outcomes occur when both parties listen to each other, compromise and gently negotiate ideas. A collegiate relationship is more fun anyway.

Luigi Rosselli's lovely Balgowlah Balancing House resulted from a close dialogue with a client who wanted comfortable "rather than magazine sterile".  

Scaling down not up
The shakedown question after presenting your wish list is "do we really need all that space?" I've been in ridiculously overscaled houses with new rooms the owners don't have a use for.

Modern residential design is progressively contracting for sensible and sustainable reasons. Along with a new tribe of young architects who've got the message in university that big doesn't equate to liveable, Melissa Bright, of Make Architecture, has been leading the case for smaller, saner houses that have multi-functioning rooms.

She has often pushed back on a requested footprint to leave room for a backyard of usable size. Her award-winning Local House in St Kilda is a case in point.

Scale is, of course, subjective. How can you gauge your need for well-fitting personal space? Measure a room in which you do feel entirely comfortable. For amateurs it's an easier way to read space than on plan. And there are those kinaesthetically memorable rooms that feel just right. Take a tape and measure precisely why such a room works in terms of width, length and height.


How to master open-plan living

From Houzz Australia

People are increasingly keen on the lifestyle possibilities offered by open-plan living, but many are frightened off by the idea of rattling around in a big, soulless space. To avoid an open-plan space looking dull and ‘flat’, the best designs incorporate interior devices that define different zones – playing with the degree of separation between areas, changes in floor level, finish, islands, furniture groupings, slots of daylight and so on. These deliberate layers can scale-up the perception of space as well as creating a more interesting room to be in.

Define your zones
People often think that you either have separate rooms or open plan. The reality is not so black and white, as the relationship between different zones can be manipulated by varying degrees, to emphasise their separation or integration. Changes in floor level, floor finish, ceiling condition, furniture arrangement and many other devices can all contribute to this fine tuning.

In the example seen here, there is a strong sense that you are entering the living space when you come down the steps, despite the area being one open-plan space leading to the kitchen.

Create layered views
When thinking through ideas for opening up your interior, look for opportunities to set up views with ‘layers’. The home in this image illustrates the ‘layer’ idea well, as you can see across a dining area (layer one), through a kitchen area (layer two) to a garden beyond (layer three). These ‘layers’ gives an illusion of much greater space and depth than would otherwise be felt.

Go for visual separation
When adding to or altering a building, creating a clear visual separation between the new and existing elements of the building can really enhance the sense of extra space.

In this home, the extension is ‘held away’ – meaning it’s visually separated – from the original back wall of the house. The glass gap in the ceiling is also a visual highlight, doubling the effect. This really creates the sense that you’re passing from one space into another, and not just looking across a single unified area.

The room in this example is a generous size already, but in a much smaller house – say a Victorian terrace – visually separating the extension in a similar way could be even more dramatic.

Use daylight as a highlighter
Daylight is the most wonderful magnifier of interior space. If you can bring more natural light into your home, it will have a great effect in maximising the sense of space – and even in an already opened-up area, this is generally a benefit.

It does need to be done intelligently, however, as too much daylight flooding in – particularly too much direct sunlight – can be overwhelming, reducing overall contrast and bleaching everything out (and reducing the impact of all your carefully created layers). So try to use daylight to create highlight points among the layers, enhancing the visual separation and creating greater depth.

Think about angles of light
As well as using daylight to create focal points, as previously described, another good tip is to think about the angle from which the light is coming and how it is illuminating the different spaces and zones in your views.

Daylight from a high angle is generally more intense and will reach further into an interior than from a low angle, so use roof lights and position windows and glazed doors as high to the ceiling as you can to maximise the airy feeling. Avoid heavy curtain pelmets above windows as these block out useful high-angle light.

Aim to ‘read’ spaces more than once 
A great way to give the impression of more space is to set things up so that you see – or, in architectural terms, ‘read’ – the same space twice from different viewpoints within the house.

Here, the aim is not just to set up one layered view, as described earlier, but to set up several, which use the same spaces but are seen from different viewpoints.

This works particularly well in double-height spaces, where you see a space as you come in, then you see it again from the gallery or landing above.

Use an island to give purpose to individual spaces
Kitchen islands are probably the most common device for defining zones within an open-plan space, and this is one of the main reasons they are so popular (although many people do not realise that this is why).

By clearly signposting where the different zones within an open-plan space are, you get the benefits of the openness and daylight penetration while retaining a comfortable domestic scale.

Well defined zones are not just functional, they also help people feel more comfortable in a space. In a room with a kitchen island, for example, a visitor will subliminally be aware that as long as they stay away from the ‘kitchen side’ of the island, they are not in the way of the cook, their place being on the ‘coffee side’.

But in really small spaces, blur your zones…
Having described the importance of defining zones, it might seem contrary to talk about blurring the boundaries between them. In smaller homes, however, we will sometimes deliberately overlap these boundaries.

In this example, a kitchen which was previously a small box of a room, has been opened up by removing the wall (you can see the beam at the top of the photo showing the line where the wall used to be). With the wall gone, the kitchen has been allowed to expand out into the neighbouring dining area, giving not just an increased feeling of space, but a physically bigger kitchen, too. The additional daylight and depth also benefits the dining space, making it feel larger, too.

Here, a separating device, such as a kitchen island, would prevent the kitchen space spilling into the dining area, so the feeling of it being larger would be lost, which is why in this case, blurring the lines, or zones has enhanced the space.

…like this
Here is the same room seen from the opposite angle, showing how the kitchen and dining areas are merged.

The most common renovating mistakes, and how to avoid them

Sandy Smith

"It's amazing how many renovators don't realise how dirty, messy and intrusive into their lives it's going to be..." 

Home makeover shows make doing up properties look easy, but one mistake can easily spell disaster. How can you avoid making basic renovating mistakes?

Don’t blow the budget
Going over budget is probably the most common mistake when it comes to residential renovators says Bernadette Janson, director of the School of Renovating, in Sydney. “Most mistakes are due to a lack of experience and understanding of the process.”
Prepare a budget before you start work and put aside sufficient contingency funds to cover unexpected expenses, for example, discovering asbestos, says Janson.
Jennifer Williams from Creative Style Interior Design in Sydney advises discussing the budget with the architect, designer and builder before renovating to modify the scope of the work if necessary.
“This is better than running out of money half way through. Many of my clients have champagne tastes on what is closer to a beer budget in terms of what they’re prepared to spend — even the wealthy ones.

Be prepared
Before starting your renovation, do your research, says Williams. “Look in magazines, get on Pinterest, go and look at display homes for ideas. Keep notes and save images, either as a hard copy or digitally.
“If the renovator has given little or no thought to what they want to achieve in terms of look and feel, they may end up with the architect’s, designer’s or builder’s vision that bears no resemblance to theirs.”

Choose the right professionals
Get in a professional from the beginning, says Williams. This will save you from making mistakes from both a design, style and wasted money and time perspective, she says.
“Ask what professionals need to be involved and where will you find the right one for you,” she says. Recommendations from family and friends will only get you so far. Ask yourself whether your friend’s building standards are the same as yours. Go and look at the work done by the architect, designer and builder. Is it up to your expectations? The right professional will be different for each renovator, based on not only their budget but on the quality of finish they expect, she says.
Don’t make major changes to the layout without engaging an architect. “I’m all for renovating cost-effectively but doing structural renovations without professional design is a big mistake.” says Janson. 
“Too often you see renovated homes where the layout lets them down; ranging from a floor plan that just doesn’t feel right to downright botchy jobs where there are bedrooms and bathrooms off living rooms, poor living-to-bedroom ratio and worse still, bedrooms that are thoroughfares. A good architect can manipulate the space and light to create a home that is beautiful in both form and function.”

Shop around
Country musician Adam Brand has renovated properties in Sydney,The Central Coast, Coffs Harbour, Gold Coast and Townsville. He says a big mistake for people like himself who are trying to stick to a budget and be very hands on, is not shopping around. “Many people get carried away with having to have everything now,” says Brand. “It’s amazing the difference between quotes and prices. I was getting carport roller door quotes and they ranged from 4 to 8k. Double the price for basically the same thing.”
Move out
“If I had a dollar for every person who decided to live on site and then regretted that decision everyday thereafter, I’d be rich,” says Williams. “It’s amazing how many renovators don’t realise how dirty, messy and intrusive into their lives it’s going to be. If it’s a big renovation involving most of the home, I strongly recommend they move out, even if it’s squatting with some poor family member.”

Don’t overcapitalise
Going over the top with high spec features and finishes can add up to over-capitalising, says Janson. “A good example was Strelein House in Surry Hills listed with a hefty price tag, which may have been reasonable given the quality of the renovation, but failed to find a buyer.”
A swimming pool is another dubious spend, says Janson. “Pools rarely add value, contrary to what the swimming pool industry would tell you. People either love them or hate them and most won’t pay more for swimming pool.”

Don’t renovate to your individual taste
Don’t choose permanent finishes like tiles and glass in colours and designs that are highly individual and date, says Janson. “If you absolutely have your heart set on a suspended glass bath tub, an infinity pool or gold-plated taps, you should understand that you are highly unlikely to recoup the capital outlay when you sell the property. Luxury features are just that, a luxury.”

Don’t risk your health
“In recent years renovating has taken over from mining and manufacturing as the leading cause of asbestos-related disease” warns Janson. “Many DIY renovators are unknowingly exposing themselves and their families to the deadly fibres. Some people can recognise that products like fibro wall sheeting may contain asbestos but it is also found in a lot of lesser known products like vinyl floor tiles, the backing on old carpets, black tacky glue and the list goes on. So before you rip, sand, cut, crush, drill or demolish anything yourself, do your research to know what your dealing with

Clever ways to transform a small space into a stylish and liveable area

Elizabeth Clarke

An increasing number of homebuyers are rediscovering the beauty of the smaller house, and exploring unique methods to make them stylish and liveable. “There is a change afoot with the Tiny Houses movement which is filtering into the market,” agrees Clare Mengler of Wandoo Design & Construction. “Old homes with limited space either have rooms that are too large or too tiny to live in as is.” 

The key to a successful transformation is time, creativity, and good design. “Design is invaluable,” says Mengler. “Look for someone experienced who can speak the language of the tradespeople, and is good with cost management.” Equally important is a designer who understands your needs. “A designer doesn’t have to be cool or hang out with the rich kids,” agrees Clare. “In fact, someone grounded and practical with a creative bent is ideal for transforming a small space into something really stylish and liveable.”

Begin by considering your home’s strengths – a large empty wall, good light source, orientation, beautiful floorboards or high ceilings. Next, assess its limitations, comparing them to your needs, and then explore the issues that need to be resolved. “Be patient, it can take some time,” says Mengler. “Be prepared to look outside the square and be creative in how you can create space and storage. It is a real process, until eventually you reach your ‘a-ha’ moment!”

Gather a team around you who are happy to participate in your unique build, within your budget. “Keep costs down by employing a tradesperson to build the less detailed and specialised parts of your build, and then bring in the very gifted craftspeople for the finishing touches,” says Mengler.

For a successful project, a well-developed brief is essential. Your designer and draughtsperson should understand your needs and stage of life. “The craftsman needs to understand weathering and practical use. For example, teenagers who slam doors, and elderly people who stumble and need rails and easy-to-grip door levers,” says Mengler.

Beware of building out the space so much that it becomes claustrophobic. “It is not a good idea to fully build-out the space leaving no free walls. Be sure to leave a wall space open to allow a step-back for visual distance. Allow users to enjoy that sense of personal space. Using too many contrasting materials or colours would have the same effect.”

Commissioning customised furniture is a smart way to utilise and create space but beware of multi-functional furniture. “Like a phone-fax-copier, if one part breaks down, the others are rendered useless and become more a hassle,” Mengler says.

 “Made-to-measure furniture on the other hand instantly becomes a part of the environment, it blends in,” she says. A day bed with storage trunks concealed beneath, a peg board for handbag storage behind a door, a bed built over a void, or an in-built desk with clever storage and floating book shelves not only look chic, but are highly functional. “It becomes seamless, and the room is a delight to be in and to keep in order,” Mengler says. “Which is exactly what you want your small house to be. This is what will makes your house a home.” 

Need more space? Six questions to ask before you build an extension

Extension design should be an extension of your lifestyle. 

Sandy Smith

Dreaming of building the perfect extension? You have an idea of the budget, design and have mentally prepared yourself for the disruption. But how will you make sure everything goes exactly to plan? We asked builders and property experts for their tips.

1. Should you build an extension or move to a bigger house?

“People tend to go for extensions because they like where they live, they like the neighbours, the kids have grown up in the area and selling and moving has its own costs with stamp duties, buying and selling and relocation costs,” Robert Drechsel, director of Sherbrooke Design and Construction in Melbourne, says. “You can spend $150,000 before you even get something. That’s a good foot in the door to getting what you want in an extension,” Drechsel adds.

2. What is your budget?

“The first consideration is to ask yourself ‘what do I want to spend?'” says Daniel Mazzei, director of Mazzei Homes, the luxury custom home division of the Better Living Group. “This may seem common sense but it can be a difficult question to answer at the stages when the costs are unknown. You could think about it in terms of what would be comfortable in extra repayments each month. Knowing this figure will allow you to understand the scope of the renovation. Will it be a bathroom or a second storey and to what finish level?”

Professional renovator Cathy Morrissey, of The Reno Chick, suggests getting a real estate agent to assess the current value of your home and what it will be worth with an extension. “A few years ago I wanted to put an elaborate extension on my home that would double the home’s size. I called my local real estate agent and asked him to value my home. I told him about my plans and he quickly burst my bubble. He said the most I would increase my property was by about $20,000.”

3. What will you use it for?

Think about how long you see yourself living there once it is built and how often you will use it, advises architect Rohan Little, of Oxide Design, a Sydney-based residential and commercial design practice that specialises in sustainable design and builds. “It’s not uncommon for people to create expensive spaces that are then never used. Home offices become junk storage rooms, home gyms are ignored and home theatres used monthly are much more common than you may think.”

“Extension design should be an extension of your lifestyle,” Mazzei says. “Do you eat dinner at the table or on the couch? Do you entertain often? If so, where do your guests sit? Do you like to get away from the noise with a good book? This is your opportunity to dream big and think about how you would like to live not just now, but in the future also. Start a scrapbook or online board, like Pinterest, to keep record of your ideas.”

4. Is the budget realistic with your brief?

“Four out of five times, the client’s budget needs to be increased or the brief needs to be decreased. Knowing for certain what you can and can’t live without needs to be thought through long before the walls are knocked down,” Little advises.

5. Who is going to design and build it?

Do you need to engage an architect? Can you go directly to a builder? Can you co-ordinate the renovation yourself? The answer to these questions lie in your scope and budget, Mazzei says. “If you are looking to spend $10,000 on a bathroom makeover then it would make sense to go directly to a builder or co-ordinate it yourself, if you have experience, so more of the limited funds can be used towards construction. If you are looking to add a storey to an existing Edwardian building, then it would be worth speaking with a qualified designer so that you can maximise space and obtain an optimal result. Prices can vary considerably so it’s important do to your research and understand the service you are getting from each professional. Be diligent selecting the right builder for the project too. Ask to see previous work and speak to past clients.”

6. When do you want to move in?

Renovating can be disruptive to the family so it is good to work to a completion date that suits your situation, Mazzei says. “I’d always suggest allowing more time in the planning phrase as this can drastically reduce disruptions and time delays during the build. The best part about renovating is completing it and actually enjoying the space you’ve created, so the sooner you can move back in the better.”