The Terrace House: Reimagined for the Australian way of life

The editors Katelin Butler and Cameron Bruhn are well known and active in the Australian housing industry, and the quality of houses profiled in this weighty 250+ page book is high. While the majority of the profiled projects don’t have a sustainability focus, some designers will be familiar to Sanctuary readers, such as Andrew Maynard Architects, Benn + Penna Architecture and Tribe Studio. The book is also filled with interesting facts: “The format of the terrace house, as we know it today, resulted from the Great Fire of London in 1666 [and] a resolve to develop new construction patterns that would inhibit fire spread.”

Edited by Cameron Bruhn and Katelin Butler
Thames & Hudson
RRP $70

Kiyonori Kikutake: Between Land and Sea

Metabolists wished to move beyond the modernist idea of ‘form follows function’ and in this book instead emphasises “the potential of space to continually adapt to changing functions in a way that is dynamic, seemingly biological, akin to a living organism”. This book is based on an exhibition of Kikutake’s work, and the exquisite volume contains essays about his life, extracts of his writings, and profiles of his projects under the headings ‘Land’ and ‘Sea.’ The designs and models of his work included in Between Land and Sea are a wonder to behold. Kikutake was well ahead of his time. After witnessing the devastation of WWII, he proposed that traditional agriculture couldn’t feed the city, and envisioned Marine Cities as centres for aquaculture, “producing and processing food from the sea, as well as harvesting energy from the ocean currents”.

Edited by Ken Tadashi Oshima
Lars Müller Publishers
RRP $50 (US)

The Permaculture City

The Permaculture City: Regenerative Design for Urban, Suburban, and Town Resilience (2015) by Toby Hemenway is no exception. It documents the rise of new approaches and thinking when it comes to permaculture designers and practitioners. And given that nearly 90 per cent of Australians live in urban areas and urban density is on the rise, The Permaculture City is relevant and timely. The main thrust of the book is to explain why urban permaculture is more than just ‘gardening in the city’. It begins with an overview of cities from the perspective of whole-systems permaculture and includes chapters on design, techniques for home gardening, community gardening strategies and water efficiency. ‘Energy Solutions for Homes and Communities’ is a lively chapter for the sustainable home owner or builder. Permaculture has exploded in recent years. Hemenway writes, “After 30 years we’re starting to know what we’re doing”; a fact articulated by this book.

Toby Hemenway
Chelsea Green Publishing
RRP $39.99

Daylight your home

I have been playing around with skylights for nearly 40 years and have tried just about every trick to get daylight into dark places.

In the 1970s I built double glazed skylights before Velux was heard of, and long before WERS (Window Energy Rating Scheme) had been conceived. In the 1980s I built ‘tetrahedroid lightshafts’ (a term invented to describe their weird geometry). In the 1990s I tried flexible reflective shafts descending two storeys. In the 2000s I used a photovoltaic panel to directly drive LED lights to create virtual daylight. These have all become commercially available– except the tetrahedroid shaft which is still unique!

You can now buy just about any kind of skylight you can imagine to daylight your home. Skylights are of course just one method for doing this – atriums, lanterns or clerestory windows are others, but they are a whole other facet of bringing natural light into your home that must be considered at concept stage, and cannot be easily retrofitted. This article focuses on skylight applications, and the advantages of commonly available products which can be used to daylight your house.

Introducing natural light into buildings – or daylighting – has long been recognised as extremely beneficial to human wellbeing. It also reduces demand for artificial lighting, which can reduce running costs and emissions. For this reason, daylighting is recognised by the Green Building Council’s Green Star rating scheme, and also by the even more rigorous Living Building Challenge, and by most other environmental design tools, including BASIX in New South Wales.

Skylights have come a long way since the inefficient single-skin acrylic-domed skylights which came in either clear or translucent. They leaked masses of heat – both in and out – and in residential applications this issue was always a problem. These skylights are now penalised in all energy rating schemes, and have virtually disappeared from residential use, and rightly so.

The important considerations when assessing the quality of a skylight are the same as for windows: solar radiant heat gain (SHGC) and conducted heat flows (insulation value, expressed as conductivity in the U value).

WERS covers skylights but not all available products have been rated, however this scheme is still very useful for finding the most thermally efficient products. See WERS skylight products and Your Home for more information on how heat flows through glass.

The roof window is a type of skylight that is most suited to applications where you want to enhance amenity, such as views of the sky or surrounding vegetation, or introduce windows into a loft. But as in all things, it’s a question of balance. For all their wonderful benefits, it’s a frustrating fact that every roof window will bleed heat at a higher rate than even a moderately insulated roof and ceiling, no matter how efficient it is. To avoid compromising the comfort and performance of your home, you need to plan and size roof windows carefully.

Roof windows are an excellent way to introduce daylight and views into a loft, and comply with building codes which require bedrooms to have external windows. Image: Fakro

Rated roof windows
The great leap forward in roof windows came when European products appeared with double glazing and insulated timber frames. These are now the default choice, with common brands like Velux and Fakro being the most recognisable; local manufacturer Skydome also has a similar range of WERS-rated roof windows that perform equally well.

Each comes in a variety of operational modes: fixed and top hinged, remote or manual control, with some having the option of low-volume ventilation to allow air exchange in cold conditions. They also come with a selection of reflective and block-out blinds – essential in summer. The key to their performance is the way the softwood frame is profiled to act as both insulator and to assist in sealing. They are clad externally in aluminium for longevity and weather protection.


Sizing and orientation
The size and number of skylights in a space must be considered carefully. A good rule of thumb: a well-positioned skylight need not be more than two to four per cent of a room’s floor area to provide effective sunlight; 10 per cent is certainly way too much.

Orientation also needs careful planning. South-facing roof windows bring in lovely reflected light, but if the geometry is incorrect, may also bring in direct summer midday sun – not delightful at all. Alternatively, a steeply sloping north-facing roof may provide great low winter sun while keeping most high summer sun at bay. Roof windows are really only recommended in non-tropical Australasia: southern Australia and all of New Zealand.

Depending on the room and ceiling configuration, the roof window will require some sort of shaft between it and the ceiling. Raked ceilings have small parallel shafts that are easily constructed and are unobtrusive. Flat ceilings require careful thought, especially if you want the skylight to fan its direct sunlight across the room. If retrofitting, the building’s structure must also be considered. If you make the shaft too large, the volume may convect too much warm air out in winter, making the room feel cooler, and especially if the skylight itself is excessively large.


Tubular skylights are very effective at delivering abundant light through a relatively small opening, between 200mm and 400mm in diameter. They may use an angular selective clear dome on the roof to optimise the low winter sun angles. The tubes are either flexible foil or solid polished stainless steel, the latter having higher reflectivity. These skylights spread light evenly through the room using ceiling diffusers; the most efficient diffusers are the Fresnel lens type, which can be circular or square.


The advantages of tubular skylights are twofold: they can be located in slightly awkward and tight spaces where a conventional roof window or its shaft could never fit; and they cause very little heat gain or heat loss. Image: Velux

Advantages and applications
The advantages of tubular skylights are twofold: they can be located in slightly awkward and tight spaces where a conventional roof window or its shaft could never fit; and they cause very little heat gain or heat loss.

They can be used safely in the tropics, and can also have lights installed inside the tube, so that the same fitting is used for daylighting and night light. Some can be coupled with exhaust fans.

Controlling the light
Tubular skylights found their niche initially lighting minor rooms and utility spaces. I fitted one in my teenage son’s bedroom to encourage him to arise a little earlier than noon each day. It certainly worked! But I soon discovered that he put a towel over the roof dome to preserve a snoozy dimness. You can get controllable dimmers, but don’t tell your teenagers.

The larger, high efficiency tubes and square diffusers have also found a place in living and work areas. We have a Solatube DS190 with angular selective roof dome and a large Fresnel lens diffuser which gives wonderful light to our drawing office.

Sometimes referred to as LED or virtual ‘skylights’, these systems are solving all sorts of problems that used to be too hard or too expensive using a skylight. These ‘daylighting’ systems mimic skylights using two technologies which are now mature – photovoltaics (solar generated electricity) and LEDs, which are now both at a low point on the cost curve.

LED daylighting – using solar technology and LEDs – is a versatile option for getting virtual daylight into difficult spaces. Image:

How they work
They are conceptually very simple, they use: a PV panel on roof, cable to carry extra-low voltage DC current to lights (usually via a smart driver), and light fittings on the ceiling which operate once the sun rises. Downstairs can be literally two or three storeys and many metres away, making this a versatile option for getting virtual daylight into difficult spaces. Though as in all things, check the quality and warranty before you buy.

Bedrooms can get extra light this way (but note bedrooms still need an external window to meet building codes) and they can be switched off if the teenager really needs their beauty sleep.

I installed a Redilite 64 watt system powering three LED lights – and was very impressed with the brightness. Even without direct sun on the PV panel, these lights are very effective. And when the sun climbs above the treeline in the morning they really hit their stride – it is simply amazing. We now issue sunglasses to people before they enter the kitchen. Yet there is no heat gain or loss, because there is no hole in the roof compromising the building envelope.
Light range
You can specify any colour light you like with LEDs, so it’s important to plan the desired effect. If you want to fool yourself (in the nicest possible way) that you are enjoying daylight, then 4000 to 4500K (Kelvin) is the ideal colour range: it is a good approximation of sunlight, and suits our circadian rhythms. If you choose warm white (2700 to 3000K) then you will feel  like it’s night time, and that can be confusing during the day. A dilemma may arise if you use the same fittings for day and night lighting – something I tend not to do, I’d rather have two simpler sets of lights. Many LED fittings now have adjustable colour temperatures, but this appears not to have entered the off-the-shelf market for this type of product as yet.

Remember LED systems do not provide real daylight. If it’s exposure to the sun’s rays that is required you will need a skylight.

There is a ‘best of both worlds’ product available in Europe from Parans. A sunlight collector is located somewhere suitable on the roof, and fibre-optic cables are run to any location deep within the building, where a distributor spreads the sunlight out at the desired intensity. The cost of the components – especially the optic fibre – is not insignificant, and as yet there is no distributor in Australia. Current exchange rates would place this at the top of the price pile, but it appears to be the only practical way to provide real sunlight to spaces with no other chance of receiving natural light, so for some houses it could be quite viable.


At the end of the day, it’s horses for courses and the sun shines on them all. Making the right choice will depend on a range of factors, including whether you need sunlight or just light. But whichever type you choose, it has to be designed and installed correctly to give the best result.

It is important to use products that meet all components of  the relevant standards, such as AS/NZ-4285-2007. Reputable manufacturers of skylights are members of the Skylight Industry Association. WERS ratings for skylights are also very important. Photovoltaic solar LED equipment needs to meet a different set of standards since they are not skylights and no roof penetrations or thermal transfer is involved. They instead use a combination of an extra-low voltage (ELV) photovoltaic panel, wiring and lighting. ELV products can be installed by a ‘competent person’, but there can be safety issues, so best to follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully, and as with all consumer goods, check the warranty.

Feature image: Roof windows are most suited to applications where you want to enhance amenity, such as views of the sky or surrounding vegetation. Image: Velux

New Sanctuary magazine editor: Kulja Coulston

Kulja is a former ReNew editor and a passionate advocate for independent media and consumer issues. She is also a long-time producer and broadcaster.

For over seven years she has presented a weekly current affairs program on Triple R FM in Melbourne that incorporates extensive coverage of social enterprises, city planning and infrastructure issues. She also spent almost a decade with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Melbourne and Darwin.

“It’s a significant time to be focussed on the built environment, especially as we deal with issues of affordability and density,” she said. “Sanctuary is a magazine filled with beautiful sustainable homes, but it’s also rich with information and stories about how we can build better cities and neighbourhoods.”

Working for an independent publisher was also a drawcard for Kulja to return to ATA.

“It’s a rare privilege to work with an independent, member-based organisation. In an era where it’s hard to pick and advertisement from an article in many magazines, the ATA is committed to quality journalism and independent product reviews. It’s the real deal,” she said.

Sanctuary has been published for a decade and has a dedicated readership in Australia, New Zealand and internationally. Kulja’s first issue, Sanctuary 35, is available now on newsstands, as a digital download or via subscription.

Stay warm this winter with efficient heating

No matter how well designed your house is for passive thermal performance, in most of Australia and New Zealand you will probably need some added winter heating. But what heating system is best and most energy efficient for your home?

Although there are countless versions of gas-and electric-fuelled space heaters on the market, we are looking at two of the more efficient choices that you could consider: hydronic heating which uses radiators and in-slab immersed piping; and reverse-cycle refrigerated air conditioning, a form of heat pump technology.

Hydronic radiator systems consist of a heat source (boiler), one or more pipe circuits with heated water flowing through them, and radiators to emit warmth into the room. Some more complex hydronic systems have multiple zones, so you can choose to heat only part of the house, reducing energy use.

These systems have a number of advantages over other forms of heating. Hydronic systems emit heat either underfoot or close to floor level, which gives the feeling of warmth with lower ambient room temperatures than with space heating. This is because emitting heat at a lower level without the need for forced air movement (fans), the radiant convectors (radiators) avoid the cooling effect of airflows produced by heating such as reverse-cycle air conditioners or ducted gas furnace systems. Hydronic systems are also flexible: some boilers provide domestic hot water, eliminating the need for a separate water heater.

Disadvantages of hydronic systems include the initial installation cost. A complete system can easily cost $10,000 or more, depending on the boiler, the number of circuits and type of radiator. However, prices have dropped over time as hydronic heating becomes more popular and recent technology in boilers and pipe systems make it more affordable.

For a new build, and with a concrete slab floor, in-slab immersed hydronic floor coils can be laid with multiple circuits to provide perhaps the ultimate in comfort and operating costs, but you need to carefully consider the way these systems are controlled and insulated, to overcome potential heat lag from the heat bank in the floor mass. A system using wall or skirting radiators allows you to turn the heating on and off at will, and get heat within a minute or so.

There are a range of options. Reticulated natural gas enables a gas-fired boiler to be used, but alternatives are solid fuels such as timber and manufactured pellets, solar energy, ground-sourced heat pump and air-to-water heat pump technology. Electric (non-heat pump) boilers and LPG-fuelled systems probably should be avoided unless there is no other choice available.

Solar systems have roof-mounted collectors that provide a proportion of the water heating, with instantaneous gas, heat pump or solid fuel heat sources used as a backup. Bear in mind though, heating is required at times of the year where there is the least solar input, and the water storage capacity required can be large, up to 1000 litres or more.

Heat pumps use a refrigeration system to extract heat from the outside air (or the ground or a body of water such as a dam) and concentrate it into the water tank. Even air that feels cold to us can contain a lot of usable heat, although the colder the ambient air, the lower the overall available heat capacity.

If no other fuel source is available or you have a low-cost source of solid fuel, such as fallen timber on a large property, solid fuel boilers can also be used to provide hydronic heating.

Arguably, the most greenhouse-friendly and lowest cost to run system would be a high-efficiency heat pump combined with a suitably sized photovoltaic array, although these systems are rare.

An energy-efficient heating alternative to a hydronic system is the room-mounted or central ducted system reverse-cycle air conditioner, also known as a heat pump. These systems use refrigeration principles and a reversing valve to heat (or cool) the air in your home. Unlike relatively inefficient resistive electric heaters that turn energy from one form (electricity) into another (heat), reverse-cycle systems use electrically powered compressors to move heat from one place to another; they use a lot less energy to produce the same amount of heat.

The efficiency of reverse-cycle systems is given by a coefficient of performance (COP). This is a ratio of the heat moved to the electrical energy input. As an example, if your heat pump uses 1kWh of electricity to move 4kWh of heat from outdoors to inside your home, then it has a COP of 4. The actual running COP depends on numerous factors, including the temperature differential between outdoors and indoors, the refrigerant and compressor type used, and overall system design.

These days, reverse-cycle air conditioners are mainly individual room or ‘split systems’; the indoor air-handling unit and outdoor compressor unit are separated and linked by high-pressure hoses. The split system has several advantageous features—the air handling unit is quite compact, they only need a couple of small holes in the wall, floor or roof for piping and cabling, and the compressor is outside.

It can be difficult to compare the two approaches. A single efficient reverse-cycle air conditioner will certainly be cheaper to run than  a whole-of-house hydronic system. Even if you install several reverse-cycle air conditioners to allow you to heat the whole house, you are probably unlikely to run them all at once, and so your running costs may also be lower. However, a well-zoned hydronic system can be cost effective.

One advantage of reverse-cycle air conditioning is that you can start small, by installing a single unit, and then add more as the budget allows. With a hydronic system you really need to buy a boiler and ancillary equipment sized to suit the entire heating requirements of the home. With a reverse-cycle air conditioner, you also get cooling without having to buy a separate system. However, a whole-of-home reverse-cycle air conditioning system purchased just for its heating ability will cost more than a whole-of-house hydronic system.

Running costs will depend on many factors including the size of the system and its efficiency, so be sure to consider the size of the system and look at the efficiency data, whether for a hydronic system or a reverse-cycle air conditioner. For a given level of heat loss in a home, a system with higher COP will use less energy to maintain required temperatures.

A primary factor determining running costs is the thermal efficiency of the house. Remember, the better insulated the home, the less energy needed to heat and cool it, and the smaller, and therefore cheaper, the heating system you need to install. This means that you need to take all the usual efficiency measures, such as insulating ceilings and walls (and under floors if possible), sealing draughts, and insulating windows with either double glazing, curtains and pelmets, or both. In short, spend some money on energy efficiency measures up front and you will save on heating in both the long and short term.

Many other factors come into operating costs. Forced air systems of all descriptions do tend to dry the air within the conditioned space, which has a cooling effect of approximately three degrees Celsius, as you lose perspiration off your skin to your surrounds. This happens to a lesser extent with hydronic heating. As discussed earlier, hydronic systems tend to feel much more comfortable at lower temperatures than reverse-cycle air conditioners, as the radiant heat is at floor level and there is no cooling effect from air movement or reduction in relative humidity.

With heat pump hydronics, you might be able to access a cheaper off-peak tariff to heat the water, at least for part of the day. This will depend on your system’s design and your energy company’s tariff usage requirements. There are also opportunities to source electricity from renewable sources, rather than coal-fired power. If you have excess photovoltaic-generated electricity, you could use this to offset some of the running costs for heat-pump hydronic systems and reverse-cycle air conditioners. It’s important to note, though, that heating systems are most needed in winter when there are lower solar radiation (insolation) levels. An oversized solar system can help to some extent, but the savings are likely to be small. A battery could power the system at night, but currently the bill savings won’t offset the battery cost.

As for gas-fuelled systems, given that gas prices are now tied to international prices, the future costs of running a gas boiler can be difficult to predict. There’s also the issue that natural gas is non- renewable and becoming dirtier as more is sourced from fracking and coal seams.

Each home’s situation is different, so you need to evaluate the economics of the systems, based on your own particular circumstances.

Lance Turner is the Alternative Technology Association’s technical editor, and a columnist in Sanctuary’s sister magazine ReNew.


Lance Turner’s efficient heating systems buyers guide is available in ‘Stay warm this winter: a heating buyers guide’ in ReNew 135, and comprehensive tables listing specifications for hydronic boilers, hydronic heating systems and the most efficient reverse-cycle air conditioners available in Australia and New Zealand are available here from the ReNew website.


Winter comfort: not just a heater choice’ in ReNew 127; ‘Comfortably ahead: A tale of two heaters’ in ReNew 133; ‘Are we still cooking with gas?’, an ATA report in ReNew 130.

Green granny flats and studios: 10 of the best

1. Box pavilion

This two-storey ‘box’ pavilion is located six metres behind a 1950s Gold Coast beach shack on a narrow 400-square-metre site. Built to allow for contemporary intergenerational living, the granny flat also protects the once-exposed backyard from overlooking. Each level in the granny flat has its own bathroom, and a studio space that can be ‘sub-divided’ with sliding screens to become a living space or bedroom. Image: Peter Hyatt.

2. Copper House

Designed for flexible use into the future and conceived by Takt, this 60-square-metre secondary dwelling is on a narrow lot in Coogee and replaced the original fibro shack. It is designed as three boxes which step down the slope. A butterfly roof invites winter sun and provides seclusion from neighbours; and a dark concrete slab and panels of artist canvas for internal walls create a tactile interior. The steel-framed building is clad in copper, which was chosen to age gracefully in a coastal environment – it has already developed a patina. Image: Shantanu Starick. Read the full profile on this project.

3. Flat-pack studio

This pre-fab, flat-packed modular studio is the creation of Sue Harper, now of Troppo Architects in Byron Bay, and is similar to the firm’s Love Shack. When the granny flat laws changed in New South Wales she saw the opportunity to not only create a granny flat that performed better than the portable homes of old, but to create a living space that was more “flexible and fun” using materials that were environmentally sensitive. Image: Michael Nicholson.

4. Downsizing in Annandale

This 55-square-metre, one-bedroom granny flat at Annandale in Sydney was constructed as a secondary dwelling for the owners of the main house. Designed by Day Bukh and built as part of a renovation, it carries a 7.5 Star rating and has a host of environmental features in keeping with the owners’ philosophy. The roof is Bluescope zincalume metal and the exterior walls are treated pine with 20mm foilboard insulation with an R3.2 rating. Image: Katherine Lu.

5. Russel Lea ‘Fonzie’ Flat

A 60-square-metre building in the back yard of a house at Russell Lea in Sydney’s inner west had to meet two criteria: it was to be visually attractive and a useful living space. Architect Ben Giles wanted to create as small a footprint as possible to maximise the overall amount of landscaping and garden. The result was a structure that would take up the block’s full width, but be just one room wide, with a combined living, dining room and kitchen downstairs and a loft-style bedroom on the second floor. The extra height creates a feeling of space. Image: Andy Baker.

6. Music studio and study

‘Functionality and flexibility’ were the watchwords for this studio at the back of a home in the inner Melbourne suburb of Northcote. The owners wanted a multi-purpose space that could be used as a professional music studio, reception room, guest bedroom, study and family room. Statkus Architecture was asked to design a building that worked on a number of functional levels while connecting to and enhancing the existing house. Image: Matthew Mallet.

7. Carina Heights granny flat

A stand-out feature of this granny flat at Carina Heights, a south-east suburb of Brisbane, is a distinctive strawbale wall that the owners settled on after consulting with Peter McArdle of Gold Coast firm PTMA Architecture. Facing due west, the large wall shields the 35-square-metre granny flat from the harsh Queensland sun. Standing clear of the building, it vents hot air into a court space rather than inside. It also provides a privacy buffer from the neighbours and the occupants in the main house. Image: Fotomedia.

8. West End granny flat

This secondary dwelling in West End in Brisbane was built for the ageing parents of one of the owners of the main house. The building was carefully orientated both for climatic appropriateness and to enhance private living environments for the residents of the flat, the existing house and the neighbours. Effective space was maximised by allowing the bedroom area to combine with the living area, but it can be closed off if required for privacy.  Image: Matt Crocker.

9. Tiny house Freo

At just 17 square metres, this pocket-sized home in Fremantle’s suburbs is colourful and compact. With clever storage, a high ceiling, roof window and separate living spaces, it provides enough space for a couple and their young baby. The designer, Western Australian architect Nic Brunsdon, says fitting two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom, study, living and dining into 17 square metres was no small feat. “It makes you pay attention to what’s important in all aspects of design, construction and living. It’s philosophical as much as structural. Every pocket becomes an opportunity. We utilised spaces under the stair treads and depressions in the structural frame.”

10. Corrie Road granny flat

When Nick Richter of design firm Saturday Studio and his partner bought a large block of land at North Manly, they decided to subdivide it into two lots, front and rear, and build a house and granny flat on each lot. The front house has a granny flat facing the street above the garage of the house, while the granny flat at the rear house is integral to the primary structure of that house. From a design point of view, Nick doesn’t think of the buildings as mere ‘granny flats’: “The front one is a small free-standing cottage with a very comfortable, large lounge room that can seat six people and not feel crowded. It has a full-size kitchen, a complete internal laundry, a bathroom with a striking curved wall and glass roof, and two double bedrooms with built-ins. It has its own street address, letterbox and front gate and a comfortable deck with architectural screen.”

The studios and granny flats featured above are explored in detail in “Backyard renaissance”, an article by Sanctuary editor, Kulja Coulston in Sanctuary 35. Available for purchase from the ATA webshop.

More affordable and more sustainable?

Housing affordability has been the topic du jour in the Australian media and politics of late. Yet while discussion  has focused on negative gearing and the inhibitive upfront costs of home ownership, broader conceptions of affordability remain in the background. The role of sustainable design in creating more affordable homes and communities has barely been mentioned.

However, there are many in the housing industry calling for broader conceptions of affordability. In 2009, the Australian Institute of Architects released an affordable housing policy that supported the Victorian Council of Social Service’s suggestion that what we need is ‘affordable living’, not just ‘affordable housing’. Affordable living takes into account the indirect costs of living such as accessing employment areas, expenditure on utilities, the costs of adaptable housing and sustainable design.

Several years later, upfront costs continue to frame affordability debates. The fact that discussion and debate all too often pitches affordability against sustainability frustrates Dr Trivess Moore, research fellow at RMIT University’s Centre for Urban Research. His research into the through-life costs of building 6 and 8 Star homes validates what sustainable designers have said for years: the higher upfront capital investment required to build a home with passive design at its core does pay off. “My modelling, and work by others, is showing that when you consider through-life affordability, any additional upfront costs [of sustainable design] should pay themselves back pretty quickly if you have good, clever design and suitable technologies,” Moore says.

This is a sentiment reiterated by building designer Luke Middleton of Eme Design. Designing homes more efficiently and flexibly with smaller building footprints is central to making housing more affordable. For Middleton, using space more efficiently is a key element often overlooked. It is partly about changing client expectations of how much space they really need, he says. Research into greenhouse gas emissions supports the impact of house size in achieving environmental sustainability – smaller houses and stringent building codes significantly reduce CO  emissions from new buildings.

Another element of the sustainability and affordability debate is housing type. No longer is the quarter acre block with a detached or semi-detached dwelling necessarily the dream. Apartments are increasingly seen as a more affordable option for those who want to live within relative proximity to the CBDs of major cities. Across Australia, about 80,000 apartments are expected to be built in 2016, with Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane leading the construction charge. Yet, as apartment blocks rise from the dust of inner urban infill sites, the quality of the housing proposed and currently under construction is under review.

The Nightingale Model (designer-led, multi-residential housing) is one development approach with a stated aim of delivering better quality, sustainable and more affordable homes for Melbourne residents. At a planning committee hearing earlier this year, architect Jeremy McLeod of Breathe Architecture pitched his case for why the Nightingale I project should be built as designed. “Affordability, how do we do that and how do we bring that to the residents of Moreland?” Smarter and more sustainable design, minimal car parking, 17kW of solar power, solar hot water and capped returns for investors were important parts of his answer.

However, apartment living is not considered a viable option for everyone. Based on feedback from potential purchasers, Six Degrees has incorporated three-bedroom apartments into their Nightingale II development. They are not affordable in the traditional sense but they are more affordable, says Six Degrees director James Legge. The experience of residents at Nightingale’s little sister supports this. McLeod explains the biggest utility cost The Commons residents have is their internet use [read more on this project in Sanctuary 33].

Meeting the challenge of Australia’s housing affordability crisis is no small task. The housing experts, designers and providers who are working towards solutions know that good design, including environmentally sustainable design, is central, not opposed to the affordability agenda. The challenge is that custom designed buildings are often more expensive than off-the-shelf solutions. Yet sustainable design doesn’t have to cost more. Dr Moore and his colleagues asked housing industry professionals in Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales about the costs and benefits of well-designed homes. Their responses were telling: while it might cost between zero and five per cent more to build an apartment with improved thermal performance, passive solar orientation and visual amenity, the value of these aspects, which are not typically incorporated into cost-benefit analyses, was perceived as completely worthwhile.

For Moore, Middleton and others, sustainability and affordability aren’t mutually exclusive goals. It’s not about adding extra, but thinking more carefully about the design of homes, designing in flexibility and incorporating technologies that can offset the rising costs of energy, water and other services.

“Sustainability has got a bad rap in terms of cost because of ill-considered designs,” Middleton says, adding that transparency about embodied and operating energy is important. “We need more good precedents out there to say, this is the hero and this is the reason why.”

Sarah Robertson is a writer and researcher based in Melbourne. Her PhD, based at RMIT University, is looking at the role of environmentally sustainable residential design and urban community projects in shaping sustainable cities and citizens.

Keep your costs down without compromising on design

Jenny Edwards, a Director and Scientist at Light House Architecture & Science, tests houses to help people tailor their renovation or retrofit budgets for maximum benefit. Here, she provides some tips to keep your costs down without compromising on good design.

Affordability and sustainability fit together perfectly! Through excellent design – use of natural light, connection to outdoors, smart integrated storage – a small footprint home can feel as big as, and function better than, homes with much larger floor areas.

To make a new home more sustainable:

The quality of the building envelope is vital. Insulate and draught seal. Do both of these things, as one without the other just doesn’t make sense.

Minimise your floor area through excellent design with no dead spaces – maximise space efficiency and functionality.

Think hard about how you want to live, what functions you want your home to be able to perform and design to achieve this brief without excess. The smaller the footprint the lower the upfront costs and embodied energy. The smaller the footprint the lower the running costs.