“Aeschylus said, ‘Only fools and barbarians do not face their houses towards the winter sun’,” says architect Oliver Steele of Steele Associates who designed the eco-friendly series of terraces, 88 Angel Street (in Newtown). And yet, he says, “Two thousand years later, most of the houses in Sydney are built with no account to where the sun moves and where it delivers it heat.”
Aeschylus’s maxim describes passive solar design, where the orientation of a house makes auxiliary heating and cooling unnecessary because it uses the sun in winter, and blocks it out in summer. The concept is central to the sustainability credentials of the three three-bedroom eco-houses that make up 88 Angel St, Australia’s first-ever street-facing green-roof terrace. Passive houses require active users, who had to open and shut blinds and windows at the right time of day. Steele has overcome this limitation by automating everything in the house that opens and closes.
“The automation system has thermostats, wind sensors, light sensors and seasonal timers, so it will automatically bring out the awning over the back deck to shade the big glass doors on summer mornings,” says Steele. “It will open the glass roof in the middle of the house to exhaust out warm air in summer, and it will close and trap heat in winter.”
The building scored eight-and-a-half stars on the Building Sustainability Index, a rating Steele describes as “very high”. Its eco-friendly design features include double-glazed windows, a 5000-litre water tank, and a bioethanol fireplace which provides heating. An 8.5-kilowatt solar panel on each house generates electricity. “The residents are never going to see an electricity bill,” he says.
The building is incredibly well-insulated, thanks to concrete walls and its star feature, the green roof. “It gives you really good thermal insulation, because you have the plants shading the roof surface from direct sun, and you also have 150 ml of soil over the roof which keeps it nice and cool. It also has really good acoustic insulation,” says Steele.
Not only is the roof an effective insulator, it’s beautiful and attracts native birds and insects to the area. “I remember growing up in the inner west; Willy Wagtails were common, but now you very rarely see them,” says Steele. “Same with blue wrens, and they’ve been pushed out largely because of habitat loss, so bringing back these native ground-cover environments is a key part of healing the urban ecology of Sydney.”
The houses feature a special type of timber cladding called shou-sugi-ban, an ancient Japanese technique that preserves timber by burning the surface. “When timber rots it’s actually getting eaten by microorganisms or insects, and they don’t like eating burnt timber, just like we don’t like eating burnt chops,” says Steele. “We’ve used a class-one-durability timber, which is naturally weather resistant, and we’ve preserved the surface by burning it and rubbing it back to a lovely golden brown. We estimate it would last 50 years plus without maintenance.”
When Steele bought the block 10 years ago, it was a tumbledown cottage on a 500-square-metre site. “I knew that would be perfect because Newtown is a progressive suburb, so if there was somewhere where this would be desirable, it’s Newtown,” he says.
The cost has been roughly the same as building a high-end architect-designed house, but offset by the savings made in running it. Steele says the house would be “incredibly cheap” to live in. “The response we’ve had from the market has been incredibly strong. It gives me faith that there’s a demand for sustainable housing. People are starting to think more about what it’s going to cost them to live in it for 10 years, because energy prices are rising and people are starting to factor that into their buying decisions.”
How to make your house more eco-friendly
When you’re designing a house, Steele says early decisions are the most important. Remember Aeschylus and take into account the sun’s position. “While you can’t change that, you can change the way you design to meet the sun,” says Steele.
While sustainable design has patchy support from the different levels of government, Steele says the state-sponsored Your Home Manual is an “incredibly useful and well-presented resource for sustainable design, like passive design, which too few people know about”.
Change to energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs, such as halogen incandescents, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), and light-emitting diodes (LEDs).
A simple and incredibly effective trick is installing external shading on glazed doors and windows. “If you’ve got summer afternoon sun beating into your living room through a window, often people put curtains inside to try and combat that, but once the sun has come through the glass it’s too late,” says Steele. “Once it’s in, it’s trapped. Use a piece of shade cloth or bamboo blinds to stop the sun hitting the glass in the first place, and you will be amazed at the difference it makes.”