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  • Stephen Crafti

A sleeker footprint

These low-impact homes trim away the fat of typical floor plans to reveal a lean model of sustainable living. Words Stephen Crafti
Downie North’s reimagining of an early-20th-century house in Mosman, Sydney, cleverly incorporates passive design principles. Photography by Clinton Weaver.

Nestled in the bush or simply forming part of the suburban streetscape, these sustainable homes might not come with all the bells and whistles, but for the owners they’re more than large enough for their needs. And rather than requiring deep pockets to operate, they almost run themselves. Thoughtfully orientated and featuring recycled materials and concrete floors, low-impact homes like these are becoming more popular as climate change dominates the media.

Architect Steffen Welsch was recently commissioned to build a coastal home at Shoreham on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. The Melbourne-based clients are both environmentalists and initially were uncomfortable with the notion of owning a second home. The clients ended up justifying their decision to build the beach house as it will eventually be their permanent home when they retire. And rather than simply creating an urban house in a coastal setting, they specified a sustainable, low-impact home.

Architect Jeremy Anderson’s pared-back home and studio in Jan Juc, Victoria. Photography by Ben Hosking.

The resulting triangular house has about 150 square metres of interior space and was conceived with a 7.9-star NatHERS rating. It was constructed using bricks and floorboards recycled from the house formerly on the site, and has recycled timber decks on the south-west side and floors made from concrete mixed with fly ash to reduce embodied energy. In the colder months, these floors act as a heat bank, absorbing the sun’s rays. Welsch maximised the glazing facing north and landscape architect Jo Henry chose indigenous coastal plants for biodiversity.

“The design is very site-specific, with every effort made to not disturb the original landscape. From the outset, it was about reducing energy consumption,” says Welsch. “Passive design principles, including cross-ventilation, high insulation and eliminating spaces that weren’t required guided our design.”

Architect Jeremy Anderson, director of Eldridge Anderson, could go as far as he chose in creating a low-impact building for his own family home and studio office. Located at Jan Juc, a surf beach one-and-a-half-hour’s drive from Melbourne, the house sits quietly in its coastal setting. At 180 square metres, it’s more than sufficient for the couple and their child.

Steffen Welsch Architects’ “familiar and humble” coastal house (dubbed Beach Slice) on the Mornington Peninsula.

The structure is recycled blackbutt, with the exterior completely clad in battens made from thermally modified ash. Behind the battens are double-glazed windows and large sliding doors, with argon gas between the layers of glazing adding protection from the elements. Flyscreens ensure insects are kept out of the house during the summer months. The flooring, beams, columns and window and door frames are made from recycled timber. The island bench doubles as a dining table, reducing the home’s footprint, and Anderson eliminated as many little-used spaces — such as wasted corridors — as possible. The galvanised steel roof makes a soothing sound when it rains.

Anderson was mindful of not damaging the root system of the established trees on the property, elevating the home’s foundations so that it “hovers” about half a metre above the terrain. And although it can get cold at Jan Juc, just one heater warms the entire house. In summer, “we just open all the doors and windows, and allow the house to cool down naturally using the coastal breeze,” says Anderson. And while many have to endure a long commute, Anderson only needs to walk a few paces to his studio, saving the fuel costs and emissions of regular car trips to the city.

Steffen Welsch Architects’ “familiar and humble”coastal house on the Mornington Peninsula.

While Welsch and Anderson started from the ground up to create energy-efficient designs, Downie North worked with an early-20th-century home in the Sydney suburb of Mosman to create a low-impact house. The architects removed a fairly basic 1970s lean-to and added a contemporary open-plan kitchen, dining and living area, all orientated towards the rear western garden. (All west-facing glazing is protected by deep eaves and screens.) Designed for a couple with two children, the house was increased in size by just a few square metres; gained in the redesign was a generous terrace, protected from the sun by a broad zinc roof. Large sliding doors between the living areas and the terrace are complemented by deep reveals around picture windows, with operable lower windows to purge the warm air during the summer.

Downie North also introduced a skylight above the main passage that brings natural light to where it is required at the core of the floor plan. “We’ve used passive principles to make this house comfortable rather than introduce air-conditioning,” says architect Catherine Downie, co-founder of the practice, pointing out the solar panels on the roof.

These homes don’t come with basement car-parking. And you’ll struggle to find features that appear on many people’s wish lists. But these sustainable homes are truly low-impact — in terms of energy usage, rather than aesthetics — inviting the question: what do we actually need in order to live a comfortable life?

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 26 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “A sleeker footprint”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.


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