Tone Wheeler on his house as lab and why a spanner is better than a hammer

29 July 2014 We recently featured a story on a breakthrough building-integrated photovoltaic-thermal roofing technology installed in Sydney. The system generates electricity while also provides heating and cooling, and its developer BlueScope sees a big future in Australia for the system.

Well it turns out the roof the system was installed on belongs to renowned architect Tone Wheeler, who we recently featured in The Fifth Estate, and whose studio just took out the top sustainability gong at the NSW Architecture Awards last month.

See our stories:

So we thought this was as good a reason as any to catch up with Wheeler and see why he decided to put the system in, and to find out more about the sustainability win for Environa Studio’s Wayside Chapel.

Australia’s tradition of innovation

Wheeler told The Fifth Estate he has been an advisor to BlueScope dating back eight years, and through that the opportunity to be used as a test case for the BIPV-T system had come about.

BlueScope, he says, has a high level of innovation and sustainability in its operations, and sees sustainability as key to its success.

The “tradition of innovation” in the Australian building products sector is not very well known, Wheeler says, but there are many great export successes.

BlueScope, he said, is a world leader in coated steel products.

“They have the world’s best zinc alum treated products [being made] in a fairly ageing facility [at Port Kembla] in an expensive environment – yet they are still able to compete.”

James Hardie, too, he says, is seeing phenomenal success in the US with its compressed and uncompressed sheets and fibre cement products.

Australia’s sustainability competitive advantage

“Australia is uniquely positioned to compete in sustainability products,” Wheeler says.

The country has great scientists, great researchers and great collaborative efforts to put together great research projects. And research organisations like the CSIRO were advancing the sustainability narrative greatly, while business-led initiatives like Think Brick were engaging in considerable research around thermal massing brickwork.

The BIPV-T system

The BIPV-thermal roofing system

Wheeler says he had been talking to BlueScope about the possibilities of innovative roofs five or six years ago, so they approached him to take on the BIPV-T system.

“I have, for better or worse, a reputation for doing thermal design,” he says.

The roof does three things: it generates electricity, provides heating during the day and cooling during the night. Extracting heat from the roof also makes the PV system work more efficiently, he says.

The retrofitted roof has a capacity of just 1.3 kilowatts, though Wheeler says he runs a very efficient house so it makes a lot of difference.

A living lab

Apart from the retrofitted BIPV-T system, another is being installed on a new build out the back of Wheeler’s house.

It will feature an exciting development in solar cooling the CSIRO has been working on – a desiccant cooling system that will use waste heat for airconditioning.

It’s all part of Wheeler using his home as what he calls a “living lab” to help find solutions to make our existing building stock more sustainable.

“It’s incredibly important to deal with existing buildings and inefficient housing stock,” he says.

The sustainability win for Wayside Chapel and the three Ls

The Wayside Chapel by Environa Studio. Image: Owen Zhu

Wheeler says he wasn’t expecting to receive the Milo Dunphy Award for Sustainable Architecture at last month’s NSW Architecture Awards, and was grateful for the win.

Environa, he says, conceptualises sustainability as having four facets represented by the four elements – earth, air, fire and water.

Energy (fire), water and air most people do.

Earth, however, refers to materials and footprint, and is not as developed in a lot of building projects.

In this regard, Wheeler lives by the three L’s – long life, loose fit and low impact.

Long life means that the envelope (including internal walls) of the structure should be made to last 100 years, otherwise the investment in energy is being dissipated too quickly, he says.

Low impact refers to green materials – low VOCs/offgassing is the way to go.

Loose fit services are important so they can be extracted and changed.

“Instead of pipes in walls, put them in cupboards, ducts or service zones. Have undoable wall panelling.”

Wheeler says too many buildings are glued and hammered together, making it hard to upgrade without damage. His motto is “use a spanner not a hammer”.

“Everything in Wayside is designed to be unscrewed,” he says.

“We think much more attention needs to be paid to the loose fit material,” Wheeler says.

“If [a building is] going to last 100 years, the energy is spread over a much longer period. The problem is that things are being pulled out in five years time.”