NSW planning minister Rob Stokes turned up to an open house at Newtown last Thursday evening.
Along with the minister at 88 Angel Street were at least 200 invited guests, the NSW Government Architect Peter Poulet, some media, quite a few party crashers and even a contingent of protesters against the WestConnex and their police minders who popped in early, before we got there, we heard. (The latter would have made for good photo ops but we bet there will be plenty more at similar ministerial appearances now that freeway contractors have started demolishing lovely federation villas in Haberfield.)
Naturally, this was no ordinary house.
Designed and built by Oliver Steele and his Steeleassociates, this place could shape up – at least in part – to be Sydney’s answer to Melbourne’s highly sustainable Nightingale project. Both projects tick loads of sustainability boxes, seen and unseen.
Both are modest in profile – Nightingale is a smallish block of 20 apartments; 88 Angel Street is one of three identical terrace houses in Steele’s project.
But while Nightingale has transparent finance arrangements, low profit margins and hard codes limited capital gains into sales contracts, Steele’s project is unapologetically upper end.
According to expectations, which must be increasingly hard to gauge in the current volatile pricing environment, Steele’s house could sell for around $2.4 million at its scheduled 7 May auction, gauging by buyer interest, which has shot expectations up from an initial $2 million. The Nightingale prices by contrast are about a quarter of that.
But the point for Steele, who’s been at this project for 20 years, is to show that a high-end house doesn’t have to cost more than a regular upper-end dwelling with all the superficial bling of luxury but little substance.
At Angel Street the profile is small footprint and low impact living, evidenced by the likely prospect of no utility bills.
The minister knows his stuff
The minister clearly agreed, but was especially keen to promote the typology of terrace houses. These, he said could deliver higher density and better social outcomes that beat hands down continual urban sprawl and ever taller and less personal high-rise apartments.
Stokes’ speech was in fact a welcome departure from the usual platitudes that officials pump out on such occasions. It revealed that here at last was a planning minister who’s actually trained in the profession and doesn’t look like he’s picked up his lines from “that” episode of Utopia (we need more land, more supply, faster approvals).
Rob Sitch would have been disappointed.
Nope. The minister instead slammed rampant sprawl. He said Sydney was on a trajectory of such growth that was “truly frightening” and would deliver a city that was “bigger, uglier, more difficult to get around and less fair”.
“We’ve reached a real crossroads in planning for the future of Sydney and other towns and cities in NSW,” he said.
We have plenty of land, “but we haven’t used it thoughtfully and consciously in the past, which has led to urban sprawl and un-coordinated urban development that is enormously difficult and limits diversity and services that lead to social exclusion and limited opportunities for justice for all the inhabitants of the city.”
Now that’s pretty good joined-up thinking: linking urban planning and development to notions of equity and social outcomes.
Of course urban sprawl is what leads the highway lobby to argue for roads; but that’s another story and by this time the protesters had gone away.
“We need to plan more thoughtfully and we need to live more consciously and in a more considered way in denser urban environments,” he concluded.
Of course, the new residents of this house would be living more thoughtfully whether they were conscious about it or not.
Steele later took us through a bird’s eye view of how he’s designed the house with exactly that effortless living in mind.
Our cursory inspection on the night revealed a high-end house much like any other – spacious, high quality, verging on grand. There was the warm timber, slick glass stair guards, cupboards in abundance and beautiful windows in the one bedroom we managed to cram into (due to the crowd) that spanned two walls at shoulder height leaving plenty of wall space, and which looked directly onto the abundant roof garden.
Beneath the stair well we noticed plump goldfish swimming around beneath a glass canopy. Directly above guests were trying to figure out if there was glass or whether they were looking direct at the night sky. It was the latter. Steele explained later that there’s a retractable glass roof with rain sensors built in.
So what else ticks the sustainability box?
On the sustainability side, we knew there was a wonderful roof garden that would be good for insulation and attracting native insects and bees, a 5000-litre water tank, 8.5kW solar power system, and in-house sales agent Ed Fernon told us about the enchanting charred timber façade, an idea borrowed from the Japanese to keep out termites and other pests and also to save on maintenance.
But outside of these features, the more sceptical viewer, a bit jaded by too much green bling in the marketing brochures, could be left wondering what else was actually sustainable.
Plenty as it turned out.
Steele says he and his team stepped through every trade and every step on the design and construction trajectory to squeeze out better outcomes.
Bricks and sandstone from the cottage that stood on the original 500 square metre block were reused as much as possible.
Concrete has maximum recycled content; engineered timber is used throughout and the roof is made of structural insulated panels from Kingspan, which devised a new method to support the green roof and provide insulation values of between R5 and R10 (which is very high). The walls are filled with bulk insulation wrapped in reflective double laminated foil to give radiant and conductive insulation.
Doors and windows are all double glazed and the aluminium frames are thermally broken to address aluminium’s well-known thermal conductivity.
A high-end PET carpet that feels like the best tufted wool
There are “shading solutions for every door and window” and the wall-to-wall carpet upstairs is made from recycled PET (plastic) built to the highest grade so it feels like the best tufted wool carpet but, because it’s plastic, will never stain.
Provided by Green By Design, the carpet is “not particularly common and it’s expensive but not prohibitively so”, Steele says. In fact, it’s about the same price as upper end wool carpet (and no, it does not produce static, he said).
The underlay, of course, is recycled. Other inclusions are low-VOC paints, certified FSC timber and LED lighting.
Supplementing the behaviour electronically
A neat addition is an automation system that takes care of the operational elements of keeping a green designed house operating the way it’s intended, which of course is the part often cited as the weak link in the sustainability chain.
For this Steele chose an automation system from Z-Wave that costs around $5000. It’s not as comprehensive as the high-end systems companies such as C-Bus make, but then it’s also a big discount on the $30,000 to $50,000 the more sophisticated systems can cost. And a whole lot easier to figure out, Steele says.
“There’s no question that those commercial grade systems are far more robust, but these new generation systems work on wireless technology and are more affordable,” Steele says.
Another innovations are the stainless steel taps that do away with chrome plating that can leach contaminants into the drinking water.
Steele won’t reveal the source of these taps as he thinks they’re unique to Australia and may try to obtain a local distribution agreement for them.
So with all these built in features, how much more expensive was it to build this house compared to an equivalent quality home?
Hard to say, Steele says.
“The cost is no more than a high-end house because a lot of it is just good design.
“Some things cost more definitely, for example putting in solar power and the green roof are extras, but we didn’t put in airconditioning – we roughed in the pipework for aircon but we have fitted off.
As for the demand and appetite for this kind of property Steele says it’s clearly an upmarket property and meets all the expectations for such a property. The sustainability, he says, hasn’t been a key selling point for buyers of the other two houses, sold off the plan in 2014, but the prospect of no energy bills certainly has an allure, he says.
Sustainability, he says, has been a benefit but not a decider.
People don’t part with that much money unless there are perceptible benefits.
“Everyone loves the idea of a sustainable house but only a small percentage are willing to pay more for it from an ethical point of view. But we’re interested in showing that it doesn’t have to cost more and the benefits that you get for the end user are significant.
“The real key is to bring it into the mainstream. And to show that the market wants it and they don’t have to pay a premium for it.”
Steele and many of his supporters will no doubt be waiting with bated breath to see if that’s in fact the case.