An tale of despair: a sustainable, passive solar custom development versus a project-builder development.
I worked with a very dependable, kind and straightforward investor with a budget and a large well sited block in the Western Suburbs in Perth. The block had a delightful outlook over virgin coastal bush, with a north aspect. He was willing, as long as the dollars added up, to demolish his own house and replace with three new places: to live in one and sell two.
Moss Johnson (registered builder, Wandoo Design & Construction) and I are conservative with projections about the market and came very close but couldn't build well, cheaper. ($1.4M we proposed; his bottom line was $1.3M). Our arrangement was to provide a solution that suited the budget, and so we did not succeed in the brief. We apologised and left him with our solution, over budget, although we worked and worked to bring it to our lowest possible price for delivery whilst still maintaining self-respect. That is, we chose not to deliver it for a loss to ourselves after much deliberation, and in the process noticed quite how motivated we both are to deliver an example to the market, knowing that the rewards may come later if just one example can demonstrate capacity. The client then went to a project builder. Within 2 weeks the project builder had provided full plans, a model, a contract and a perfect price.
Our client was very disappointed and so were we. In his words, he would do anything to work with Moss and I. But he is sensible and so are we - we were up against some frustrating odds with this wonderful opportunity to deliver, to this beautiful bush setting, a cost neutral or positive proposal on paper.
This project could have demonstrated something. An attractive, sustainable, passive solar design for the entire block. The scheme proposed more than the required open space, new local tree plantings in keeping with the neighbouring bush, a permeable driveway for soil health, recycled materials, a textured palette. A practical orientation exploiting the high sun angle of the summer northern sun for light and not heat in summer. Accompanying thermal mass to store warmth, and an eaves overhang at a design angle to suit admission of that northern sun in winter.
It is truly so easy in Perth, Western Australia. 75% of the year is absolutely delightful weather well within or near the thermal comfort range: we can almost create entirely passive solar buildings performing in range without extra effort or add-ons.
(In the northern hemisphere the conversation is very different. Double or triple glazing, comprehension of the conductivity of materials, bridging, and interstitial loss through tiny air gaps all add up to a significant impact on thermal performance. In Perth we don’t consider timber to ‘conduct’ heat. In Sweden, timber will bring the cold in. Its conductivity is a huge factor to mitigate. In Perth, our structural floor is our finished floor in an older house with timber-floorboards. This is quite hilarious and extraordinary to northern hemisphere natives who think we live in tents. We do. Partly testament to a certain sandgroper, tough-nut mentality possibly bred from a pioneering, exploring and rather difficult start for the Swan River Colony just shy as of this decade of 200 years young).
Back to the proposal. It looked at cross ventilation: there are some key rules of thumb, and they are quite simple to comprehend and provide for. A little capacity for an operable window up high where hot-air gathers; a sensible cross-flow from one side to another, ideally weaving through a main space and with a differential in height (a low opening one side, a high one the other), and ideally with a large opening one side and a small opening on the side of the prevailing summer wind.
The planning differed from your average 3x2 and instead the design was developed to suit a new market whereby two master bedrooms, each with a very near bathroom (flexible for shared use, but perceptually an ensuite) offered privacy and sufficient space for a flexible variety of end users: adult couples or singles or children.
The planning was modest in area to meet the budget but voluminous in height, including a soaring double height void over the kitchen zone. Ceilings were partly raked to the pitch of the roof to leverage that perception of height, but other flat ceilings were proposed, to mitigate the increase in temperature brought about by a raked ceiling. The raked ceiling areas were however afforded an extra air-gap crafted with ply, between the rafters and the battens in order to insulate that heat load.
A semi-enclosed garden courtyard with a low wall engaged the pedestrian much like that of our beloved Rottnest typology. Culture, community, engagement and security are important and these offer a life-giving point of difference to the insular, sad, isolation of the virgin developments to which I juxtapose this proposal
There is no question that our simple and bright, north facing design with a high proportion of open space and trees would have been an asset and each house would have easily rented or sold for a great deal of money, in this sought-after suburb. We consulted with a local real estate agent on his own turf to make a good feasibility assessment of likely resale value, but are not in the game and relied heavily on that advice. We were diligent with each decision, thoughtful and intentional about life span, use and ethics. We used a collaborative approach with design meetings pushing the design process forward with close contact with the client – though he was a proper ‘patron’ in that he wanted to offer an opportunity to us by way of few constraints except budget.
It is absolutely difficult to develop sustainably in our market here in Perth. I’m looking for an easier way and need some optimists around me who are connected to more influence. Not only does an investor carry risk and provide cash for custom, site-specific design - but also that design is highly likely to be compared against the cost of a run-of-the-mill, disappointingly lowest-common-denominator project builder’s proposal.
It took Moss and I (both with many years of experience and training) many hours and exploration over about three months to deliver a confident, positive, attractive, buildable, passive solar design.
The alternative solution was provided in about two weeks by a salesperson, backed by full financials and a huge portfolio of works.
I consider it negligent that project-builders offer just a plan, a contract and a brochure of selections as the documents to substantiate a design. I have watched with anger as people pay a deposit and sign a contract based upon that minimum offering. I’d like to warn and advise that infact it is proper and ethical to be offered a plan, four elevations, a site analysis, a section or multiple sections or sectional diagrams, and at least three deep, listening conversations to hear the client’s vision. I’d like to advise that a designer is an advocate, a representative, and a service provider. A person has every right to explore possibilities and budgets and seek to see iterations of different designs which equally meet a budget. One need not rush a solution. It takes time to choose how to spend upward of two or three hundred thousand dollars and I urge readers to place their money and delegate their authority into a wiser and more benevolent advocate.
Let us live from the future forward, not from the past backward.
How do we convince buyers and developers to support a custom, sustainable, passive solar design approach, when it costs more at the design end? What should have been done to change the outcome of this story from near-miss to goal?
We undertook a design phase, drawings and work because we were sure we could do it (we were just $100,000 off the target, which equates to one fourteenth of the overall budget). We invested a lot of time. When the client was not satisfied, he was not charged for the work. Moss shouldered the loss. When Moss estimates the cost of a project, he considers all aspects authentically on behalf of the client. That is, there is nothing, just quietly, left out of the sum. Whether that figure eventually becomes an offer to build (ie a quote to build accompanying contract documents), items can be included or excluded from the contract sum prior to the client signing acceptance of the product and service. That early opinion of cost ought to be discussed with the vision and concept stage of design; budget is design parameter; and a designer ought to have the capacity to discuss and offer solutions which either meet or compromise each constraint – the decision being left to the client as to whether cost, quality or size shall shift at each point of the process.
Part of our problem is that project builders don't use design professionals, they use sales people. Would you use a Coke salesman to sell you a house? Perhaps if you intend to use a project builder you ought to seek a character reference and see a CV of prior experience first. My time to think and resolve with deep awareness is much greater and earlier in a feasibility process than that of a salesperson who can literally offer a 'free' set of drawings and documents at least 50% prepared prior to even meeting you or seeing your specific site.
The model that project builders use is to offer clients the world on paper, get a signature and a deposit, then proceed to charge for any 'custom' changes to the contract as variations at a very high rate. A variation to a contract is an expensive thing.
The salesperson gains a commission for selling the dream without rigorous site-specific substance. One of the frustrating and exhausting side effects of this status quo is that the project building companies have stripped from experienced and trained design professionals (who abide by a code of ethics) the opportunity to charge a fee to design a custom proposal, by way of offering an alternative which is ‘free’. This puts to waste those people who are best placed to articulate and resolve this problem.
The cost to the client and to the community and our earth comes later.
I would like people to stop giving non-skilled salespeople their money and dream. They ought not be selling such a significant thing as a house. And I would like to see practising project builders asked to include ethical and sustainable custom review or their practice – not their product.
The product we are getting is known as a shit box and sits on a denuded dead patch of toxic sand.
The end user didn’t want that. The market doesn’t want that. The government doesn’t want that. Nor did the developer itself: a corporation constituted by individuals. The local species cannot survive that, the seed bank cannot recover from that, the rain cannot penetrate that, asthmatics and sufferers of immune conditions cannot tolerate that, it is known as a sick building.
Anaerobic conditions breed anaerobic conditions. A toxic pile becomes more toxic, health does not thrive there. This habit we are enabling and perpetuating is not life-giving. Visit an outer/frontier virgin suburb, and know that the land and houses do not belong to the earth, do not belong to the end user, do not belong to the local or State Government. Know that the land belongs to one of very few land developers, and the product they have every right to place upon that land is an off the shelf, out of date, post-capitalist product already disowned.
The common practice has severed the thinking arm from the product. The product is just a side effect of the problem.
Let us consider a cap to profit gained via non-sustainable practise, for a more even playing field where profit is not the only reward. The Nightingale Model caps profit. We should be supporting Nightingale Projects, they are a ray of light and a breath of fresh air. The common market is allowing downright low excuses for built form to cover our planet like a virus. It is a sad state of affairs that the alternative is still on paper and called “theoretical” or “failed” or “unbuilt” works. Go to an exhibition of unbuilt works sometime where the intelligent deep thinkers of built space have gathered together their beautiful, considered and resonant drawings into a series for viewing in two dimensions on a gallery wall.
An advocate of passive solar design said to me yesterday to encourage me, “There are the Holdens, and there are the Mercedes. We have to lift our game. There is a market for the Mercedes”.
Custom, sustainable, site-specific design, with an ethical and low toxicity conscience costs more. But priorities can allow for sensible budget none-the-less, with compromise of some really obvious aspects. Have a look at the Nightingale Model. Try to consider alternatives. Try to work around your trees. Try to use low toxicity in your products. Try not to waste. Try to reuse your existing built fabric if you can. Try not to rush. Try to make decisions with a conscience and take a little time, use your wisdom and research and interview people who inspire you or lead the way.
Patrons of architecture and art, hear me. Purchasers of quality product, hear me. We are heading in the wrong direction. Turn around!