Nest Architects’ Emilio Fuscaldo

10 February 2014 — Greenwashing, cost perceptions and design trends are three of the biggest stumbling blocks for genuine residential sustainability, according to Nest Architects principal Emilio Fuscaldo. As one of the experts at the Alternative Technology Association’s free Speed Date a Sustainability Expert event in Melbourne on 22 February, he will be sharing lessons learned from his own sustainable home project to help others think outside the “too hard” basket.

“Cost is the main barrier for people, as there is a perception that sustainability adds a percentage to all projects,” Fuscaldo says.

“This is not helped by the way many builders and architects approach it as an add-on, which also means it can then be easily subtracted. A better way to approach it is to incorporate it from the start. So if the building needs to be smaller, or you need to forego some extras, so be it.”

The second barrier Fuscaldo identifies is “greenwashing” – products that claim to be sustainable yet may not be – and other products that are sustainable but have not made a major marketing noise about it. Making the right choices can be time consuming, and requires research either by the client, the architect or the builder. The question then becomes, who will do the research, and who will pay for it?

He says insulation is a good example of a market where many products claim to be recycled and sustainable, though not all products live up to the claim. Bradford Batts on the other hand contain recycled material and are produced in a factory using solar power and recycled water, making them highly sustainable, even if that fact flies under most people’s radar.

Fuscaldo’s home, which is also the office for the Nest Architects practice, is a case study in innovative and cost-effective approaches to sustainability.

“You don’t necessarily have to follow the tactics that experts suggest,” Fuscaldo says. “For example, they suggest one metre wide eaves – my house does not have one metre wide eaves all around – only on the south-west corner. Instead I have done other things, like I have a green roof.”

“Our kitchen was not made from sustainable products, instead we salvaged an old workbench, sanded it down and then added in a sink. It is very easy to step outside the greenwashing, and there are ways to think about sustainability that are not add-ons. It [sometimes] comes down to common sense.

“I wanted my house to display all the sustainability aspects I suggest to clients, so I could speak with knowledge.”

Big feet = big footprint; smaller and smarter design = sustainability

On the topic of McMansions and other mass-built homes with large footprints, Fuscaldo says planners are responding to what they think the market wants, which means change needs to come from the bottom up – from buyers.

Increasingly, his practice is doing work for inner-city clients who recognise the value of working with an architect to achieve a sustainable home, rather than relying on plans by mass builders. While some are looking to build a new home, many are planning on renovating and extending an existing home to create more space while also delivering a more sustainable dwelling.

Fuscaldo makes the point that popular TV renovating and building shows are not doing the market any favours in terms of cultivating awareness of genuine sustainability.

“The green consumer movement is channelled towards buying things and putting them in a new home,” Fuscaldo says.

When working with a client on a renovation or extension, considerations such as the size of the site and the orientation of the home are fundamental. Fuscaldo aims to make the perimeter of the dwelling as small as possible, and to design spaces so the solar orientation best suits the purpose of the space.

“The simple box on the back with kitchen, living and dining may not be the best solution,” Fuscaldo says.

“A different arrangement often works better because of the orientation of the house, so for example the bedroom may move to where the kitchen was, if that is most appropriate.

“Then I try to understand the insulative properties. I aim to achieve a house which is completely sealed, so no air flows in or out unless the occupant wants it to.

“I am not so concerned with the idea of “inside–outside flow” and those big gaps between inside and outside [to create combined spaces], which are the trend. I believe that threshold is important, and it can be made interesting with things like a planter, which brings some outside inside, or a seat which doubles as a planter outside. So you can close the amount of hole and still have that blending between inside and outside.”

Next on the agenda to achieve a sustainable home is convincing clients to use as many recycled and salvaged products as possible. Fuscaldo gives all clients what he calls the “timber primer”, an explanation of what Forestry Stewardship Council certification and the state-based certifications mean. Because he will only specify new wood that is radially sawn or FSC-certified, if price becomes the sticking point, other materials need to be used.

“I see [sustainability] as a very personal issue, one that myself and the practice are committed to because the built environment is such an enormous part of our economy and also it is where we are living. Sustainability in [the built environment] needs to be at the top of our priorities, because if we can’t get this right, how can we get anything right?”

Other experts joining Fuscaldo to offer their advice during 13-minute “dates” with home owners and small business owners include specialists in energy efficiency; solar power; windows and glazing; green roofs, walls and facades; sustainable gardens; rainwater saving and greywater. Attendees are encouraged to bring sketches, plans or photographs either in hard copy or on their tablet or laptop.

ATA has previously held similar events in 2013 and 2012 in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane. The upcoming Melbourne event has been organised in conjunction with the City of Melbourne and Positive Change.

Numbers are limited – register here.