Good design is neither magical nor mysterious - it is the inevitable result of consistently applying the correct basic fundamentals. It was one of the great pioneers of modern architecture, Meis van der Rohe, who said “I don’t want to be interesting. I want to be good”.
I believe that if you focus on getting the fundamentals of a design correct, everything else will fall into place in time. This is by no means an exhaustive list as there are endless factors to be considered (...and I also don't want to put myself out of work!!) but the following will highlight some of the key factors to consider;
My biggest criticism of 'off-the-shelf' or project homes is their lack of response to orientation. Anyone can appreciate the need to orient a design towards a view of the ocean but good orientation goes beyond that... A well oriented design can benefit from shaded indoor and outdoor living areas when the weather is hot, and provide sunny indoor and outdoor areas when the weather is cold. Whilst large areas of glass may facilitate keeping a house warm in Winter, too much glass to the West may cause excessive heat gain in the afternoons of warmer months. Good orientation can also facilitate cross ventilation, which I will come back to. Because every site is different and of a different shape and size good design needs to consider all the factors that will result in the correct orientation - two identical houses in the same location will respond very differently if they face different directions.
To attempt to explain the benefits of passive design in one paragraph would be futile - at its core passive design is an approach to design that seeks to use the surrounding environment to its benefit rather than fighting against the elements. A house of good passive design doesn't require air-conditioning to run year round in order to keep its occupants comfortable, in fact it is entirely possible for a house to be designed on any site without needing air conditioning to keep the spaces comfortable - human beings are incredibly adaptable and our bodies can regulate comfort within a given range of temperature and humidity. Entire books and manuals have been written on the different ways to utilise passive design in architecture. A few examples;
1. The heat stack effect uses the natural tendency for hot air to rise and by allowing heat to escape through high level windows. The rising warm air reduces the pressure in the base of the building, drawing cold air in through either open doors, windows, or other openings.
2. Thermal mass uses the natural qualities of dense materials like concrete or bricks to delay heat flow into a building during the day and storing the heat to release the warmth into the building at night. Although not a substitute for insulation, correct use of thermal mass can moderate internal temperatures by averaging day/night extremes which can increase comfort and decrease energy bills.
3. Insulation acts as a barrier to heat flow and keeps unwanted heat out of your home in the hotter months whilst preventing heat loss during cooler months, however it is essential that insulation is used in conjunction with good design. For example if insulation is installed but windows have not been correctly shaded, built up heat can be kept in by the insulation creating an 'oven' effect.
Layout & Circulation
A house should have a distinct character to its layout, it may be an elongated plan to maximise natural light throughout the house, or it may comprise of multiple pavilions to provide separation between a parents realm and a children's realm, brought together by a common living realm, or it may be a courtyard style plan to provide multiple outdoor living spaces and provide an inward outlook on a site that may not have any significant views. Whatever the style of the layout, it should always have good circulation, houses with narrow corridors and dog-legs will eventually feel like living in a maze. If a house has good circulation it will feel like it has 'flow' but circulation extends beyond just the corridors... it begins with the approach to the building, the view experienced as you walk through the front door and where the bedrooms are located within the building. All the best buildings you have ever experienced had good circulation.
Prospect & Refuge
The evolutionary perspective explains that humans are not as well equipped as animals. We don’t have fur to protect us against climate changes. That is why we need a shelter against weather changes like rain, wind and cold. We also need a shelter to protect us from these animals, because we don’t have claws or a shield to defend ourselves. The instinctual need for prospect and refuge is still hard wired into us today. A good example of prospect and refuge is in a house designed by Jørn Utzon (architect of the Sydney Opera House) called Can Lis on the Spanish Island of Majorca. The house provides sweeping views of rugged hills with untamed nature and the ocean beyond (prospect), whilst the deeper recesses of the house offer vary degrees of light and dark giving a sense of protection (refuge).
Air motion significantly affects body heat transfer by convection and evaporation. Air movement results from free (natural) and forced convection as well as from the occupants’ bodily movements. The faster the motion, the greater the rate of heat flow by both convection and evaporation. In summer air movement can be increased with the use of ceiling fans or by cross ventilation. Cross ventilation requires well-designed openings (windows, doors and vents) and unrestricted breeze paths. A well ventilated building will also improve the air quality within a dwelling, although it is easy to cool or heat a building with air conditioning, the quality of air is inherently lower than that of a cross ventilated design. Caution is required, however, to ensure that a building can be sealed well in cooler months as only a small velocity of air movement is required in cool weather to create discomfort. High quality windows that seal well are always recommended.
Consideration should be given to the materials from which your house will be constructed with. Materials should be suitable to the location, locally available, recyclable to some degree and integrated with the design. Some materials are tried and tested such as masonry and concrete and others have utilised the latest technologies in their development. The range of available choices is not short, but don't be afraid of doing something different to the 'norm'. Using lightweight materials can reduce the environmental impact of transportation energy as well as reduce labour costs. Consider using materials in their natural state (ie. don't require additional coatings such as paint or render), the result can be a lower maintenance house that also visually expresses how it has been crafted. The materials used and type of construction can also significantly affect the passive design performance of the design.
The average household's energy use is responsible for over seven tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions can be significantly reduced through use of renewable energy, more efficient appliances and energy conservation measures. There are endless ways in which you can cut the energy demand of your household - some are as simply as providing a well ventilated fridge space so that it can run efficiently, or replacing your lights with compact fluorescent or LED lamps. More involved measures include minimising your homes heat gain and heat loss (see passive design above), increasing natural lighting to minimise requirements for artificial lighting or installing renewable energy sources such as photovoltaic panels or a wind turbine. A big consumer of energy in the home is your hot water system, there are a range of low energy devices on the market now including instantaneous gas hot water units, solar hot water units and heat pumps (heat pumps can also be coupled with a photovoltaic system and/or a hydronic underfloor heating system).
One of our most important resources on this planet is water, without it life would not be possible. What many fail to acknowledge is how many people on this planet are deprived of access to clean drinking water; you may be amazed at just how many cities around the world it would be unsafe for you to drink the water from the tap! For this reason, and many others, we should all consider ways in which we can make better use of this precious commodity. As with energy use, the first step in conservation is to reduce demand; fit water efficient showerheads, fix leaking taps, install a rainwater tank, etc.
There are three main types of household water - Potable (drinkable), greywater (used water. ie. basins, showers, etc.) and blackwater (toilet, kitchen sink, dishwasher, etc.). I have written three posts to explain each of the types of household water types as well as ways that they can be reduced, reused or recycled.
To find out more visit the Australian Governments guide to environmentally sustainable homes at http://www.yourhome.gov.au/
or, read Nick Hollo's book 'Warm House Cool House' which can be bought online.
or, visit Michael Mobbs 'Sustainable House' tours in Chippendale. To book for his regular tours visit the website here.