The Designer’s Favourite Agony Aunt

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One of my university lecturers used to say: “Common sense isn’t that common”.  I could tell he thought he was onto something and wanted to wow us all, but I just thought he was being his prickly self and never gave it a second thought.  Now I see the prickly professor had a point.

Have you ever walked into a house and wondered which of the builder’s infant children had been put to the scribbler to conjure such a diabolical design, something so lacking in sense and reason it could comfortably qualify as abstract art?  I recently had the misfortune and I can say without any doubt, what that designer knew about sustainable design could fill a pinhead.

Houses are very much like people – they do very well with a little beauty but, above all, lots of function.  Sad to say, this house had neither, but like many of its kind it possessed the scheming, outward charm of a fraudster.

So, to avoid falling for the fraudster, look for the markers of sustainable design:


Windows serve two main purposes: light and ventilation.  They are only effective if they perform these functions and, as often is the case, they don’t.  Using the house of many flaws from my intro as an example, consider window placement.

Windows that occupy two-thirds of the wall looking out onto another property will likely never perform either function of light and ventilation.  The demands of privacy will keep blinds and curtains tightly shut 24/7, as they did in this house.  Large windows like this are also self-defeating in wet weather, as their low positioning places them outside the protection of eaves and window hoods, allowing water ingress.  So during the hottest, most humid periods of a northern summer, windows will need to be shut and rooms air conditioned. Added to this, they hog wall space, rendering the wall useless for any other purpose.

Sustainable Solution:  Windows in north Queensland should be positioned high where they can capture prevailing breezes, allowing eave and window-hood protection, constant light and ventilation, privacy and unimpeded use of wall space.

Lightweight Construction

The disadvantages of using heavy construction materials are many.  They may initially seem inexpensive but once the finished cost is factored-in, they are not.  Heavy materials decrease the amount of usable internal space and increase internal heat due to thermal mass (i.e. heat built-up during the day is radiated inside the house).

Sustainable Solution:  Lightweight construction i.e. timber or steel framing and composite bonded materials are especially suitable for smaller sites due to their reduced footprint.  They maximise usable internal areas and reduce transfer of heat internally due to low thermal mass.  Lightweight construction also gives a greater choice of finishes and the ability to achieve a higher insulation value, which translates into lower energy usage and running costs.

Orientation & Multiple Use of Space

Sustainable Solution:  Design 101 it may be, but correct on-site orientation is a major consideration. Suitable orientations maximise on prevailing breezes, allowing good airflow through the house while reducing sunlight penetration to rooms at different times of the day.

“Protecting the entire home from direct sunlight and promoting good ventilation will help maintain a more comfortable internal temperature in the home.”

Smart & Sustainable Homes,

Designing for Queensland’s Climate,

House costs should be viewed in three ways:

Multiple use of living space is another way to maximise on habitable areas and increase sustainability.  Dedicated spaces used rarely or sporadically require maintenance and their square-metre building costs are hard to justify. A sewing room can always double as a spare bedroom when required.

Sustainable design in the age of climate change has never been more crucial.  Change is always difficult to embrace, none the least climate change, but sustainable design (aka common sense) gives us all the tools to meet that challenge. May common sense prevail.


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