A colourful new Geelong house opens the door on sustainable design.
“You can live well and you can live consciously,” Anne Wissfeld says. “It isn’t an either-or choice.” From high across the Barwon River, a red streak on her new home stands out like a crimson bolt of lightning. But don’t mistake the Queens Park House for a power-guzzling eyesore.
“For me, this house really connects you with nature,” says the architect, Mark Sanders. The corrugated iron roof is slightly twisted, matching the contour of the sharp hill leading to the riverbank. It looks sleek and unobtrusive among a flock of pitched-roof homes.
A combination of hard-nosed eco commitment and eye-catching design, this 200m2, three-bedroom house won the 2007 Housing Industry Association GreenSmart Building of the Year. It is also in the running for this year’s Royal Australian Institute of Architecture awards, to be announced in July.
As you approach the house, down the steep road towards the river, your gaze strikes the solar panels and solar hot water system on the roof. Then you absorb the vivid colours: window frames and doors painted in green, yellow, blue and red.
The walls are clad in sustainable plantation timber and there’s a patchwork fence made from cut off second-hand palings. A crushed, recycled concrete and brick path leads past the veggie garden to the red front door and north-facing sunroom. This is no ordinary abode.
“The brief was for a deep green level of sustainability in terms of aiming for 100% [renewable] electricity coverage and water consumption, as well as wastewater reuse and really sustainable materials,” Sanders says.
It’s a cool and bleak autumn day, but the temperature in the sunroom is well into the 20s. Sanders’s eyes light up below his short, greying hair. “Imagine this in winter?” he enthuses. Warm air can flow from here into the living area to keep the temperature comfortable without extra heating.
The block’s orientation made passive solar design a challenge. “We’re on a goat hill here basically,” Sanders says, eyeing the slope. “If we can get to clients to assist them in choosing sites, that’s always a great help.”
But for the Queens Park House, Anne and her German husband Jan had their hearts set on this south-facing site leading to the river. “We chose the wrong block,” Anne admits, a light brown bob framing her face. To maximise sunlight, the house is set well back from the street.
The sunroom opens onto a large, bright living area with white walls, featuring a polished concrete floor and a high, slanting ceiling. Next to the door, toy cars and trucks are strewn around a wooden railway track.
The Wissfelds and their two-year-old son moved in over a year ago. “We don’t have air conditioning and the house doesn’t overheat,” says Jan. A stay-at-home father, he enjoys the perks of the smart design. “The passive solar works extremely well in winter…it’s always very comfortable.”
Eco-friendly elements include double-glazed windows with external shading for summer, as well as insulation in the walls, floor and roof. The exposed concrete slab provides ‘thermal mass’. A heavyweight material, it absorbs and stores heat, helping balance out the room temperature between night and day.
Two skinny, horizontal windows look out over the river, keeping the gumtree view but cutting the amount of glass facing south. According to Sanders, this is a must. Even double-glazed windows still let out heat at between five to seven times the rate of an insulated wall.
The 39 year-old has focussed on sustainable design since graduating from Deakin University’s School of Architecture in Geelong in the mid-1990s. He started Third Ecology Architects with co-director Glen Rodgers six years ago, and staff numbers have now grown to ten. As specialists in sustainable construction, demand is high. “We’re just flat out,” he says. “Certainly there’s more consumer interest and more business interest. I think it’s the real deal, not a kind of fad.”
Tucked along one wall of the main room, the narrow kitchen is fitted with bench tops made from solid, recycled Victorian hardwood. At the end is a walk-in pantry, stocked high with jars and spices. Placed in the southeast corner, it stays cool year round. “Instead of having these bigger fridges, there’s a lot of things we keep in the pantry,” says Jan. “It’s more of an old style larder,” Sanders adds. A wicker basket brimming with tomatoes sits next to a small flour grinder full of grain.
The fridge and dishwasher are both highly energy efficient, like all the appliances and lighting throughout the house. In summer, the 2040-watt solar system installed on the roof generates more electricity than they need. The excess is fed into the grid, and the credits they receive balance out their higher energy use during winter. “We didn’t have a power bill for the first year,” Jan says, proudly.
In the garage the inverter shows that right now, under cloudy skies, the panels are putting out about 240 watts. Jan thinks it is more than the house is using.
Planning the house was an arduous process, but including a solar power system was non-negotiable. Inspired by eclectic Austrian artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, the couple’s initial plans were, according to Sanders, for “a pretty crazy building”. “The whole house was curved.” Anne explains. “We had a stream running through the house. It would have been utterly amazing. And totally impossible to do.”
A soaring construction estimate forced them to cut some of the more unusual design features. “The essence of the house is the same…but the structure has been so simplified,” Jan says. “When we had to reduce costs we always looked at how [to do it] without compromising on the environmental issue.” In the end, including the garage and workshop space, building costs came in at around $2500 per square metre. Sanders says that’s about normal for a custom built home, and is quick to point out the house’s very low ongoing bills.
From the living area, a light green door leads into the bedrooms, bathroom and laundry on the west side of the house, each with a different coloured entrance. Sanders recommends low Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) paints and joinery finishes, as well as water-based coatings on all timberwork. As a result, the Wissfelds say the Queens Park House never had a noxious new home smell.
Sanders leads on to the laundry. Here, instead of a dryer, the home has an innovative drying cupboard. White doors slide open to reveal a deeper than normal space, with a duct for air circulation and a gunmetal grey ladder-like frame on the wall: a hydronic heating panel. Instead of a standard ducted system, the house warms up with hot water pumped through these pipes. “It’s the most efficient form of heating,” Sanders says. “It’s a little more expensive to put in, but the running costs are better than half. It’s quiet and a lot healthier too. There’s no air movement blowing dust around.”
In the bathroom, the heating pipe-ladder works as a warm towel rack. Nearby, next to a narrow window, is a short, deep Japanese-style bathtub. Rather than lie down, you sit in it, and plunge yourself past the shoulders. Sanders says it uses less water than a standard tub, but that doesn’t matter, because the house runs entirely on rainwater harvested on the roof. “It’s a very efficient water collector,” Anne says. Despite Geelong’s low rainfall, she says they haven’t used any mains water since they moved in.
Two 9600-litre tanks are parked side-by-side below the house. After rain, Jan dumps the first flush in a separate 700-litre tank to use on the garden. A filter and steriliser cleans the rest before it is put to use inside. “The water quality is better than what comes out of the tap, by a long shot,” Sanders says.
A yellow rubber ducky perches by the bath. But there’s no risk Anne and Jan will throw their baby out with the bath water: all wastewater stays on-site. Outside, a black tank pokes out from the earth. It is a vermiculture treatment system. Worms chomp through all the grey and blackwater before it’s filtered and pumped to the top of the block and for irrigation underneath the garden.
There’s no smell and no chemicals breaking it down. Sanders adds another benefit. “You’re not swimming amongst it,” he says. Normally, Geelong’s sewerage is treated at Barwon Water’s Black Rock plant and then pumped into the ocean. He believes the Queens Park House could be the first in Geelong or Melbourne to use a system where all wastewater is processed and reused on-site.
For Sanders, sustainable design is the future for his industry and he’s excited about leading the change. “The sort of technologies here are at the forefront, but in five years time, they will be the standard,” he says. Right now, energy smart designs are not beyond anyone’s reach. With good advice, he says, “you can halve energy and water consumption and still be cost neutral with whatever plan you have.”
The Wissfelds are delighted with their new house and glad that its sustainability can be used as an example for others to follow. “It’s about stretching the boundaries. Here’s a house right out to the extreme. What are the things we can learn from it and apply more generally?” Anne asks. But Jan, a keen wood worker, has one minor complaint. With a wry grin, he waves towards the back of the house. “There’s a little workshop down there. That’s the only problem. Don’t mention it. It could be bigger.”
Sustainable Design: the golden rules
Is small is good. Big houses use more of everything. ‘Honey, do we really need a three-tier home cinema?’
Face north. Plan living areas for the north side, to make the most of winter sun.
Reflect on windows. Go for double-glazing to cut down heat loss. North-facing windows are best, but shade them in summer. Keep east and west windows small - the lower sun is tricky to shade. Minimise windows on the sunless south.
Insulate. Good insulation can cut heat loss by up to 70%. Put it in ceilings, walls and floors.
Make it massive. Thermal mass, that is. Heavy building materials like concrete, brick and stone absorb and store heat, curbing the extremes of winter and summer.
Close the gaps. Be sure to seal all external doors, windows and exhausts. According to eco-architect Mark Sanders, gaps in leaky houses can add up to “having a one metre by one metre window permanently open.”
Use efficient appliances and fittings. Cut down on electricity, gas and water use. Choosing one extra star rating can mean savings of between 10-30% on running costs.
Go renewable. Super size your sustainability with solar panels and hot water, water tanks and wastewater treatment systems. Remember to cash in on hefty government rebates.