Summer reads from 2016

dezeen-book-of-interviews-christmas-2015_dezeen_04-200pxDezeen Book of Interviews: Architecture, interiors, design

Edited by Marcus Fairs, Dezeen

Dezeen Book of Interviews makes for a fantastic read. It contains selected interviews with 45 leading figures in architecture and design conducted for the Dezeen website between 2008 and 2014. Read the full review >

birdscaping-200pxBirdscaping Australian Gardens: Using Native Plants to Attract Birds to Your Garden

George Adams, Penguin

Birdscaping is a comprehensive reference which offers guidance on bird species identification, and on the growing and maintenance of plants to provide food, shelter and nesting for birds. Read the full review >

permaculture_city-200pxThe Permaculture City

Toby Hemenway, Chelsea Green Publishing

Chelsea Green publishes fantastic books about organic gardening, permaculture, ecology, DIY, and sustainability. The Permaculture City: Regenerative Design for Urban, Suburban, and Town Resilience (2015) by Toby Hemenway is no exception. Read the full review >

the_terrace_house-200pxThe Terrace House: Reimagined for the Australian Way of Life

Edited by Cameron Bruhn and Katelin Butler, Thames & Hudson

With many well-designed buildings, floor plans and beautiful images, this book would be of interest to those in the throes of planning a new home or addition. Read the full review >

planning-melbourne-200pxPlanning Melbourne: Lessons for a sustainable city

Edited by Michael Buxton, Robin Goodman & Susie Maloney, CSIRO Publishing

The population of Melbourne is exploding, with an estimated 1.6 million extra homes needed by 2050. The editors are all top of their fields: Michael Buxton, Professor of Environment and Planning at RMIT University, is an expert on peri-urban development and environmental policy; Robin Goodman, Professor and Deputy Dean of Sustainability and Urban Planning at RMIT, has extensive knowledge of housing and planning policy; Susie Moloney is a senior research fellow and lecturer with the School of Global Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University. The book examines housing affordability, transport choices, protection of green areas and heritage and urban consolidation. Planning Melbourne explores the history of planning since the war years, with a focus on the past 20 years and the ways in which key government policies have shaped the city. While it has Melbourne as its focus, this is a useful book for anyone interested in issues of urbanisation, governance and planning.

review_bee-friendly-200px-borderThe Bee Friendly Garden: Easy ways to help the bees and make your garden grow

Doug Purdie, Allen and Unwin

Anyone familiar with Peter Carey’s classic novel Bliss will know the difficulty Honey Barbara has with starving bees. A lack of flowering plants, due to land clearing and drought, forced her to travel ever farther seeking food for her hives. This is, sadly, a common issue in Australia; bee populations can become marooned in food deserts among the expanding suburbs. Doug Purdie has previously written informatively about keeping bees, but has now penned a revealing new book on how to create bee-friendly gardens, including selecting plants that can adequately support bee populations. He explains why these insects are beneficial to our gardens, but also points to their role in keeping urban ecosystems healthy. The book is attractively illustrated with photographs, and presents simple challenges that we can all take on – such as building insect hotels!

review_eco-house-design-guide-200pxThe Eco-Home Design Guide: Principles and practice for new-build and retrofit

Christopher Day, UIT/Green Books

For readers of Sanctuary and Your Home, many of the concepts in this newly released guide to sustainable building will be familiar. However, with a plethora of simple diagrams, clear explanations and even poetic language, Christopher Day’s contribution to this body of knowledge is a valuable one. Examples in the book are generally from Europe and the UK but, with many of the older buildings in Australia’s major cities of a similar age and style to those he refers to, Day’s insights into how to improve the environmental performance of existing housing stock are broadly applicable. For home renovators and builders in southern states, there are tips on appropriate materials, and impressive effort paid to cheat-sheet style ‘key points’ which will suit speed-readers. This is a thorough design guide that returns to first principles, and explains well why each of us should take whatever steps we can to improve houses for comfort and efficiency in a changing climate.

When is a concrete floor the right choice?

For decades we’ve been sending out the message about thermal mass being a really useful way to achieve natural thermal comfort in a house, and concrete floor slabs are the most common way of doing just that.

Thermal mass is a term that refers to ‘enthalpy’, or any material’s ability to store heat energy. Enthalpy is actually a measure of any amount of thermal energy, so it can infer a relative excess of energy which we feel as warmth; or a relative lack of energy which we feel as the opposite, allowing the delightful term ‘coolth’ to make its presence felt. Think of it as a temperature flywheel.

As it happens, concrete is a brilliant material not only because it is strong, moldable and long lasting – it also has a lot of thermal mass. An important extra dimension is its conductivity, and these come together in passive solar design as follows: in winter the low angled sun penetrates the north-facing glazing, striking the top surface of the concrete floor slab. The conductivity of the concrete allows the heat to spread deep into its thickness, and the thermal mass absorbs it, gradually building up until the sun sets, when that heat is returned to the room. Then in summer, the well-designed building’s perfect shading angles exclude all sun, allowing the thermal mass to soak up any discomfort inside the house, whereupon it is dumped to the cool night air when the windows are thrown open after dark.

Except that it rarely works that perfectly. It’s not hard to spot the potential flaws in the fairy tale. Things that can and do often mar this perfect picture are imperfect building design, poor orientation, and uncontrolled shading. A neighbour’s trees or buildings, and other externalities, can also hamper our best-laid architectural plans. This design approach is also focused on localities with a cool to cold winter – north of the sub-tropical regions things are different. Additionally, most slabs won’t perform optimally if they are uninsulated; and yet, concrete floor slabs can still be of benefit, if designed into a holistic solution.

THERMAL COMFORT BENEFITS

Passive cooling

Because of its ability to soak up ambient heat, a well-shaded, well-insulated house will always benefit from thermal mass in hot conditions, as long as there is some low-energy means of dumping that heat.  Traditionally, this meant night purging, which in spite of its horror-movie sound, is simply the practice of opening up windows and doors in the cool evening to allow the heat to escape.

If there is no reliably cool evening, such as in Darwin, Broome or Cairns, thermal mass may not be useful in that way. Some climates allow mechanical cooling of the slab, such as hydronic cooling, but in humid climates condensation is a risk unless the building is sealed and air-conditioned.

Passive solar heating

In regions with cooler winters, using orientation to admit winter sun deep into the building is key to making the thermal mass in a concrete floor work. If no free solar energy is available, the slab will not heat up and will instead act as a passive cooling heat sink just when you don’t want it to. This is an all-too-common experience and has given concrete floor slabs a bad name in some people’s minds.

You can also use solar energy ‘borrowed’ from somewhere else to heat the slab, usually from the roof of the house using electricity and water to transfer it: solar hydronic heating. You can also use a combination of both approaches where there is some solar access but it is insufficient.

This Melbourne home’s polished concrete floor includes 30 per cent flyash with a lovely aggregate pattern exposed in polishing. The slab edge is insulated with R1.5 Foilboard and the floor is finished with Kunos Natural Oil by Livos. Image: Rhiannon Slatter. This is Steffen Welsch Architects design.

This Melbourne home’s polished concrete floor includes 30 per cent flyash with a lovely aggregate pattern exposed in polishing. The slab edge is insulated with R1.5 Foilboard and the floor is finished with Kunos Natural Oil by Livos. Image: Rhiannon Slatter, design by Steffen Welsch Architects.

GROUND COUPLING – OR NOT

An uninsulated concrete slab on the ground will, if the building above is well insulated, draw up deep ground temperatures from about three metres down. In many parts of Australia this gives the slab an annual temperature range of about 16 degrees Celsius in late winter to spring, ranging up to about 19 degrees Celsius in late summer to autumn. While a bit too cool for comfort, at least it’s a stable starting point. Passive solar design will provide free solar gain from north-facing double glazing to add approximately four to six degrees to the slab in winter taking it within the perfect comfort zone. Passive cooling is then used to exclude any summer sun to allow the slab to hover in the comfortable 20 to 22 degree range well into late summer.

The more southerly and higher altitude regions have soil temperatures that are too low for this to work well, and under-slab insulation is called for. Also, if external factors prevent solar access, insulation may also be a good idea. Slab edge insulation is always a good idea. This is because the ground temperatures at the surface vary wildly, directly affecting the perimeter of the slab. Note that waffle pod slabs, originally designed to act like stiff rafts on highly reactive clay soils, act like insulated slabs. The big and burning question is when to insulate, and when not to? Local knowledge from skilled professionals is the key here.

THE BIGGER PICTURE: TOTAL ECO-IMPACTS

The ultimate goal of using thermal mass is to help create a comfortable, long-lasting home. So any concrete floor slab should pull its weight in the contest against discomfort, by eliminating or seriously reducing heating and cooling energy. But there is more to the energy equation than just what it will save during the building’s operation: there is the energy it took to make the concrete; the energy that it will take to remake it at end of life; and the other social and eco-impacts of that making and recycling. This is called a life cycle assessment (LCA).

The major pollution byproduct of conventional concrete is the carbon dioxide emitted during the production of Portland cement, but other emissions occur during the quarrying of virgin sand and aggregates, transportation, and curing. The quarrying itself has a major impact, including large holes in the ground, noise and trucks on the road.

Compared to some other materials, concrete is starting from a less desirable point and should be used in ways that reduce its ecological debt. This can be by maximising its operational benefits during the building’s life, and minimising its eco-impacts at end of life. Key to that is ensuring the building is designed and built well, and has a long operational life. The relentless redevelopment of our cities can make the future of a building an uncertain one – a fact to consider seriously.

To assist designers to make good product selections, the Building Products Innovation Council created the Life Cycle Inventory database of the most common building materials and products. It shows that 20MPa concrete (common low-to-moderate strength, can be used for slabs on stable soils) has a carbon debt of 1.62kg per kg of concrete produced, whereas 40MPa concrete (common high-strength, used in suspended slabs) has a carbon debt of 2.36kg per kg – a 45 per cent increase. Engineers therefore need to find a balance between the added carbon debt and the potential increased longevity of a slab that uses higher strength concrete.

Another little-known impact of concrete is the affect its high alkalinity has on aquatic life forms. Although most floor slabs are internal, and not exposed to the rain that then becomes run-off to creeks some outdoor slabs are within the hydrological cycle. Concrete can raise the pH levels of waterways which can affect their health, but stormwater systems are the main culprit in this regard.

INNOVATIONS HERE AND ON THE HORIZON

There are ways of reducing both the carbon debt of concrete and its quarrying impacts. The use of ‘extenders’ – other low-carbon materials that displace some of the high impact materials – is well proven.

Flyash, a byproduct of coal-fired power stations and steelmaking, is used to replace various amounts of Portland cement. It is a kind of geopolymer, and it is standard practice for many designers and engineers to specify 25 per cent replacement, in such products as Boral Envirocrete. But Boral has taken it to another level with their Envisia concrete, reducing its carbon debt by a whopping 65 per cent. It is currently available only from a few of their many depots, but demand will see that become universal – so start demanding! We have used Envisia and found it to be workable for a longer period than conventional concrete, with less shrinkage and creep. Of course, as we phase out coal-fired power, these waste materials will become scarcer, and truly long-term alternatives will need to be found.

The Sustainable Resource Centre at Sydney’s Fairfield City Council has teamed up with Metromix’s Wetherill Park depot to create a 95 per cent recycled concrete (by volume), using recycled sand and aggregates in concretes which can be specified up to 42MPa – even the mix water is harvested on site. Depending on the source of the sand, this mix has a slightly different colour to conventional concrete and stays workable for long periods.

Low-carbon and carbon-neutral geopolymers provide a complete alternative to Portland cement, with dramatically lower carbon emissions during production. Some even absorb carbon dioxide during curing, enabling the concrete to immediately repay some of its carbon debt. For over 20 years, Tasmanian company TecEco has been developing and researching low-emissions magnesium cements that can absorb carbon dioxide during curing, but these are not yet widely or commercially available.

DESIGN CONSIDERATIONS – RULES OF THUMB

Where to use it?

The default starting point should be to use concrete floor slabs where it can help provide free heating and cooling: where good solar access is available, concentrate on the northern zones of the home. This can be extended to other zones if you include low-energy heating systems like solar hydronics, which will still take advantage of the thermal mass.

How much concrete?

It’s possible – easy in fact – to have too much. This will overpower the heating cycle and become a heat sink. Generally, floor slabs work well even if the rest of the building is lightweight.

Which concrete?

Speak to your designer and engineer about not over-specifying the strength. This is often done because engineers don’t trust builders to cure concrete properly – and sadly they are mostly right! Controlled curing will bring concrete up to 95 per cent of its ultimate strength in 21 days, and can be done by applying a curing compound, or covering with plastic. Wetting uses too much water, as it should be applied continuously for two weeks, and potentially up to a month.

Should it be insulated?

Generally, if there are extremes of temperature for more than several hours per day for several months of each year (that is, most of Australia), then the edges should be insulated. Insulation beneath the slab is a more nuanced question (refer to the yourhome.gov.au website for more details than I have space for here). If any heating system is installed, the slab must be insulated as required by the building code.

What about the first floor?

First floor slabs need a bit of careful thought. If the living areas are upstairs, with an ability to effectively isolate the two levels (that is, doors near the stairs), then a suspended slab will provide all of the passive design benefits described above. If, however, the bedrooms are upstairs, and especially if there is no effective way to isolate the two levels, or no way for the upstairs to freely vent heat all day in summer, then the upper slab may accumulate too much heat and make bedtime quite uncomfortable.

What about installing services?

It is self evident that adding services to a completed concrete slab is problematic, so good planning is essential. Make sure all plumbing and electrical and other services are installed during the preparation phase.

AESTHETICS – FINISHES AND COLOUR

Concrete can be supplied with noticeably different colours and aggregates. Exposed surface finishes generally fall into two camps: burnished or polished.

A burnished finish is achieved by simply trowelling the setting concrete until it literally shines. This process can be done by hand, but more easily by powered ‘helicopter’ machines that are used to give the slab its smooth, steel-trowelled finish. This process may extend the trowelling by several hours. On completion, the slab must be protected from impact and scratching for the duration of the works. The surface is left with a natural looking mottled finish, which can be further enhanced by staining, then sealing.

Polished concrete is a slight misnomer – it actually means to grind the surface back several millimetres and then polish. This exposes the aggregates, which may be specially selected for size and colour, including small pieces of glass, sea shells and other small articles. It may also be stained, but more commonly oxides are added to subtly alter the colour of the background. The grinding and finishing is usually done late in the building works, but even so, the surface is usually protected to prevent any deep damage.

The surface of a slab can also be sand blasted or acid washed to etch to varying degrees. All material washed off the surface must be contained and removed, rather than allowed to wash into the outside world.

The surface isn’t just something you look at – you walk and perhaps even sit on it too. Concrete is by definition quite hard. Consider whether work areas, like the kitchen, need a softer surface so you can stand comfortably for long periods; it also gives that wineglass a second chance.

ALTERNATIVES

It is always easiest to go with the flow in decision making. But you should ask questions at every stage of planning a project: is this the best material for the job? Are there alternatives that might do it better? Any material with valid credentials will survive this questioning and give you confidence in the choices you have made.

The traditional alternative to concrete slab floors is the conventional raised timber floor: timber flooring on bearers and joists on stumps. In many situations this is a valid choice too, such as on steep sites, or where there is no solar access and thus no free heat to soak up.

But there are hybrids too, offering the best of both worlds: thin suspended concrete on bearers and/or joists, seen in systems such as Smartslab. This has a moderate amount of thermal mass, and while it may not be quite as soundproof as a full slab, is generally quieter than a timber floor. CSR Hebel also makes lightweight reinforced precast concrete floor panels, which can be laid very quickly over timber or steel structures, but the surface cannot be exposed, needing either a topping, tiles or carpet.

An alternative to providing thermal mass in a lightweight floor structure is to use phase change materials. These change between solid and liquid at room temperatures and absorb or release large amounts of thermal energy as they do so.

Planting beyond tomorrow: selecting resilient trees for your garden

Of all the things we do in our lives, planting a tree might be one of the most significant. It’s a leap of faith, in much the same way that having children is. A tree is absolutely independent from of us, yet can also be incredibly reliant on our ongoing care.

The tree I plant today depends on my good judgement, my attention to soil preparation, proper planting technique, staking, watering in, formative pruning, root zone protection, and so on and on. This tree will, with proper selection and care, outlive me, and my children’s grandchildren. As strawberries are to summer, a red gum is to centuries.

Trees have a lot to contend with already and yet there is more change to come. It’s hot and getting hotter. It’s dry and getting drier. Our cities offer less room for them to spread out and grow. The soil is getting harder, there’s less of it and what is there is sometimes lifeless. It’s getting windy, windier than many species would have experienced before. And sometimes it’s wet, very wet.

When Dorothea Mackellar wrote “of droughts and flooding rains” she was imbued with a sense of romantic awe. That Australia was all about wide frontiers, jewelled promise and a sense of pastoral bounty. If our country was sunburnt then, it’s positively fried, blistered and scarred now. The trouble is, factor 50 doesn’t quite work for the birches, elms and oaks. Or even the red gums.

How to predict the future

We need to look to the future for our tree choices, not the past, and climate modelling and data can help. Using data widely available from the Bureau of Meteorology, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel and Climate Change (IPCC) and the government’s Climate Change in Australia website, we can make an educated prediction of what our local climate might look like in 2030, 2050 or 2090. Looking forward 60-plus years is an appropriate timeframe when thinking about trees, because this accounts for the establishment, juvenile and mature periods. In effect, when planting trees we are setting them up to still provide shade to our fellow citizens sometime in the early 2100s.

Resilient trees for your location

Australia is still a wide brown land with huge variations in climate and geology. The challenge in selecting trees for a climate-changed future is to really know where you are; the environment, physical site conditions and what these might look like in the future. This is where the Climate Change in Australia website is invaluable. It allows you to make an analogous comparison between the place you are now and another town with a climate that is currently very similar in temperature and rainfall to what yours may look like in the future (either 2030, 2050 or 2090).

As an example, Melbourne’s 2050 climate is projected to be more like the current climate of Wagga Wagga or Adelaide. Knowing this can help me forecast what my garden microclimate might feel like in a climate-changed future. Hotter and drier than Melbourne, Adelaide has 20 per cent less rainfall and mid-range, annual average temperatures that are 2.2 degrees warmer. With this in mind, I can look at Adelaide or Wagga Wagga for planting ideas, and to discover which tree species are currently performing well in those locations and are tolerant of the climatic conditions. With this knowledge, I might now choose tree species like ghost gums, round-leaved moort or bottle trees as my future trees for Melbourne.

Eucalyptus camaldulensis (river red gum), remnant growth and more than 250 years old. Kew, Victoria.

Eucalyptus camaldulensis (river red gum), remnant growth and more than 250 years old. Kew, Victoria.

Observe the trees around you

Take a walk around your local neighbourhood and look for trees that are performing really well and those that are failing or have failed. Cast your mind back to the most recent significant drought. For me, that was the decade through to 2010 in Melbourne. I watched as hundreds of exotic ornamental trees, like silver birch, elms and maples, gave up the ghost. I also noted the trees that survived, even thrived. Some surprised me, like Capital pears.

Now imagine the trees in your garden or neighbourhood today – do they suit the climate or are they already showing signs of stress? What about the existing soils – how might that change with less rainfall and higher temperatures? Using the official predictions, you might find your garden will be drier, more prone to wind erosion, hold fewer nutrients or be baked hard, making drainage and root penetration more difficult.

The City of Melbourne’s urban forest strategy is a great resource for understanding environmental stress on urban trees. Melbourne has identified that 22 per cent of its 60,000 urban trees are either reaching the end of their life or are highly vulnerable to changing climatic conditions. The city is embarking on a substantial tree replacement program, choosing new species, such as Agathis robusta (Queensland kauri) to replace aged and declining Dutch elms. This is one example of thinking outside the box when it comes to choosing future trees. It’s possible your city or town has undertaken a similar study.

Investigate similar climate zones

If you get the chance to go someplace else for a break, look at the trees that are performing well there. If the climate is somewhat similar to what your present home city might become – like say Perth in 2050 becoming more like Grafton, Parkes or Toowoomba now, or Sydney in 2050 becoming more like Brisbane – then make some notes, take some pictures and ask questions.

I was recently in Cotton Tree on the Sunshine Coast. One of my favourite individual trees is in a park by the river: a graceful, sweeping Melaleuca quinquenervia (broad-leaved paperbark) with the most gorgeous flaking salmon-hued bark. It is potentially a perfect tree for a coastal garden in Sydney. The jacarandas of Grafton are an obvious choice for Perth, while the callistemons of Adelaide’s boulevards are perfectly suited to the compacted soils and drought conditions of Melbourne’s west. Of course there’s much more to tree selection than just this, but looking elsewhere for future tree inspiration is a pretty good idea.

Tree resilience research

To say what a tree ‘likes and dislikes’ would be to anthropomorphise too much. However I think it’s fair to say the voiceless message of trees is ‘tolerance’. On that level, it seems trees and humans are quite similar. We often tolerate more than we might first let on, only to be completely intolerant of the simplest things, like changes to routine. More than anything else, it is the routine of climate that is so rapidly changing for trees. The evolutionary nature of long-lived organisms, like trees, means they’re often very slow to adapt to change, sometimes too slow, and our changing climate probably won’t wait for them.

Trevor Seppings is a native tree expert who is working on developing tree species that aren’t traditionally grown in cultivation. As part of his work for the Australian Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Cranbourne, he’s looking to develop tree species for botanic gardens around the country, and for broader cultivation, that may be better suited to the climate-changed future we’re facing. Trevor believes climate conditions in south eastern Australia may become such that mallees and ghost gums (typically more suited to dry inland areas) will perform very well. But there’s more research to be done and even anecdotal observation is a valuable reference point for tree selection.

Keep listening

“I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.” The Lorax, Dr Seuss.

Like many people of my vintage I grew up on a diet of Dr Seuss’ magical, poetic, sometimes dark, but always enlightening stories. I first learnt about the environment and my role as a steward of it from the Lorax, its lyricism giving voice to my deepest thoughts about my role as a gardener, designer and citizen.

When we stop to listen, the trees will tell us of their histories, through cracked bark and broken limb, in lifted root balls and lost crowns, and through the season-on-season march of carbon, oxygen and water through their cambium.

At times I see myself as a translator, positioned between the somewhat transient daily lives of humans and the seasons-measured lives of plants, especially trees. Even though the trees don’t speak, I reckon we can hear their stories. And our role as gardeners is to translate the message of their lives both for us and for our wider community.

Michael Tanner is a designer and horticulturist with a lifelong passion for making sustainable, beautiful and liveable gardens.

Design frontiers: How 3D modelling puts you in the picture

Gone are the days of hand-drawn plans, sections and elevations. While architects and designers still commence a project with trusty pencil and serviette or tracing paper they’re increasingly turning to software to bring your project to life.

They’re using Building Information Modelling (BIM), a 3D model-based process that’s transforming workflows and efficiencies in the building industry. It means more accurate projects designed and built with greater efficiencies – which is good news for the environment – and more stakeholder collaboration between you, the client, and the builders, engineers, surveyors and so on.

As a client, your direct experience with BIM is likely to be through its 3D software. BIM 3D software, be it Revit, AutoCAD, Archicad, SketchUp or Vectorworks, allows designers to stage every part of the design documentation online. They can transpose plans with the click of a mouse into 3D images or video walk-throughs and bring whole rooms to life right down to details like splashback tiles and light fittings.

Working with the designer, you can pick and choose different options for materials, colours, finishes, roofs, tiles, bricks, windows – you name it – which means you’re more likely to get what you’re after. Tim Ellis of Glow Building Design, based in Melbourne, lists this opportunity to finesse the design with the clients as one of the main benefits of BIM. “We’re able to explain things better with the software,” he says. He describes a typical conversation where he’s discussing with the client the placement of a washing machine, for example. Ellis can use the software to “take them inside the house on a walk-through and show them the washing machine sitting under the stairs.” If the client requested the washing machine be moved he could do this on the spot on his laptop by making the change on the 3D drawing itself. This would automatically update the plan, and in turn all the associated sections and elevations. Twenty years ago this would have been done by hand, taking considerable time and potentially introducing errors.

According to Talina Edwards, principal at Talina Edwards Architecture in Ballarat, another benefit is cost savings. With BIM, she explains, clients can make design decisions and changes earlier in the process. “It’s much easier and cheaper to add another room or realise the neighbour shades your outdoor living space and alter the 3D model than to wait until the builder is onsite when these changes will be much more costly,” she says. The collaboration BIM allows also ensures any issues can be resolved earlier in the process, leading to fewer variations and time blowouts.

BIM is also an important tool for sustainability. Architects can check how the building is oriented and sun paths and shadows display in real time through every day of the year. This is great for checking that shading will work as expected, for example. As part of her practice Edwards has started exploring software options like Sefaira, a thermal-modelling analysis tool that plugs into SketchUp or Revit, which lets architects validate the energy performance of a building in real time rather than after a project is completed.

For now, most residential designers have only scratched the surface of the available features of BIM. It needs to be given the ‘Apple’ treatment, laughs Edwards, to make it more accessible. But it’s only a matter of time before features that are in use at the bigger end of town will make their way into the residential sector. BIM can be used to improve workflows, create libraries for specifications and automate repetitive processes. It can be used for material estimates allowing builders to order exactly what they need, which means you pay exactly what you need to pay. This will also cut down on material wastage.

“In the future I hope there will also be improvements in sustainability and energy-modelling that’s more than just looking at sun paths or 6 Star energy rating,” says Edwards. “It will be more about analysing the building fabric and performance in terms of energy and water use data, plus life cycle cost analysis, et cetera.”

In the meantime, alongside BIM, architects and designers continue to add other innovative communication tools to their practice. Gabrielle Pelletier, associate at Anderson Architecture, in Sydney, says her firm integrated virtual reality into their communication tool box, to take a 3D snap shot one step further by turning it into a 360 degree image. “It places the client in the centre and allows them to look up, down, and into every single corner. We are able to place furniture or artwork similar to their own into the spaces so they can really feel their own habitation of the space. We have even started to utilise this tool during the tender process to provide builders with a real sense of the spaces before they start pricing from the drawings.”

Augmented reality, used by the astronomically popular Pokémon Go, will also debut. “You’ll be able to do a virtual architecture tour before your project is constructed,” says Edwards. “Imagine standing on your site wearing digital goggles and being able to physically walk through your virtual building!”

With all this talk of the pros of the software, should you be worried if your chosen architect or designer doesn’t use BIM? Probably not. BIM is extremely useful and its potential is huge, but some small practices don’t have the knowledge or resources to work on some of the more complex BIM programs. (Revit, for example, costs over $2800 per year for a licence; SketchUp Pro around $900). Software is also no substitute for design talent. That said, these tools can markedly increase efficiencies, reducing time, materials and cost, and they will only get better over time. They will also become increasingly important tools to ensure your sustainable house performs as well as you’re hoping it will.

Asked if he thinks BIM will put designers out of a job in the future, Ellis laughs but doesn’t believe it will: “It gives homeowners more control over the process but the thing that makes it tricky for the client is all the rules that go along with it. It’s fine to visualise something, but making it a reality is a whole other thing.”

Further info:
If you’re planning a build or renovation you can download open source BIM software to play with such as SketchUp, which has a free version.

Verity Campbell is a communications consultant, freelance writer and trainer with extensive experience working with architectural and design firms.