“A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.” George Martin, author Game of Thrones. 

If this is true, Australia has long strived to maintain its edge in green architectural design, evidenced by the seminal books we’ve published on the topic.

Think of Alistair Knox’s 1952 tome, Building Your House of Earth, which inspired generations of environmentally conscious owner builders. In 1979 Szololay & Sale explored both passive and active solar design in The Australian and New Zealand Solar Home Book— A Practical Guide.

The 90’s were a boom period for home-grown green design publications. In 1991 it was ‪Australian Earth-Covered Building, by Sydney and Joan Baggs, with son David (now Technical Director of EcoSpecifier). 1995 saw the Royal Australia Institute of Architects produce their Environmental Design Guide, an exhaustive collective of succinct expert treatises, later adopted as a project of the Australian Council of Building Design Professionals.

Hitting bookshops the same year was Nick Hollo’s ‪Warm House Cool House: Inspirational Designs for Low-energy Housing (now in a second edition). For many years the definite work on embodied energy and life cycle assessment was 1996’s Building Materials Energy and the Environment ~ Towards Ecologically Sustainable Development by Bill Lawson. The Centre for Design at RMIT published A Guide to EcoReDesign—Improving the environmental performance of manufactured products. Then Michael Mobbs came along with his personal tale, Sustainable House, first published in 1998, quickly attaining consumers association CHOICE’s best selling book status.

In 2001 the Australian Government, ably aided by University of Technology Sydney’s Institute of Sustainable Futures, developed Your Home, a comprehensive guide to environmentally sustainable homes, now into its fifth edition.

"And we could go on. But you get the picture."

As BPN stands for Building Products News, it should come as no surprise that we spend a bit of time obsessing about materials. Passive design, universal design, adaptive design, cradle to cradle design and their brethren are all just theoretical ideas. To make them work in the real world you have build something and making things using materials.

Of course the selection of those materials and how they are used has a massive impact on the sustainability, or otherwise, of the final structure.

So of course we are enthused that a new Australia book has joined the aforementioned illustrious ranks. How to Rethink Building Materials— Creating ecological housing for the designer, building and homeowner. Released last year, the book is edited by Dick Clarke (pictured), principal of Envirotecture, and the Building Designers Australia’s Director of Sustainability. ‪With 40 years in the arena of eco-design, Dick has rubbed shoulders with all the leading lights of his speciality. In Rethink he has gathered together their collective wisdom in one place.

This cadre of Australia’s green architecture crack troops, (a reThink Tank, if you will), are given a print forum to espouse their ideologies of choice. Don’t think these are dry academic treatises. Sure, there is a healthy smattering of essays laden with statistics, graphs and acronyms, but these are slotted in around other more narrative pieces. Some authors represent the views of their specific industry, association, or business, while others relay the personal experience gained from decades in the trenches.

This collection of diverse views won’t necessarily clarify issues for the building neophyte, but it does bring together thinking right across the gamut. For example, the Engineering Manager for Brickworks cites ten years’ worth of research indicating, “Reverse brick veneer is not the holy grail and the insulated cavity brick still performs better.” Yet later on, in a different article, Think Brick Australia note that an eight year study “concluded that a reverse brick veneer walling systems offers the least energy consumption and indoor temperature fluctuations in all of the hypothetical modules.”

Or juxtapose this statement: “The building industry has, at times, been too quick to change—pursuing short-term gains without addressing the risks: the proliferation of asbestos, [… etc],” with the two included articles from James Hardie Industries, who were one of our core miners and manufacturers of asbestos building products.

"It is clear that How to Rethink Building Materials is more than comfortable with the contra views found between its pages. Dick Clarke even alludes to this aspect himself, musing over whether the book is “a collection of wild cats in a paper bag—disparate and contested ideas fighting to be proven right?”

The title is, after all, Rethink, not Accept. The cornucopia of thoughts gathered in this book provides the reader with plenty of food for thought. The status quo is both defended, and challenged. While it might be ‘nice’ to think there is some easy answer to the question of how to build sustainably, the reality is there are many grey areas to selecting green solutions."

It could be argued that this is indeed How to Rethink Building Materials’ central strength. It presents the latest reasoning across a broad spectrum and leaves the reader to arrive at the conclusions which make the most sense to them.

Hopefully this is a book that sets readers off on their own journey of discovery, or as Henry Thoreau put it to: “be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought."

Brent Knoll House, features in Rethink. It uses Viridian Double Glazed Units. Image: CSR Limited.

For all their colossal worth, books are static things. A frozen moment, a time capsule. For those of a scientific bent, even a proven fact is like an Olympian athlete, soon to be displaced from the podium by the next better fact to come along.

Just one example being, BioBuild, a European Commission funded project to investigate the use of biocomposite materials to reduce the embodied energy in building components and can be used to replace aluminium, steel, brick and concrete. Materials have included hemp and jute, with Arup and GXN winning a 2015 European Innovation Award for their flax-based façade panels. (pictured right, image: © lichtzeit.com)

So maybe one could think of Rethink Building Materials not so much as a treasure chest of green building gems (although it is that too) but more as a key. One that opens minds, and ongoing future discussions.

Take, for example, the inaugural SEE Sustainable Experience, billed as Australia’s Dedicated Sustainable Building Show touching down at Brisbane’s Showgrounds during 18-20 June 2015. It could be seen as an updated dynamic version of this book.

Exhibitors at SEE will include the likes of Brickworks Building Products, CSR, James Hardie, Kingspan and Weathertex, who, not surprisingly, are also among the 13 showcased product profiles contained in Rethink Building Materials. The book’s target audience of designers, builders and home owners can use it to bone up on the best current thinking, and then suitably educated, approach such materials suppliers, to get the good oil— direct from the horse’s mouth.

Not only will the SEE Sustainable Experience provide ready access to manufacturers and distributors, it will do likewise for architects and designers. The Australian Technology Association (ATA), publishers of Renew and Sanctuary magazines, will roll out a Brisbane version of their Speed Date a Sustainable Designer project. Homeowners can sit down with “skilled architects, building designers, builders and consultants” and unfurl their physical plans, or cerebral visions, to garner feedback on whether they are heading in a green direction. Or not.


(Pictured above: Monier's SolarTile features in Rethink)

Again the SEE Sustainable Experience can be seen as a living, breathing version of the book, in which eight design practitioners discuss real world projects. Homes that have employed the likes of: bamboo flooring, re-used bricks, low VOC paints and oils, rammed earth, fly ash cement and mortar, hydronic floor heating, FSC certified timber, green roofs, strawbales, double glazed windows and doors, and so forth.

For all the deep discussion points raised in the book, it is not hard to digest. The topics are mostly broken into bite-sized, two page morsels. The design is attractive and visually rich, encouraging readers to dip in and out. Hopefully this will help it engage those contemplating more sustainable housing, and thus contribute to raising the calibre of debate in this hugely important sphere of design.

Geopolymer cement-free concrete was used at the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute by Bligh Tanner and HASSELL. Image: Courtesy of Bligh Tanner and HASSELL.

In seems incumbent on book reviewers to find a tome’s achilles’ heel. There is a very comprehensive contents page, but alas no index, which is a let-down, in a world accustomed to Google searches. For example, the book contains a useful discussion on Phase Change Materials (PCMs), which were the subject of a recent Infolink feature article, but you’re left to fossick among the 186 pages to find it. Although How to Rethink Building Materials does redeem itself, by concluding with a ready reckoner A-Z of building materials, briefly describing their respective environmental impacts.

I did have a pithy conclusion all typed up, but deleted it in favour of Groucho Marx’s wonderful summation of books.

“Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.”