Vegetation based building methods used in Architecture for Humanity projects

The program, run by Architecture for Humanity and the Alcoa Foundation, provides grants to universities for community-based design and construction projects with a focus on the innovative use of sustainable materials.

The projects are shared through the Open Architecture Network, where students can track their findings and progress.

Sao Paulo University students are working with Eldorado community leaders and residents in exploring and developing locally-available vegetation-based building components. Testing on the potential use of banana tree fibres is underway, as well as training locals in the production and value of these plants. The land is prone to seasonal flooding therefore students have to create sustainable solutions that will handle the elements.

The Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, US are planning to design, engineer and student-build a 4 to 10 unit Net Zero Energy House prototype on the outskirts of their campus. The house will be a sort of “living laboratory,” with students researching and testing the building’s sustainable features before completion.

Like many other Sunbelt cities, the community of Georgia is faced with a shift from suburban, family-home communities toward city centre, mid and high-rise housing blocks. The students plan to test sustainable building products, technologies and energy demand and production for these dwellings.

For more information go to

Winter comfort: energy efficient heating options

Winter comfort is important for health and enjoyment. Yet for Australians living in cooler climates, the use of heating to provide winter comfort consumes the biggest chunk of household energy. We typically invest thousands of dollars in heating technology, and effective heating is seen as an important factor in resale value.

Achieving winter comfort in a way that is affordable, effective and environmentally sound is tricky. Unfortunately, I still can’t find the ‘ideal’ answer. To make the most informed choice about the most energy efficient heating for your home, you first need to consider what you want from your heating system, including how much heating you need. Other vital options to consider are generation type, distribution and the way a system’s heat is converted into comfort.

Here, I pose some guiding questions to help you determine what you want out of a heating system and discuss some system types, particularly hydronic heating. [Ed note: Read Alan’s comprehensive article on heating and winter comfort in ReNew 127.]

The changing context

It is increasingly important to consider year-round comfort, rather than separate heating and cooling strategies. Climate change is shifting the balance: one study has indicated that, by 2070, Melbourne will be hotter and more humid than Brisbane, and heating will be a much less significant issue. [Ed note: See Alan’s article on cooling in Sanctuary 22 and in full in ReNew 122]. Meanwhile, improvements in building performance mean, for example, that the cost of inefficient lighting or running multiple electronic devices can be higher than heating.

What do you want from your heating system?

Some possible preferences include one that:

– provides comfort to one or more spaces or an entire home

– is easy to make comfortable quickly after arriving home – is quiet, with little or no air movement

– is easy to use, economical and unobtrusive

– has low capital cost and/or adds to home value

– is environmentally friendly

– has low (no?) maintenance, is reliable and easily/quickly fixed.

A variety of different solutions might deliver some or all of the desired outcomes. But it is difficult. Nevertheless, if you recognise the services you want, you can at least evaluate options against your criteria.

The house made of rubbish

Two tonnes of denim jeans, 4000 video cassettes and a truckload of chalk are just some of the building materials used to construct the carbon negative house.

The project was led by university lecturer and architect Duncan Baker-Brown, with endorsement and support from designer and TV presenter Kevin McCloud in an effort to show that what we classify as “rubbish” can be turned into something useful and permanent.

The house was built by construction students, school children, private companies and community groups and was constructed from 85% waste, including surplus material from building sites.

The construction industry discards 20% of all materials used, effectively meaning scrapping one in every five houses built. By using this discarded waste, as well as less conventional materials, such as toothbrushes and vinyl banners for insulation, “the building is literally locking in waste, rather than having it burnt, buried in landfill or dumped in the ocean,” says Baker-Brown.

The results of using these alternative materials in the building have been thoroughly tested, and are showing some fascinating results. Ten tonnes of chalk were mixed with 10% clay to create a rammed earth wall in the house that will lock warmth in for up to 12 hours. The effectiveness of high tech construction methods also resulted in reduced waste and time on site, as well as increased accuracy.

Now completed, the house will be used as an exhibition and workshop space by local community groups, and will be the new headquarters for the university’s sustainable design students. It will continue to be retrofitted, allowing designers and students to conduct testing on window panes, solar panels, and alternative insulation and construction materials used.

Click here for more information on the project.

Di Mase Architects talk about their passive warehouse design

Antony Di Mase’s architectural practice has come a long way since operating from the back room of his father’s real estate agency.

The practice has recently designed a passive warehouse with very low energy requirements, due to start construction in July.

We asked Antony how he incorporates sustainability into his homes and about his favourite projects.

How and when was Di Mase Architects started?

I started Di Mase Architects in the back room of my father’s real estate agency in 2002. I had over a decade of experience working in large and small firms around Australia, and I was ready to move out into my own practice. I was motivated to create an architectural practice that was more accessible to everyone, and make architecture that was for and of the community.

In the beginning it was just my drafting board and me, but now I employ three staff and the drafting board has left the building!

Are there some basic design principles that you apply to your houses to achieve sustainability goals or is it the kind of thing that might change from homeowner to homeowner?

Sustainability goals do change from homeowner to homeowner, and budgets can affect how much we do. However, we do bring three core philosophies of sustainable practice to all of our projects, regardless of scale. Our philosophies are reuse, efficiency and daylighting. From the outset we look for opportunities to reuse the existing building, materials and sometimes fittings, which is inherently sustainable. This requires experience, respect for the history of a building and more care, but we believe it is well worth it.

Efficiency, both in terms of materials and thermal, is also a core concern of ours. We aim to design with little material excess and also consider the life cycle of our building’s components. Thermal efficiency is beginning to be an area of specialty for Di Mase, as one of my staff has recently become a certified passive house designer. The thermal performance and air tightness of our buildings is considered from the beginning, rather than just being contemplated on during documentation.

Making good use of natural light as an internal light source is one of our greatest passions. It is abundant, completely free, and helps create healthier and more buoyant interiors. Everyone has a relationship to light, and we work our designs to embrace and celebrate this relationship. I’m currently undertaking postgraduate study and focusing on daylighting to help keep the practice on the edge of developments in this area.

Have there been any favourite projects along the way – what were they and why?

I love and value every project we do, so it is difficult to pick a favourite. One project that I’m really excited about is our passive warehouse that is about to commence construction. It combines all three of our philosophies and the client has invested in pursuing a stringent thermal efficiency standard.

Designed using Passive House principles, the expected performance of this house is amazing: the estimated energy required to heat this two-storey, three‐bedroom house will be equivalent to a small bar heater. There is also going to be a beautiful, soaring two storey light well that will bathe the living areas and entry with natural light. It’s a great project with great clients, and we are excited about it starting on site in July.

Visit Di Mase Architects website.
Visit the Sanctuary Sustainable Design Directory.


The ins and outs of reverse brick veneer

Reverse brick veneer (RBV) is a term which, although self-explanatory when we think about it, has often caused people to do a double take: “Yes, that’s right, the bricks are on the inside of the wall… No, the plasterboard doesn’t get wet – it’s clad with… (whatever).”

In an RBV building, the brick layer is located within a protective external insulated skin. That skin can be made of pretty much anything that takes your fancy – but it must be well insulated to allow the thermal mass of the brick to do its job of regulating internal temperatures. (The brick layer can also be blocks, mud brick, rammed earth, or recycled concrete – so RBV is actually more correctly called Insulated Masonry Construction, but that name is nowhere near so well recognised or so much fun!)

We have to use the “reverse” in RBV because in the late 1950s somebody had the not-very bright idea of replacing weatherboards and fibro on timber framed houses with a veneer of bricks (BV). “Brick veneerial disease” has since become the dominant building method in southern Australia, with people in the tropics generally avoiding its contagion. Many among us have come to assume that BV is normal brick, such that double-brick construction has come to be called “full brick”. This implies that brick veneer is “half brick”, perhaps “half as good”. This isn’t far off the money. It may save a coat of paint every 15 years or so, but costs a whole lot more than that.

The main problem with brick veneer is there is a lot of wasted thermal mass – it’s on the outside where the weather and temperature changes happen, not on the inside where people live. While BV houses can be made to perform reasonably well, even beyond 7 Stars, it is not so easy to make them work really well. It gets down to how thermal mass works to regulate the internal, or core, temperature of a home. In much the same way as our body uses physiological mechanisms to maintain a constant 36.9°C core temperature, internal thermal mass in lower latitudes (generally) will work to regulate house temperatures as part of a good passive design strategy. On the outside of the building, as cladding, its inherent thermal benefit is wasted.


Steps to energy efficient heating


We bought a brick house with a weatherboard extension in Melbourne and installed roof insulation and curtains. We put a wood burner in the back living area, but during winter the rest of the house is basically unusable because it is so cold. Can you suggest a good whole-of-house heating solution that is environmentally friendly, has low running costs and doesn’t involve ripping up the floors? — Nelly and Lachlan


The first thing to do is ensure your house is not leaking heat, otherwise any heating system you install will be wasteful. While a good proportion of a house’s heat loss is through the ceiling, an equal or greater amount is lost through the walls and floor, so if they are not insulated, that’s the first place to start.

The best short term solution is not to try to heat the whole home, just the rooms being used. Consider an energy efficient reverse cycle air conditioner (heat pump), run on 100 per cent GreenPower to make it effectively greenhouse neutral. See the Energy Saving Products Guide in ReNew 117 for a couple of suggestions. That said, keep in mind that it’s more effective to heat the occupants directly using radiant heat, rather than trying to heat the entire air volume in a room (space heating). To make the most of your existing wood burner you could consider installing a heat shifting system: a series of ducts and a fan to move warmed air from the back living area to the rest of the house. See Sanctuary 13, p28 for an example.

Once you have insulated comprehensively, you will have the option of hydronic heating (maybe with a solar component), ducted reverse cycle air conditioning or ducted natural gas heating. While roof mounted ducts are the simpler option and don’t require sub floor access, they are generally less effective than systems with floor ducts, which deliver warm air that rises through the room. Hydronic systems both heat the air and provide direct radiant heat, and can be quite effective in the right situations. However, the pipework will need to go through walls or under the floor.

Heating systems in older homes are often a compromise between installation costs and performance. Please consider having your home assessed by an energy auditor to get the most appropriate options for your particular situation.

— Lance

Heat pump water heater

Our hot water system just broke and we are looking for an energy efficient replacement. Do you have any recommendations? It gets quite a lot of use and we have no solar access.
– Don A


With no solar access, you can’t use a solar water heater as they need long hours of direct sunlight to be effective.

The next most efficient option would be a high quality heat pump water heater such as the Sanden heat pump, which uses CO2 as a refrigerant and has a rated coefficient of performance of around 4, meaning it uses only a quarter of the electricity to heat the water that an electric water heater using resistive elements would use.

Another alternative is an instantaneous water heater as it will supply unlimited hot water – ideal where hot water use is heavy. There are a number of high efficiency units available including models from Rinnai, Bosch and Aquamax, among others. Just select the unit with the appropriate flow rating, bearing in mind that these types of heaters also have a minimum flow rating that they need before they will switch on.

Bear in mind that for situations where hot water is used in short bursts, an instantaneous unit may not be the best option as they are less efficient under such use and there is excessive wear and tear on their valves and control flow switches. In that case, I would go with a heat pump system as it has a storage system.

– Lance