Luke Middleton

The land, sun and wind are the best departure points for creating sustainable building design, according to EME Design principal Luke Middleton.

Middleton began his career as a designer following a “previous incarnation” as a builder. He says a sense of inquisitiveness and an attitude of “why can’t you do it?” fuelled explorations into creating green buildings ranging from homes and apartments to educational, retail, community and public space projects.

“It’s important to not just pay lip service [to sustainable design]. If it starts as the generator of the architecture, you can create more unique results,” Middleton says.

“Sustainability means you have to observe the surroundings and the community, and look at what the future of that community might be.”

He starts with a floorplan with “some cleverness and sensible poetry to it”, then a section is developed using sun diagrams to ensure the building essentially “sculpts light” in a way that maximises passive solar benefits as well as views and liveability.

Computer modelling is used to assess the angle and direction of the sun at that particular site throughout the seasons and how it will penetrate into the building, with windows, ceiling heights and other elements adjusted in response to the sunlight aspect.

“The use of nature as generator allows you to be more playful within the constraints.”

The practice’s design for a 10 star NatHERS apartment project won the 2o12 Building Designers Association of Victoria 10 Star Challenge. Middleton says he is yet to find a client or developer to build it.

He works with clients to try to establish parameters for their buildings that follow a “less is more approach”. This means looking at lifestyle – how they plan to use the space, and whether they really need as much of it as they might initially think.

The River House in Mildura, for example, was designed for a client that thought they wanted a home 50 per cent larger than what eventually got designed and built.

River House Mildura
River House Mildura

Middleton says he convinced them to think about reducing the number of bathrooms and drew up a timetable of when throughout the years visitors would usually be expected, so they could see how little some spaces, such as extra guestrooms, might actually be used.

Sustainable homes don’t cost more

Middleton says there is no truth to the idea a sustainable home costs more.

“What costs is waste,” he says. “Wasted space and badly designed rooms that waste space.”

His approach is to design in multifunctional nooks, smart storage and frame the views in rooms.

“Layered views are a way to make spaces punch above their weight,” he says.

In one of the homes he worked on, Wrights Terrace, he replaced the traditional hall with a light court and a reflection pond. This has an effect similar to a Coolgardie safe on the kitchen, dining room and lounge room.

“It’s a little intervention that feeds light, cool air and views into those rooms,” he says.

Since 2005 he has been working with University of Melbourne sustainable design expert Dominique Hes to monitor the thermal performance of some of his buildings. Sensors have been installed that take temperatures every 30 minutes and the results have informed ongoing evolution of his designs.

Prom Wilderness Lodge
Prom Wilderness Lodge

The River House, which has an underground labyrinth for cooling, outperformed the pre-build modelling. The monitoring and analysis also taught him about the thermal lag of rammed earth, as thermal stratification was one of the aspects they were investigating.

“The analysis we’ve done is of a level that gives me far more confidence and understanding of the artistic element of sustainability,” he says. “It has also given me warning of areas where I might not have otherwise been aware of issues.”

Currently, the practice is designing a heritage renovation, The Passive Butterfly in Armadale, that is aiming for Passive House certification. The design includes triple glazed windows and a number of “crafted efficient solutions”. As part of the certification process, a blower door test will be carried out on completion.

Middleton says the owner predicts the home will be able to “run off two heated towel rails” in winter for heating – despite the fact the house is surrounded by tall buildings that block a lot of sunlight and has a south-facing rear yard.

To redress this, the butterfly roof is “tuned into the winter sun” to bring it deep inside the home, and highlight windows mean the winter sun will also land on a rammed earth wall that will retain the heat.

“ESD is a fantastic generator for design, and it makes sense and it is our obligation as professionals,” he says.

He questions the trend for massive expanses of glazing and full-width “indoor-outdoor living” apertures.

“People forget double glazing is not a saviour [in energy terms]. What saves energy is putting glass where you need it and shading it where you need to,” Middleton says.

“The R-value of double glazing is still low – an insulated wall has five times the R-value.”

If a client really wants something the architect knows is unsustainable, like a massive glass box tower that is going to be unliveable for the occupants and unsustainable in terms of energy use, he says the architect should “speak with their feet”.

“Some people are designing substandard ghettos and unliveable, unsustainable boxes, and they are also killing the planet [doing so] because once it’s there, the building is there for a long time.

“They are riding this wave [of development], building these giant buildings – it’s an ego trip. I don’t know how they can justify it.

“I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if something I designed was [awful] to live in.”

Mildura Eco-Living Centre
Mildura Eco-Living Centre

Middleton’s five steps for improving sustainable design outcomes

  1. Remember less is more – Using less, building less and wasting less is more sustainable. You don’t have to compromise, you can make less space feel like more space. Less is more makes you work harder. It puts you in a position where you have to become more clever or lateral.
  2. Design is a process of dialogue and exchange – A deep understanding of the cultural and natural context is essential. A building should respond to both its environment and its users to create an enjoyable and sustainable space. The beauty and poetry of good design lies in the sculpting of light, volumes and textures – delightful spaces are naturally comfortable, inviting and elegantly grow old.
  3. Think optimise and multi-function – In today’s world of excess, help clients to review their brief. Design multifunctional spaces that are adaptable whilst optimising the plan to reduce wasted space.
  4. Know your product – Don’t be afraid to ask the difficult questions of your consultants or suppliers. Do some research, then ask these types of questions: what is the logic behind the design from a sustainable point of view? What is sustainable about your product? Where is it produced? What is the embodied energy? Chose local products as much as possible.
  5. Look for a balance between innovation and function and poetry – A common sense approach to design and construction encourages engagement between users and their environment to create projects that above all provide enjoyment, beauty and efficiency.

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