Sanctuary 42 out now – Prefab performers

If you still think prefab is code for ‘cookie cutter’ you’d be wrong. Led by countries such as Sweden where over 80 per cent of houses are now built in factories, there has been a widespread architectural revolution when it comes to prefabricated construction. Now, almost any design is possible.

S42-Cover 300pxIn our Modular & Prefab special feature in Sanctuary 42, we speak with 16 companies offering what can be called ‘prefabricated’, ‘factory’ or ‘off-site’ construction services – read our summary here. We have selected those with a focus on the residential sector and which provide options for high building energy star ratings, renewable materials and cost-effective production. Their approaches fall into two main construction categories – modular and panelised – but within these is a huge range of different products on offer.

Since Sanctuary last looked at this sector in issue 31, modular construction remains the predominant approach. The change has been in the number of companies offering panelised systems which, on our count, has doubled in three years. Considered the ‘European’ approach, many are airtight, interlocking systems that can achieve passivhaus standard. The panels range from structural insulated panels (SIPs) using high-density foam insulation, to timber wall panels filled with glasswool and many other combinations.

Efficiencies of prefab/off-site construction can be brought to any design, though it helps if the design is done with the capabilities of the construction method in mind. ‘De-risking’ the building process by disclosing costs and timeframes to clients up front is also a feature of this industry.

Some prefab companies now offer partnerships with recommended architects and local trades, but a surprising number are architecturally driven and have full design/build teams in-house. Melbourne appears to be the hotbed of action when it comes to innovating with prefabrication, but the rest of Australia (and New Zealand) has growing businesses too – although with this building method geared for transportation, location is little barrier.

Products – focus on furnishings

Secondhand mid-century couch (feature image)
Furniture today can be an environmental nightmare, made from particleboard that contains formaldehyde adhesives, filled with foam that might contain flame retardants, or off-gassing VOCs from chemicals and dyes. Many manufacturers and craftspeople are creating pieces to a much higher standard, but if you want to keep your purchases simple and safe then you can’t beat secondhand furniture, especially pieces that are built to last such as this 1960s daybed available from vintage furniture retailer Modern Times. Buying secondhand is a sustainable way to secure a hardwood frame as no trees were recently milled to make this beauty. Be aware of the environmental credentials of the products used to restore furniture though, especially new upholstery which can off-gas. This couch has been reupholstered with Instyle’s Etheco wool, which is produced to strict environmental guidelines including low impact dyes and a cradle to cradle production process. The couch itself was shipped from Denmark, which may not add up if you wish to factor in carbon emissions associated with transportation. More vintage couches can be found locally via online trading sites including Facebook’s plethora of buy swap sell pages, all in varying condition including ready for restoration. It’s hard to imagine a piece like this ending up in landfill. Price $4400.

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Organic latex mattress
Most mattresses are made from petrochemical-based polyurethane foam, so it’s good to know there’s a mattress material that instead comes from renewable resources. Latex is the milky fluid found in the bark of rubber trees that can be vulcanised, a process that converts the latex to a solid foam that’s comfortable to sleep on and gentle on allergy sufferers. Latex is intrinsically anti-dust mite and mould-resistant. Heveya’s range of mattresses are made from latex taken from an organic rubber plantation with no traces of chemical fertiliser. Their latex farmers are paid according to Fair Trade principles and the company has an environmentally sustainable manufacturing process with a water recycling facility. The rubber tree remains largely undamaged from the harvest as the latex simply pours from an incision over a number of days, and the tree has a useful life of over 20 years before being used as a tropical hardwood. Latex foam is biodegradeable when the mattress is done and dusted, or recyclable, only if such a facility exists nearby. Prices range from $1845 for a Heveya single mattress up to $3490 for a king size.

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Timeless dining styling
Solid timber dining tables will never go out of fashion and there will always be buyers eager for a secondhand one. It’s also a privilege to commission a piece from a skilled craftsperson who works with salvaged timbers, something that will be loved for decades at home. This Strathewen Table from YARD Furniture is made from timber that was salvaged from the National Gallery of Victoria. Needless to say this timber has history and takes less processing than recently-milled or manufactured timber. The table can be customised up to a length of four metres and is finished with a natural hardwax oil. If you are looking for something a little more timeless with uncoated legs there are many more options at YARD, or look in your own area for artisan furniture makers working with recycled timbers. Engaging a local craftsperson cuts greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and helps the local economy.
Price from $3500

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Denim bean bag
Fashion trends change rapidly and some styles of jeans just won’t ever make it out of the op shop for a second chance. Jeans get better with age though, and are perfect to upcycle into something useful again thanks to the fact that denim is so durable. JEANBAG is the great example of how to keep the discarded denim of the world from landfill, or any throwaway piece of strong fabric. It’s a bean bag handmade from around seven pairs of jeans sourced from charities and recycling operations, and can even be made from your own jeans if you choose. The ideal pair is pure cotton, blue and adult sized, but any jeans that don’t make the cut can be crafted into cushion covers, decorative bunting or a placemat set. The company claims best environmental practice is used throughout the process, including cold wash and line dry to prepare the denim, through to the use of water-based non-toxic ink for the printed care labels. Be sure to fill your bean bag with a biodegradable product not polystyrene. Dried beans or peas, buckwheat hulls or rice work well. A JEANBAG costs $499.

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Upcycled venetian pendant light
Home renovation generates waste, particularly from the fittings and fixtures that are ripped out, but anything can be upcycled where a bit of creativity and design flair exists. These pendant light fittings made from wooden venetian blinds are one such example. When Scottish designer Adrian Lawson moved to Australia he noticed that quality timber blinds were being sent to the tip, so set about giving them a new lease of life as designer light fittings. Recycling is intrinsic to Lawson, having grown up on a small island off the coast of Scotland where residents had to improvise with what was on hand. Hopefully his resourcefulness inspires others to find new uses for old curtains, cabinets, doormats and such. The Azebo 390 pendant, pictured, comes in either cedar or basswood, is finished in a water-based varnish and comes flat-packed for easy assembly. A 390mm long Azebo fitting costs $326, or $462 for the 690mm fitting, with many more styles available on the website.

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Indigenous enterprise furniture

There’s more to furnish than just our homes. There are our workplaces, community spaces and public offices just to name a few. It’s easy to turn to a large furniture retailer to fill the void, but there’s one alternative called Winya, an Indigenous social enterprise that supplies office furniture to a clientele of government agencies and healthcare providers. While Winya’s main aim is to provide employment and training opportunities to Indigenous Australians, they also have an environmental management system in place to ensure the quality and sustainability of their products. Their Arnhem Lounge Range uses waste timbers from mine-site clearing to produce custom-made soft seating in collaboration with remote Northern Territory Indigenous landowners and an Indigenous mill. The timber is graded and cut to basic furniture components, then shipped to Sydney for finishing and manufacture by trainees on apprenticeships. The Arnhem chair (on right) starts at $800 depending on fabric choices.

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Handwoven rugs
There are rugs, and then there are rugs. Most rugs are machine-made so buying a handwoven rug is a real treat that hopefully pays its artisan producer well for their work. Australian company Armadillo & Co works with a team of dyers and weavers in India to produce rugs under Fair Trade practices that ensure good pay and employment opportunities for workers, with some of the proceeds used to fund schools near the artisans’ homes. Fibres are either natural or recycled and include wool, hemp and recycled PET made from plastic bottles, which is used to make their outdoor rugs. It’s a long process to create one rug with the yarn hand-dyed and sun-dried, woven on a loom for many days where the weaving team take it in turns, then washed and finished. The result is a rug imbued with character and quality. Always check that your textile purchases are made under Fair Trade practices to ensure no child labour was used and artisans received fair payment. Prices vary, with the custom-made Origami rug, pictured, costing $306 per square metre.

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Custom joinery
Many homes today are overrun by engineered wood, with kitchen cupboards, shelves, wardrobes and bathroom cabinets often made from MDF and particleboard. While these boards might sometimes be made from recycled wood product, any MDF furniture will end up at the tip as MDF can’t be recycled, and chemical nasties such as formaldehyde are often used in their manufacture. Many cabinet makers are switched on to more environmentally sustainable materials like bamboo (which is very quick to renew), plywood and salvaged timber. One such manufacturer is Raw Edge Furniture in Perth, which built this plywood home office designed by architects Patrick Kosky and Yun Nie Chong. As well as plywood, much of their custom made shelving, cabinets and kitchen and bathroom joinery is made from recycled timbers. Contact a local cabinet maker to see if they love plywood/bamboo/recycled timbers as much as you do, and check that any plywood is certified to be formaldehyde-free. Price depends on project.

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One-piece chair
Since its first release in 2007 the Nobody chair by Komplot has become a bit of a design classic, with its iconic shape a result of being made in one single process. The chair is made from PET felt made from plastic bottles, and the production process requires no glues or resins nor screws or reinforcements, again due to the single process thermo-pressed manufacture of the chair. It’s easy to clean, is light and stackable, and can be recycled at the end of its useful life, although the standard PET recycling in Australia does not handle anything that isn’t a container. Regardless, we’d do well to buy more furniture and products made from recycled PET to keep plastic bottles out of landfill and the oceans. The only downside is that it ships from the Netherlands, home to great furniture design of course, but with many carbon miles associated with its transportation. The chair can be purchased via Cult Design in Australia. Price $1035, or from $299 for the Little Nobody kids chair. Allow 12 to 14 weeks for delivery.

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Organic bed linen
We spend around a third of our time in bed so our linen should support a healthy night’s sleep. While bamboo stands out because it is so fast to regenerate and uses less water than cotton in its production, it still undergoes a process to turn into fabric. That’s why it’s important to look for organic bamboo lyocell fabric for bedding rather than bamboo rayon, the difference being that lyocell is made mechanically while bamboo rayon is made chemically. Ettitude’s latest range of bamboo lyocell sheets is infused with bamboo charcoal, which is said to help absorb sweat, odour and bacteria due to its porous nature; the argument goes that the sheets stay fresher longer, need less washing and therefore less water and energy to look after them. Whether this eventuates or not is up to the owner and their laundry habits, but Ettitude’s linen collection is a sustainable and healthy option no less given that bamboo is gentler on allergy sufferers and able to wick away moisture. Ettitude are also big on efficient production methods, using a closed loop system in manufacturing that recycles and reuses water up to 200 times. The linen sets come in a range of colours and prices including $260 for a queen sheet set.

The makings of a sustainable renovation

A net-zero house is one where annual energy needs are met with onsite renewable energy. This can be achieved when renovating by installing an appropriately sized solar PV system, improving the energy efficiency of the entire home and appliances and removing any gas connection (gas from fossil fuels is not renewable).

The 7.9 Star Cheese House has done this and more. It’s a net ‘positive’ energy building as it generates energy surplus to need; a worthwhile achievement considering the housing sector accounts for 13 per cent of Australia’s emissions contribution.

Even well-designed passive solar homes will often benefit from boosting passive heating/cooling with some active HVAC. When renovating, take the chance to coordinate these passive and active systems – this way you achieve superior comfort with lowest bills.

Rarely is this executed as well as in Paul Hendy’s 8.4 Star Adelaide cottage, which has a passive solar addition. An air transfer system, operated with the latest KNX automation, helps maintain interior comfort at 18 to 27 degrees Celsius throughout the year.

For generations, European houses have met higher thermal efficiency standards than Australian homes, which are lucky to reach 2 Stars if built before 2003.

A renovation provides the opportunity to improve this, as Core Collective in Hobart  shows with the thermal makeover of a 1930s brick bungalow. As part of a renovation they installed hefty insulation, draught seals, triple glazing and low-energy or all-solar-electric appliances such as a heat pump hydronic heating system, with impressive results.

About half of a building’s lifetime energy use is associated with the materials used to construct it. That’s why, in addition to heritage, many consider retaining rather than demolishing a building.

The ‘Upcycled warehouse’ factory refurbishment is a case in point – the owners have prioritised character, reuse and recycling. They also made sure any new materials met the highest green credentials including being certified sustainable, low-embodied energy and reusable at end of life.

Australian houses are among the world’s largest, on average, but this doesn’t mean they’re the most functional or affordable; and rarely does a big backroom extension solve the problems of a dysfunctional house.

Space in our cities comes at a premium and small-space design is opening up new opportunities, as Kurt Crisp’s 142m2 house for his family of six shows. With a footprint of just 71m2 it’s an exemplar of smart design delivering high quality on a challenging site.

Future proofing is an evolving area of sustainable design, and is about setting a house up to support the occupants’ current and future needs. Downsizing/ageing in place is an aspect of this, as is accessible design. But so is mitigating against future energy prices and blackouts, considering transport and access to services. Flexible design can also include making a house easily adapted for co-habitation, multi-generational living or even divided to become two dwellings! If renovating, we encourage you to consider whether you’re adequately setting yourself up for life.

Well designed and located windows connect inside and out, provide views, natural light, passive solar heating and ventilation. But if they’re leaky, oversized or in the wrong position they can also be a weak link for thermal performance.

Our Auckland cover feature shows how it’s done well: new windows were positioned to capture views and breezes and existing windows retrofitted with double glazing. Although upgrading windows can really make a renovation – it might not be worth the expense if walls and ceilings are left un-insulated.

Not everyone can live on the sunny side of the street; luckily there’s a lot that can be done to improve the energy performance of houses with ‘poor’ orientation. The first step is to identify a site’s strengths and weaknesses, remembering there are two aspects to passive solar design – passive solar heating and passive cooling – and that a shady site might work well in summer.

We compare two similar houses with opposite orientations to show how to achieve great liveability on any site.