We design for environmental sustainability

When we are first approached by prospective clients, we have found that few fully understand what an architect does. Many interview draftspeople and volume builders also, and find it difficult to distinguish between the various levels of expertise and design engagement on offer. Invariably, a large part of our first discussion is devoted to explaining how our services differ from those of other building designers and why there is great value in the cost of on architect.

What follows is the 9th of ten articles that explore the question: why engage an architect? An archive of the series can be accessed here.

9. We design for environmental sustainability


Our planetary ecosystem is under sustained attack. Doomsday sirens of peak oil, rising sea levels, environmental refugees and global economic collapse ring louder with every passing day.

In Australia, as in any country, the built environment plays a major role in the consumption of available energy and resources, and the emission of greenhouse gases. The embodied energy in our existing building stock is equivalent to around 10 years of total energy consumption for the entire nation.[1] Each time we build a new house, or renovate an old one, this figure increases.

It is a fundamental responsibility of the building industry therefore to strive for the highest possible level of environmental sustainability in every house we build.

Unfortunately, sustainability has become an oft-cited but little-understood term. What does it actually mean? Does sticking a solar panel array on your roof give you licence to build anything you like? Is steel the right material to use, or timber or brick or concrete? Does it matter where the materials used in your house come from? Does it matter how big your house is, or which systems you use to heat and cool it?

Answering these often tricky questions is a challenge that architects have taken on board with great enthusiasm. Like volume builders, we are well versed in the regulatory requirements for energy ratings for housing, but unlike volume builders, our interest goes much deeper than tick-the-box minimum requirements.

We appreciate the fundamental principles that drive environmental sustainability, ideas like ecological footprints, embodied energy and long life / loose fit. We understand the value of passive solar design techniques, and indeed have collectively employed them for many decades. We track the movement of the sun, local wind patterns and rainfall to tailor your house to its climate. Most importantly, we know that the most sustainable outcome for any building is to make sure you love it. By designing your house uniquely for you and your site, we achieve great synergy between its thermal performance and the lifestyle patterns that shape the way you use it.


  1. Construction and the environment; Year Book Australia, 2003; Australian Bureu of Statistics; January 2003

Image source:

  1. Sustainability, author’s own image.

From my sketchbook: Litchfield National Park

litchfield national park

Water pools in water holes above Tolmer Falls, flows down waterfalls along Walker Creek, splashes into the pool at the base of Florence Falls. It is always agitated, bubbling and swirling and rushing. impossible to capture in still ink. I try anyway. Drawing the water is a study in contrasts – hot and cool, still and flowing, silent and noisy.

The days are hot during the dry season at Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territory and, with the exception of the water, it is lazy and peaceful. Perfect conditions for drawing the natural environment.

Dolphin slaughter in Taiji

Driving a pod to slaughter

What is it?

Taiji is a small town in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, inconsequential except for its notoriety as the site of the regular and highly controversial slaughter of large numbers of dolphins. Endorsed by the Japanese government, details of the slaughter are systematically concealed by local authorities, so much so that the producers of 2009 documentary, The Cove, were forced to use guerrilla techniques to get cameras close to the slaughter site. Taiji continues to be the focus of international activist groups, Save Japan Dolphins and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, who hope to end the slaughter as well as the international trade in aquarium dolphins that fuels it.

Taiji first came to our attention when we saw The Cove in the 2010 Milano Film Festival, so it was with surprise that we immediately recognised the infamous site as the subject of a recent exhibition at Obscura Gallery by Melbourne photographer, Georgia Laughton. We attended the exhibition opening as guests of Samantha Cuffe, a talented glass artist we have discussed previously here.

We conducted the following interview with Georgia over recent weeks, gaining insight into her thoughts, experiences and ambitions for her work.

Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Georgia. Can you start by explaining what lead you to becoming involved with documenting the dolphin slaughter in Taiji?

Ever since I can remember I have been concerned about the state of the planet, and especially the state of the ocean. I became interested in animal rights when I was shown my first copy of a magazine by Animal Liberation at the age of 14, so the path that led me to be in Taiji is easy for me to track. I had been an on-shore volunteer with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society since 2008. At the time I went to Japan I was volunteering and working as the Melbourne volunteer coordinator, so was very aware of what was happening in Taiji (and many other parts of the world) every year.

The decision to actually go over to Taiji was made very quickly one day in November 2010. I was reading the daily update over what was happening there, and a pod of pilot whales had been slaughtered that day. About 4 of them had been killed. That slaughter just got to me, and I decided I wanted to go over to document and photograph it myself in order to help spread awareness over the issue.

Why did you select the photos included in the exhibition? What attracted you to document those in particular?

The images were selected to form a collection which tells the story of both events which happen to the dolphins in Taiji – and which I saw – dolphins being captured for a life in captivity and dolphins being driven into the cove to be slaughtered. I wanted to document both captivity and slaughter, rather than just focus on one or the other, as both industries are linked.

What about access? Some of the photos appear to have been shot under the cover of foliage. Were you able to take all the photos you wanted?

Access was difficult – obviously the fishermen wish to keep their actions hidden as much as possible, so they try to cover up all they can with tarps. This did make obtaining some of the images difficult – it was possible to shoot down into the Cove for some, however it was difficult to get past the foliage and to pass barriers. Areas are blocked off with Do Not Tresspass signs on the barriers (written in both English and Japanese).

Dragging a dolphin

The one image of the dolphin being dragged in alive by its rostuem was taken when I was hiding on top of the cliff top – hiding from the fishermen who comb through the area to try and make sure clear images of their actions cannot be taken. A few minutes after that image was taken the police did come along and asked me to move – a request I happily obeyed.

Were there others you wished you could have captured but couldn’t?

There were images which I wanted to take which just weren’t possible. It was not possible to photograph the Fishery Union Building where they process the dolphin meat and where, each morning, the fishermen huddle around a fire and cook and eat dolphin. Due to the tarps, it was not possible to photograph the slaughter either. I could hear it happening, I could see the blood coming out in the water, however I could not see the actions.

Do the gruesome images of the method of slaughter need to be photographed? Would it add to the series of the images? I don’t know. Part of me likes the fact I do not have the horrific images of extreme cruelty.

I also had the conflict of photographing the Whale Museum, where many dolphins are kept in captivity. I did not wish for any of my money to go and support this business nor did I wish to add to their attendence numbers. This did mean I do not have any photographs of how the dolphins live their life in captivity, apart from when they are in their sea pens being trained.

Dolphin base

One particular image I do wish I had captured was the day prior to my departure from Taiji. It was the end of the slaughter season and the fishermen had been busy cleaning down the slaughterhouse and taking down all the tarps and nets. As the final boat of fishermen sailed past, they bowed to us – an image I will always kick myself for not having my camera out!

We felt upon viewing the exhibition that it would have benefited from insight into the slaughter’s broader political / economic context. Have you considered juxtaposing your photos of Taiji against others of dolphin aquariums around the world, or even Japanese supermarkets that sell dolphin meat?

Yes, I did think about showing images of the meat, and whilst I would love to have photographed the fishermen’s fire barrel over which they cook dolphin in the mornings, I made the decision not to include the images I had of the dolphin meat all packaged up into little bags for sale in the nearby towns. I wanted to focus on the events of the capture, the slaughter and how they actually happen. I wanted the viewer to be taken through the slaughter only up to the point the bodies are taken out of the Cove and covered up by tarps, with fishermen sitting upon them.

The only image I wanted after this is the final one, at night, where a light is kept on to illuminate the killing Cove while the rest of the area sits in darkness.

Killing Cove at Night

What do you hope your exhibition will achieve?

I am mainly hoping to raise awareness of the issue and hopefully spark some new thinking. There are so many issues of animal cruelty and others facing our oceans. It would be wonderful if a small seed has been planted into peoples’ minds which might make them look further into some of these issues and hopefully change their actions (a small change for the better is better than no change at all) and help support some of the many organisations which are working to fix some of these problems. I hope that if faced with the choice between going to a dolphinarium or not, that people who have seen the exhibition and remember the images will choose not to contribute any money towards maintaining the captivity industry.

And what do you think it will take for Japan to cease harvesting dolphins?

Sadly, in my opinion I think it will take a lot for Japan to stop harvesting dolphins. It has been proven that dolphin meat is highly toxic – to me the most basic of facts which should shut down the slaughter – yet the Japanese public is largely ignorant of the relevant health issues. The dolphin slaughter is hidden from them, yet in order for it to stop they need to get behind the urge for change. I think there also needs to be a world-wide ban on dolphins living in captivity. If no dolphins are being sold for captivity, where the bulk of income comes from, then the slaughter will also cease.

Many organisations are working in various ways towards ending the slaughter and I would like to believe it will come to an end. The excuse of tradition is often used as a reason for it to continue, but if we look back in history, we see the end of many cruel traditions. It is simply not a tradition that makes sense in modern times.

After the slaughter

So what next? Do you have further plans to visit Taiji or other sites of animal cruelty around the world?

I would like to venture back to Japan at some time in the future, however for now I wish to focus on animal cruelty which is happening here in Australia. Unfortunately there are many different areas of abuse of animals and the oceans happening here, from the unregulated kangaroo meat industry to the gas hub in the Kimberley.

Thanks for the insight, Georgia, and all the best with future projects.


Both the documentary, The Cove, and Laughton’s exhibition have left an impression on us. Understanding the context of the dolphin industry, and what happens in the hidden shadows to introduce dolphins into captivity, have forever poisoned dolphinariums for us. In captivity, dolphins are often kept in small, barren tanks. In the wild, dolphins will swim up to 100km in a day, the only place our children will ever see them.

Regulating sustainability

What is it?

A proposal is currently before the Victorian State government that recommends abandoning mandatory 6-star thermal efficiency requirements for housing as part of a broader agenda to cut government red tape. Documents obtained by The Age newspaper reveal state Treasurer Kim Wells has suggested that “consideration could be given to a voluntary thermal efficiency scheme that enables builders to choose an appropriate standard”. This standard would be based on consumer demand, reaching a compromise between “optimal thermal efficiency and building costs”.

The proposal draws heavily on a Master Builders Association (MBA) report from July 2010, which argued that compelling people to build houses with higher star ratings may cost more than it delivers in energy savings. It is under consideration despite the Baillieu government’s 2010 election platform promising support for the 6-star standard for all residential and commercial buildings.

First heard on Jon Faine’s ABC radio program this morning and read on The Age online, here.

What do we think?

This issue is a thorny one for us, existing as it does at the juncture between environmental sustainability, one of our dearest passions, and regulation, one of our most hated evils. On the one hand, we believe vehemently in the value of environmental sustainability, yet on the other we despise the pervasiveness of regulations in Victoria. Where does the balance between these two forces lie?

If we follow the MBA argument, we would conclude that environmental sustainability is not worth the imposition of regulation, that the free market should decide what it does or doesn’t want to build.

Specifically, the MBA argues that the requirement for 6-star thermal efficiency levies an unacceptable financial burden on potential home owners, estimating that increasing the efficiency of a house from 5-stars to 6 increases its build cost by around $5,000. It argues that owners should be given the choice whether or not to invest in green technologies, just as they can choose whether or not to install marble benchtops or timber floorboards.

Alas, we cannot follow this argument. It is totally and unconscionably false.

The nominal $5,000 it takes to improve the thermal efficiency of a house is not at fault for the current issues with housing affordability at large. We can blame the poorly-implemented State urban densification strategies, the reliance instead on isolated, car-dependent outer suburbs and supersized building footprints for that. If Mr. and Mrs. Average are really complaining about the $5,000, perhaps they might like to consider leaving out the home theatre room or even just the television destined for it.

Choosing environmental sustainability is not akin to choosing a material for the kitchen benchtop. It has the heavy importance of fire safety or structural integrity. The payoff may be measured in decades instead of years, but to our minds, environmental sustainability really is a matter of life or death.

Finally, we need only take a brief look at the houses in which the vast majority of Victorians choose to live to determine that the free market can absolutely not be trusted to know what it’s doing. They are located in the wrong areas, face the wrong direction, are too big and are built too poorly. Even with mandatory thermal efficiency requirements, most Victorian houses are totally unsuited to our climate and totally unsuited to egalitarian urban planning.

267sqm Zanthe house design by A.V. Jennings. Australia has the largest average house size in the world, three times larger than Great Britain, and larger even than the United States, the birthplace of the supersize.

We shudder to imagine a housing industry left to its own devices in determining whether or not to invest in green technologies. Like it or not, educating the general public about the value in environmental sustainability is a process best undertaken via the arduous process of implementing it across our built environment. If we are successful in this endeavour, we will all be rewarded by watching our children grow up in cities where water tanks, double glazing and roof-mounted photovoltaic panels are simply a way of life, where sustainability is simply a way of life.

What should the State government learn?

We may not like regulations in general and we certainly do not like the way they curb the creativity possible at the forefront of architectural design. However, we understand their irreplaceable value in ensuring the trailing edge of the housing industry at least has decent insulation in its walls and windows facing the right way.

The State government should be ashamed at even thinking about relaxing thermal efficiency requirements in the built environment. Amongst reductions in education spending, threatened healthcare upheavals and an absurd investment in brown coal, this would have to be one of the most outrageously irresponsible acts yet undertaken by the Baillieu government.

Castlecrag House

Interior looking through kitchen with cosy nook to right

What is it?

A house by Neeson Murcutt Architects for clients Jo Nolan and Luke Hastings, and the subject of the Our Houses architectural talk on Wednesday night. The series is unique in inviting both architects and their clients to discuss their projects, attracting not only architects to the audience, but design-interested members of the public also.

We discussed the last Our Houses event here.

Held in the courtyard at Robin Boyd‘s Walsh Street House, unfortunately covered by a noisy blue tarp to fend off the inclement weather, this event was more story telling than lecture, gently unfolding as a conversation between the architect, Rachel Neeson, and her two clients.

What did we think?

Castlecrag House is located on the sort of site that features heavily in many architects’ vivid fantasies: rich architectural history, strong personal attachment, steeply sloping, densely wooded, magnificent views. Indeed, Neeson introduced us to the project via a study of the site’s most significant qualities: a steep topography cascading down into, and affording views over, Sugarloaf Bay; densely planted, mature Angophora trees; a connection between the site and Hastings, whose grandfather built the house in the 1940s; and an architectural lineage dating back even earlier, to the 1920s when Walter Burley Griffin planned the suburb’s winding roads, generous plot sizes and native vegetation.

With such an impressive history and many fine, recently-built examples of modern architecture in the area, Neeson commented that she and her late husband, Nick Murcutt, had felt compelled to lift even their considerable game for this project.

The angled kitchen aligns with the topography of a rocky outcrop outside

The project is a magnificent example of Neeson Murcutt’s recent work, displaying a strong vision for clear formal resolution tempered by the confidence to break protocol when necessary. It resolves the planning of the house with simple orthogonal arrangements juxtaposed against curves and odd angles that engage with important elements of the site. It explores the tactile possibilities of materials in a way that is both honest and experimental – there are many materials used, but they never compete, are always complimentary. And its detailing has that rare ability to be loose and unfinished in places, whilst tightly detailed and highly refined in others.

As embodied in the conversation between Neeson, Nolan and Hastings, the project is the result of a lengthy (taking the better part of five years from inception to completion) and enriching dialogue between architect and client. Based on a firm foundation of mutual trust, the design shifted again and again to accommodate meaning and nuance in every corner: tiles from a long demolished Griffin incinerator are embedded into a sandstone wall; a fish tank recalls its cousin in Hastings’ grandfather’s original; a copse of Angophoras crudely and illegally felled to make way for a neighbour’s house are revived in the brick patterning of an external wall.

Northwest elevation

Right until the key was handed over, and even beyond, Neeson Murcutt continued to refine details of the project, subtly shifting a window sill here or leather-wrapping a door handle there, to ensure every moment within the house maximises its potential, does justice to its surrounds.

What did we learn?

There are architects whose work we admire for their singular vision: Sean Godsell‘s austere boxes for instance, or Santiago Calatrava‘s structural formalism. But even more inspiring are those architects whose work embodies a cultivated looseness, an ability to be simultaneously bold and feathered. Donovan Hill are such architects, as is the inestimable Peter Zumthor.

With much of their recent work, but Castlecrag House in particular, Neeson Murcutt show that they too understand that the best architecture is the result of dialogue, not monologue. Such architecture is not just a destination, but a whole journey undertaken by architect and client, and limited in the meaning it can accumulate only by both parties’ willingness to allow it.

Exterior looking across swimming pool to northwest elevation

Our Liveable City

What is it?

A recently completed, 6-month study commissioned by The Age and undertaken by Tract Consultants and Deloitte Access Economics into the liveability of Melbourne’s 314 suburbs.

The term liveability is in itself difficult to define, with research into its parameters marking the start of the study. According to Adam Terrill of Tract Consultants, the definition eventually agreed upon was “the general quality of a place which makes it pleasant or agreeable for people to reside in”. 9 broad criteria were selected, inspired by qualities valued by the real-estate market, by urban planning guidelines and by international indexes like those used by the Economist Intelligence Unit (see our article on the EIU’s recently released 2011 rankings, here). Most of the criteria are unsurprising inclusions: access to public transport, parks and schools, the presence of open space and trees, the impact of traffic congestion and crime. More unusual (and criteria that perhaps reflect a quintessentially Melburnian attitude to living) are access to shops and restaurants.

In top spot is South Yarra (51), followed by East Melbourne and Armadale (49), then Toorak (48) and Hawthorn East (47) to round out the top five. Hallam (13), in the outer south-eastern fringe, receives the wooden spoon.

An article providing an overview of the study, with contextualisation of its findings and links to the full list of suburbs, is viewable here.

What do we think?

Melbourne is one of the largest and least dense cities in the world: 120km from edge to edge and only 15.9 people /hectare. To put this into perspective, this is in comparison to Melbourne’s own 1951 population density of 23.4 people /ha and Hong Kong’s current density of 64.8 people /ha.

The big problem with such a spread out city, and the problem most certainly being faced by Melbourne today, is equitable access to infrastructure. An inner-city suburb like South Yarra provides access on foot to an array of public transport options, to parks, recreation facilities, key services, shops and restaurants. Conversely, a more recently developed, fringe suburb like Hallam has been designed for the automobile, with many residences isolated from day-to-day facilities. The nearest train station may be many kilometres away and instead of corner stores, delicatessens, and local video shops, there is a single shopping centre surrounded by a sea of car-parking spaces that services multiple suburbs.

The sceptic may well ask, What’s wrong with driving to a shopping centre? It does, after all, provide every commercial facility one could need in a single location. We argue that the problems with this picture are so systemic they touch on almost every facet of our lives:

  • By driving, we consume a finite natural resource and release carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming.
  • To manage the increased number of trips, families often need to purchase a second car, taking on the additional financial strain of ownership.
  • We miss out on the opportunity to walk or cycle, reducing our fitness and mobility, and increasing long-term health issues.
  • The extra time taken to get to work or school reduces our time for work, play and recreation.
  • We congest roads that are already overwhelmed by absurd traffic volumes.
  • We subject ourselves to the bland placelessness of a shopping centre when we could instead participate in the more enriching experience of a local community or shopping village.
  • We inhabit an inhumanely-designed urban environment, built for the speed of the car where the destination is always more important than the journey.

These problems bridge both quantitative and qualitative issues. Though the latter are by nature more difficult to measure (and are thus often overlooked by the general public), improved mental wellbeing, an appreciation of history and a sense of community are, we suggest, the most important benefits of living in an inner-city suburb.

This brings us back to the Our Liveable City study and its clear conclusion that inner city suburbs are more liveable than their fringe counterparts. A single glance at the index map at top shows that by and large a suburb’s proximity to the centre of Melbourne is directly proportional to its liveability.

What should we learn?

There is the commonly held belief that the average Melburnian’s dream home is a standalone dwelling on a quarter acre block. To this end we collectively accept our ever-expanding urban growth boundary (just this month Matthew Guy approved a new 400 hectare development in Clyde North, a suburb on the south-eastern fringe not even included in the Our Liveable City study). Curiously, we point to the last century of our history for evidence of the quarter acre block dream, this despite our population density 60 years ago being almost double what it is today.

No, the quarter acre block is all well and good, but only as long as it exists in a healthy mix of other housing options that address the true diversity of Melbourne’s demography.

If we are to take away a single lesson from the Our Liveable City study, it should be that we live better the closer we are to Melbourne’s centre. Our city is more than big enough as is – it’s time for the urban growth boundary to stop growing, to even begin shrinking. It is time for the State Government, local Councils, the residential market and individuals to all start making decisions that leave the farmland at the fringe of the city alone and instead increase the living density of already established suburbs.

We can only hope that Our Liveable City acts as a catalyst for these decisions to start today.

A carbon price

The 8th of November, 2011: an historic day for Australia, the day the federal Senate approved a price on pollution, 36 votes to 32.

The Labour party’s clean-energy package will be rolled out from July next year, with a carbon tax for the country’s 500 biggest polluters initially set at the (world’s highest) fixed price of $23 per tonne. From 2015, Australia will introduce a full emissions trading scheme.

The package has been criticised by the far left as unambitious and by the far right as a “betrayal of the Australian people”. We can say nothing more to the right other than we hope you don’t find your way to power in these crucial first years. To the left, we say that any project worth undertaking is not achieved with one giant leap, but with many small steps – a limited carbon tax is no giant leap, but it is an excellent first step in the right direction.

Julia Gillard, kudos.