Tone Wheeler

By Tina Perinotto

26 September 2013 — Architect Tone Wheeler says we’re obsessed with roofs in this country. Given our climate, they’re “showy, inappropriate roofs mostly made out of tiles”, he says.

“You can’t walk on them; you can’t easily put photovoltaic panels on them; you can’t put a satellite dish on them; you can’t service them,” He says. And they are slippery and dangerous when you’re trying to clean the gutters out.

Wheeler, it’s evident at first meeting, is not prone to the quiet gentle-speak of many architects.

He’s one of Australia’s foremost environmental designers of houses and has had a leading role in shaping the future of his professionthrough a number of professional bodies, including the Australian Institute of Architects and as a lecturer. He’s also had a reasonably high profile in media. His commentary is always strong and original. Sometimes too strong.

On one of his regular guest gigs with ABC radio earlier this year he fielded a call from a woman who phoned in and relayed what he is convinced was dodgy environmental information related to a product he happened to know the woman was spruiking. Wheeler was furious and tried to straighten the record. Forcefully.

Hints by the presenter to silence Wheeler failed.

So it’s an ex-gig.

Not that Wheeler hasn’t got enough to keep him busy.

In his day job at Environa Studio, which he runs with wife and fellow architect Jan O’Connor, Wheeler is trying to do no less than reinvent the way we do housing and the way we think about housing.

Again, it’s about breaking the mould.

There’s a display home that’s designed with the environment and affordability in mind. There is a prefabricated housing product that can go off grid and there’s a boarding-house-with-a-difference design that he says is a reinvention of a ’20s and ’30s idea, but that sounds unique.

In an interview to prepare for a radio interview conducted by The Fifth Estate for a community radio station in Melbourne, 3WBC 94.1FM, Wheeler ran through some of his work and imperatives for a better cheaper and more sustainable way to live.

Key to understanding green, he says, is to grasp some of the conflicts that emerge in the shift to more environmentally friendly design. It’s not straightforward.

“Green building is more expensive, we know; how much more expensive is an argument we can have another time,” he says.

“Because we have a track record of being interested in sustainability, there is a parallel understanding from clients that you are interested in social issues and affordable housing.

“It’s the kind of thing that in design is still on the left. So that the people who are interested in green are often left leaning, more libertarian, more interested in social issues, ‘small l liberal’.”

It’s the idea that if you care about the environment, it follows that you care about social issues.

“People who come to us as clients have social issues in their minds. And in order to address that, the idea is we should build smaller housing and it should be cheaper.”

That’s because the first thing you can do to create a greener product is to use less.

The upshot is that Environa is focusing on affordable housing more than green housing, Wheeler says.

“We shun the whole idea of a sustainable home when the award winning home with solar photovoltaics that wins awards is an oversized single family home of 400 square metres.”

That’s one reason that Environa is now interested in what is “pejoratively” called display homes, Wheeler says.

So what does this new brand of display home look like?

Display home for Rosewood Homes

Display home

First, it’s different, but not too much.

The roofs again. “We’re doing not a flat roof, but a low, sloped skillion roof. It’s a Colorbond product that is more durable than corrugated steel and you walk all over it. You can build a green roof on it, put photovoltaics on it.

“So that means the houses show a very unusual face to the street.”

When you walk inside the message is louder.

The ceiling is raked and sloping and there is exposed brickwork. The materials, of course, are low volatile organic compound materials.

Standard building techniques are used – timber frames – but high levels of insulation and reverse brick veneers, “brick on the inside and insulation on the outside”.

This is classic environmental design, keeping the heat out of the main building fabric before it’s had time to reach it, and keeping the thermal mass on the inside, which creates more stable internal temperatures.

But the biggest impact is that the design is not open plan. The house is zoned to allow for maximum flexibility. This means that up to three generations can live in the house at different times or even at the same time.

Zoning is critical
Zoning, he says, is an “antidote” to the obsession with open plan design. Open plan, he says, means you can’t shut off rooms to heat and cool them more efficiently. And there’s a loss of privacy as the entire family ends up living in the same open space, which, for some people at least, is not conducive to balance.

Wheeler cites the need for successful families to provide the opportunity for both alone time and togetherness. “You can’t have family without privacy and you can’t have privacy without family,” he says. “We’re all for zoning.”

But the flexibility goes further.

“We try to make every house trigenerational,” he says. “To have the possibility of children, parents and grandparents all living under the one roof.”

It might be that the family needs a nanny to help when the kids are small, or a “home stay” student to help pay the mortgage if times become lean. Or the grandparents can move in at the same time as the kids move back home.

“Zoning will encourage greater occupancy of the house.”

Rosewood Homes
The client who commissioned this design is Rosewood Homes.

“They’re a family housing company in Sydney and they’ve built project homes for 50 years,” Wheeler says.

“The grandson of the founder is now in charge of the company. And he thinks all their designs are far too conservative, too old fashioned; that they don’t address today’s concerns.

“So he’s asked us to design a series of display homes. The first is being built soon at Kellyville.”

This is display home central for Sydney, for those not in the know.

“It’s a very radically different project home. We try to make them uber green but without saying so.”

Environa has now notched up eight designs for the client – four double-storey and four single, but they all have a “certain characteristic” that makes each different.
Another big difference is that the Environa display homes are smaller than the regular version. First rule in sustainability is to minimise size of the product in development, Wheeler says.

At Homeworld and Kellyville the regular product has 350 square metres to 450 sq m in space, “which means about 100 square metres for each person in a four person household”.

In the Environa houses the floor space is about 250 sq m, or 50 sq m for each person in a five person household, “which means we’ve doubled the sustainability”, Wheeler says.

The display homes also have a strong supply of outside “rooms” by way or courtyards or kitchen garden spaces.

“So there upwards of three or four outdoor spaces,” which adds to the sense of living space.

This also removes the feeling in many display homes of a “house plonked on as site”.

Cost of the display homes is between $1400 a sq m and $1800 a sq m, the same price point as standard display homes.

The other big area of potential growth is the firm’s prefabrication work.

The studio calls this product “Supremo”, which neatly wraps up the key elements of “sustainable, prefabricated and modular”.

But Environa won’t promote these until it’s built 10 of them, Wheeler says. There are far too many people who’ve launched a prefab house on the strength of “something they’ve done for one of their cousins”.

“So far we’ve built three of these and have five under construction.”

Key to the design and implicit in all pre-fab buildings is that they are more affordable than regular stand-alone buildings. And that means easier to transport and erect.

The Environa model can be built using a tractor… instead of a crane.

“You pull it off the back of a truck and position it on the ground. You can have a home delivered from one truck, with a maximum size of 65 sq m, so that’s a one bedroom home with everything in it, enough for two people or a young couple with a child.”

When the family grows you can add another module, Wheeler says.

Environa has one of these houses under way at Dalgety near Cooma, about 400 kilometres south of Sydney.

Cost of the modular houses range from $1200 a sq m to $1800 a sq m.

And yes the Supremo can go off grid with the “tower of power”. This is a separate module that provides solar water heating electricity, batteries if you need back up, and sewerage, for $100,000.

Jan O’Connor and Tone Wheeler

Boarding houses, but not like you think

Another line of design work is in boarding houses. This picks up on the need for temporary accommodation that is far from the traditional down at heel image of regular boarding houses.

In fact it’s more like an upmarket version of a hotel –  small, with all you need, but designed for temporary accommodation, to rent from an investor, rather than to buy.

These  “masionettes” are about 30 sq m each and come with their own bathroom and kitchenette.

“This is a revival of something popular in the ’20s and ‘30s and renting them, targeting Gen Y or divorced people or say a spouse needing to live closer to work, someone not looking for a permanent house but a glorified hotel room.

The price point for these is around the $150,000 mark, or sometimes up to $200,000.

“They have a bathroom, in many cases an accessible bathroom, and a kitchenette

“We love the word [or suffix] “ette”. Par of our thing for sustainability is to change the size of things.

“That’s about materials and also about footprint. It’s incredibly important. And not controversial or too outspoken at all.


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  1. Great article Tone . I wish all the success for your work. Your ongoing endeavours in creating great communities is important work for our nations and a legacy which will only evolve.
    Thanks for your continued inspiration you provide me, in my life works and future planning. Cheers Joe