7 February 2013 — Building designer Luke Middleton may have designed a 10-star energy efficient house – but he certainly doesn’t have stars in his eyes.

Middleton, of EME Design, was a winner in last year’s Building Designers’ Association of Victoria 10-Star Challenge, working with Greensphere Consulting on a 16-apartment co-housing community that included a food forest and orchards, shared rainwater collection and water treatment plant.

Middleton said that while aiming for 10-star energy efficiency in a home was admirable, other considerations were important.

“The 10-star rating is like one colour in the rainbow,” he said.

“You have to look at many considerations like the habits of people living in the home, using local materials and less materials overall.

“In the future, sustainable homes will also be more about building a sense of community and growing food. Food security will be important in the future.

“The 10-star is just the building envelope.”

Middleton said his company, where most of the architects also have certificates in permaculture design, was about to start on an 8.7-star apartment which was “much more real”.

“I wouldn’t actually recommend a 10-star building. You could have an 8-star building that uses less electricity,” he said.

“You could get 10-star in a black box. But you need to think about things like daylight, views, sustainability – and then the people who are going to live there.”

Mr Middleton said the problems with the star system were highlighted by a recent Victorian building which received a 6-star rating despite having banks of windows on its east and west walls.

“They compensated with airconditioning but they shouldn’t have received any stars – that’s just a band-aid approach.

“And that’s the problem with a ‘tick the box’ system.”

Luke Middleton

Mr Middleton says creating a really sustainable home meant “listening hard” to the owners about what they wanted, and why.

“You need to really probe them about what they want,” he said.

“They might want a certain timber floor because they have seen it in a magazine but if you really query them, they want timber because of its warmth. And they can still get that with locally sourced timber.

“We take time to learn from the client and they learn from us. It’s complex thing.”

Middleton, whose achievements include being keynote speaker for the Sustainable Building Congresso in Mexico in 2006 and presenting his paper Elastic Design – Regeneration of education through architecture’ at the Smart and Sustainable Built Environments Conference in The Netherlands in 2009, said he often convinced clients to swap to a smaller home.

“Clients often ask does it cost more to build sustainably and yes it does, a little, but if you can reduce the size of your home by 20 per cent then you are going to have some change left over anyway.

“And they usually come back and say we were right, they didn’t need all those extra rooms and spaces.”

The Farnsworth House and sustainability inspiration

Middleton said it was while studying architecture that he realised it was focusing too much about the building and not enough about the people and liveability.

Farnsworth House

He cites the famous Farnsworth House as a perfect case in point.

In Illinois, in 1945, Edith Farnsworth commissioned architect Mies van der Rohe to build her a country retreat.

So he did. He built her a house, almost entirely from glass with two rows of eight steel columns supporting the floor and roof slabs.

But while it was lauded as an extraordinary feat of architecture, Dr Farnsworth was not happy. She said the house was not liveable. Problems included exorbitant heating bills, lack of ventilation, rusting steel columns and, worst of all, bugs. At night, the glass house turned into a huge light attracting swarms of mosquitos and moths.

She went first to the courts, where her case did not stand up because she had been involved in the plans, and then went to the newspapers and finally House Beautiful magazine where an editorial in 1953 attacked Mies van der Rohe and followers of the “International Style”.

Even Frank Lloyd Wright joined in saying he distrusted internationalism as much as he did communism.

“Because both must by their nature do this very levelling in the name of civilisation.”

Dr Farnsworth eventually used the house as a holiday home until 1972 and it is now a museum owned by the National Trust.

See more information here.

Meanwhile, Middleton will be among those taking part in “Speed Date a Sustainable Designer at The Green House, Birrarung Marr, Melbourne, on 17 February 2013 from 3pm to 5pm. Twenty sustainable designers and architects will be on hand at the free event, held by the not-for-profit Alternative Technology Association with support from bankmecu. It will  allow people who are renovating or building to sit down and discuss their plans and ideas with experts in green building design. Bookings are essential. Register here.

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  1. Congrats Luke on winning the BDAV 10-star challenge!

    Like Luke, we also advocate that chasing points and stars does not guarantee sustainable outcomes. In fact, it can sometimes results in perverse outcomes for the environment overall. We wrote a blog post along similar lines a while back: https://bit.ly/Kq20WP

    Interesting that Luke cites the Farnsworth House as a source of inspiration for his journey towards sustainability – it still gets heralded as an architectural marvel, and something which all budding architects should aspire towards.

    An anecdote along similar lines – Cradle to Cradle co-author William McDonough once had Richard Meier as a design lecturer. The students were designing housing in Ireland, and McDonough incorporated a solar hot water system into his design, to which Meier said “That has nothing to do with architecture”.

    It is an ongoing source of disappointment to me that our profession still doesn’t understand the sustainability paradigm. But at the same time, I have great hope that building designers like Luke will help to lead the way towards a more sustainable built environment…