Green House

One of the great challenges of Green architecture is to create structures that do not appear to be the product of a droll, high fibre diet. The over-wrought effort to appear sustainable frequently carries visual penalties in the same way that some healthy vegetarian dishes resemble muck and electric powered cars that might look like air-brushed fruit but perform like house-bricks.

Which is why Peter Stronach’s farmhouse at Kangaloon, 100 kms south of Sydney, is such a relief. It lives up to its promises. No huge surprise then that the project won gold earlier this year at NSW’s Green Building Awards. Apart from appearing un-selfconscious in achieving its task, its appeal is the connection between substance and surface.

“A solar panel roof or rammed earth walls don’t necessarily make a Green project,” says the outspoken Stronach who is already in discussion with developers about appropriating the principles from Kangaloon into a suburban Sydney housing.

“It is partly about not being too overt and obvious in the way sustainability is handled and expressed,” says the managing director of the Sydney practise Allen Jack - Cottier. The house was the perfect project to “keep connected with the hands-on design process. It is easy to lose touch with what attracted you to architecture in the first place. Designing houses that are socially and environmentally responsible is a fantastic challenge. It isn’t all that difficult to turn out something that is acceptable, but to do it a bit differently is something else.

“The house is a model of designing around first principles rather than arriving with a pre-conceived idea to achieve a certain ‘look’. I hate skews and angles and all the wobbly stuff. We wanted a house that dealt with demanding environmental and climatic conditions that was also low maintenance,” he says of the design’s robust simplicity.

At first glance it echoes the Bowral region’s historic 19th century farmhouses with their tiny dormer windows and foot thick rammed solid brick walls. While a useful romantic reference, these houses were bitterly cold in winter and combustion stove hot in summer. Stronach’s design never set out to be a showpiece of sustainable design even though it is already seen as an exemplar: “I wanted it to reflect good architectural practice rather than showcasing solar panels and garden mulch”.

Such houses illustrate an un-selfconscious architecture. “One that isn’t going crazy trying to impress and be clever. If you get it right in the first place; the orientation, angles, shading and thermal qualities, then you can get rid of all of the expensive, energy guzzling crap needed to prop up poor design.

Stronach’s gold medal is a reward for a house with supremely low energy running costs of around $500 a year. To illustrate the performance differential he produces compelling figures to support his argument and illustrate just how energy efficient the design is. “Our off-peak electricity, radiant solar heat and wood fired heater costs just $10 a week .” By contrast some neighbouring properties run up heating, cooling and lighting bills of more than $300 a week, or $15,000 per annum - enough to make operation of an aircraft carrier begin to seem reasonable.

Most residential designs that perform to this level can resemble either bank vaults or toilet blocks. The Kangaloon house approach is consumately simple; put the reflective lightweight material outside and concrete slab/masonry inside. For additional thermal performance the radical space-age insulation Astro-foil borrowed from NASA space suit technology is sandwiched between the cladding and core.

On this, his first farmhouse, Stronach the veteran Sydney to Hobart sailor has already made a splash. “Look out across the countryside,” he says of the emergence of tract housing so readily approved by council. “Do these belong here? They look like they escaped from the suburbs of Wollongong,” Stronach exhorts after his battle for approval for his steel clad house. “You would expect that they would welcome something traditional in spirit and contemporary in form, but they want everything to be bland and to disappear.”

For his part though Stronach says even architects struggle to comprehend the Green agenda. “When the NSW Chapter award jury visited last year , I was surprised at how little interest was shown in energy performance of the house. I didn’t want to lecture them about that aspect of the architecture. I though it was unnecessary to state what appeared to be the bleedin’ obvious.

“It’s important not to see this as just some exotic one-off. You could easily take elements of this design and incorporate it in and around Sydney for example. Just think of the energy savings,” he explains of his solar reflecting silver steel skin. It’s an irresistible point when so many new and existing housing tracts feature dark, heat absorbent tiled roofs and negligible eaves that demand seriously expensive air-conditioning and central heating.

Stronach, on the other hand, has no such problems. Glazing on the ground floor is recessed beneath the top floor to embrace light without direct sun penetration during summer. The concrete slab an masonry interior however provide brilliant radiant warmth when required during winter yet remain chilled on hot summer days.

He resolved to design this retreat ‘inside out’ and stacked to benefit from the obvious - heat rises. Internally grey polished block work replaces the usual paint and plaster. “This inside out quality puts the masonry inside where it better holds the desired temperature. Externally steel is doing its job by reflecting and rapidly dissipating solar gain in summer. In winter you have this tough yet beautiful skin. The cladding can be almost luminous and changes dramatically depending on the sky.

Designed across a series of 5 metre square grids, this mathematical simplicity maximises materials and cuts wastage. Plywood ceilings throughout echo this uniformity and economy of steel, timber and bricks. In plan and to the east is a ‘sittingroom’, on the north a sunroom and services/storage area , the kitchen is central, between the staircase, and to the west , a living/drawing room.

Above are three bedrooms and two bathrooms. The central void created by mezzanine, assists heating and cooling through the entire house. Dormer style windows along the north replay the 19th Century without the usual twee consequences. Eaves and louvres to the north and west perform an obvious role and, despite large glazed areas at ground level, direct summer sun is restricted to first and last light. In the cooler months solar loading contribute to the thermal mass performance of the concrete slab.

“We put a lot of effort and investment into re-planting rainforest as part of our commitment to leaving minimal marks on the environment.” The drought is a big leveller in the bush,'' says Stronach whose home stores 30,000 litres of rainwater, “you have to prepare for the worst. We should all harvest rainfall and prepare for the inevitable dry times.” In addition all household grey water is recycled across the vegetable garden and a bio-degradable toilet treatment treats effluent and deposits it as inavluable garden irrigation.

Stronach’s message reverberates the trend of the motor-vehicle industry which , for years has been a notorious energy guzzler of fossil fuels and contributor of Greenhouse gasses. Suddenly there is a wind-shift and vehicles of low emission and economy are winning market share.

Governments and developers are only just waking up to this mood of the housing market. Consumers are at least as interested in intelligent housing, at the right price, as they are in dumb housing. A certain section of the market may not look past its collective noses, but a growing number of consumers understand that smart housing isn’t necessarily about the kaleidescope of gadgets that open, shut and remote control our lives . “Using less,” says Stronach, “ is not, a corollary for going without. Even with our tiny energy bill there is no compromise or sacrifice. You can walk around inside in just a t-shirt on the coldest day so there is no tyranny of discomfort.

“It has no icing.” The structural elements and new finishes are fully exposed. Apart from a small splash of green paint in one room, the result is monochrome throughout. A collection of classic furniture includes Knoll, Eames, Hansen and Bertoia which all nod deferentially to the magisterial presence of an English designed AGA oven and cook top.

Steel tubing of the mezzanine is finished in an egg yolk yellow as if to remind occupants of the sunny double height volume. The rest are muted greys and silver that allow the structure and cladding to be both backdrop and star performer.

The aim of soft environmental impact is achieved here without cliche with a design that relies on a direct, almost conversational language in its expression. “Inevitably good design isn’t retro. If you take great design, whether it be chairs, cameras or cars, there are no fussy angles or arbitrary lines,” Stronach argues. “We have this incredible opportunity in Australia to be so much better than dumb. All of the resources and knowledge exist together with a magical place. We have to ask ourselves if we prefer laziness to tackling problems and hopefully arriving at answers that will produce a leaner, smarter, better place to live.

He enthuses at the prospect of a genuinely ‘green’ pocket of suburbia that punts on alternative design concepts and materials. Well he might be excited at such a prospect. Architecture and Australia’s suburbia are yet to converse on sustainable design. In the meantime we have to be content with solo efforts such as Stronach’s.

Peter Hyatt Copyright 2004

ESSAYS

Journalism provides an entrée for many of my interviews and assignments.

I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most interesting and influential architects. I love meeting and working with this group. They are inevitably passionate and driven by strong ideas. There is an impetus about everything some people do and hopefully that carries through in my essays. The selected essays are mainly current. Some are simply favourites.