Learn to see things backwards, inside out, and upside down.” John Heider, “The Tao of Leadership: Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching Adapted for a New Age”, Green Dragon Books, 2015.

The ternary suggests there is always a third alternative in our binary world. One issue is housing where the binary is homes or high rises, but neither is sustainable. Detached homes are low in density, far from services, requiring energy hungry cars on underutilised streets that are ground killers.

By contrast, high rise units increase the density, and hence proximity of residents to services, but have massive energy demands for lifts, AC and exhausts.

A third way is low + close, to build at a modest scale, three to five storeys, but compact enough to significantly increase the density, and hence proximity to services. This is the sweet spot between two extremes: the lowest carbon demand for the best quality of living. Over the next few weeks I want to explore some examples. This week: the UDIOBF, terraced houses that are upside-down, inside-out and back-to-front.

The failure of the bloated family home

McMansion culture is self-suffocating in the 2x2x2x2x2 conundrum. The sites get smaller, the houses get larger, closer, with two storeys, so tight that the sun doesn’t reach the lower floor. The houses overshadow each other, can’t breathe and cross-ventilate, and cars dominate the streetscape. The garden area shrinks to a shaded unusable space, overlooked by neighbours.UDIOBF turns these design failures on their head to produce socially and environmentally efficient housing at double to triple the density, whilst retaining the best aspects of the original bungalow - flexibility, individuality, privacy, and access to sun, breezes and the garden.


The ideal UDIOBF house is in a conjoined row like townhouses, but often this form gets little sun and light at lower levels. So, the house is turned upside-down, bedrooms and home offices on the lower floors and living areas and gardens on the upper levels and roof.

If that sounds Mediterranean, it is. Too many of our traditional house forms and styles are based on inappropriate cold-climate design ideas from Europe and the USA. Our big six cities are far more temperate, and the Greek or Arabic home, with a flat habitable roof, is a better climatic paradigm to draw from. The living areas open on to roof gardens, with more light to grow food, sequester carbon, as well areas for solar thermal and electricity generation.

However, the idea of BBQs on the roof, outdoor screens and sleep-outs looking at the stars is a challenging concept for many councils, who see only the downsides – loss of privacy, overlooking and neighbour amenity problems – rather than the environmental benefits that a better performing house might offer. But if all the row of houses have rooftop living, it could be like backyards in the sky.


The second idea is to turn the house inside out to increase the thermal mass that is usually woefully underplayed in our houses. Our predilection for brick as a veneer over a timber frame is the exact opposite of what is needed: the internal house is lightweight and has no storage of coolth or warmth, while the mass of external brickwork adds little insulation.

Add insult to injury is the two-metre demilitarised zone on the sides, a waste space of air-conditioners, garbage bins, water heaters and fences which offer little by way of acoustic privacy or good land use. As in traditional terraces, a solid party wall saves space, offers a higher standard of fire safety and acoustics, and critically, improves the insulated thermal mass.

Thermal comfort is greatly increased with mass (bricks, blocks, concrete either CIS or precast) on the inside, with an external layer of more effective insulation, and more weatherproof materials than porous bricks on the outside. This happens by default in higher density town housing (as here) where solid party walls and concrete upper-level floors offer better mass and acoustic isolation.

A symbiotic relationship between the first two ideas emerges – the upside-down house needs concrete to support the upper living floors and green roof, so this immediately offers the potential to build it inside-out, with mass to support these weightier upper floors.

The upside of this construction is promoting coolth. We well understand passive solar facilitated by sun shining on the floor, for warmth at night. The converse offers the opposite in summer: thermal mass in walls and particularly ceilings absorbs the day's heat, which is then night purged using the cooler evening air, tempering the house for the next day. More passive cooling can have a substantial impact on carbon emissions.


The car’s impact on house design has grown disproportionately in the last 50 years. The garage is now the largest and most prominent room in most project homes. As garages got ever bigger to accommodate SUVs and 4WDs, and houses get closer on smaller sites, the giant garage door occupying more of the streetscape became the last gasp image of the 20th century's love affair with cars. In response Councils legislated setbacks from the house, and tried to play down their impact on the streetscape, without success.

For the 21st century the car is best banished to the rear, in a back to the future move to 19thC service lanes. The service street accommodates cars, mini electric vehicles, electric bikes and cycles as well as mini recycling trucks (because there is less garbage, with less packaging and consumption, and more composting on the green roof) and a safer area for children’s play. Over the rear garage is a studio apartment for a multi-generation family member, nanny, student or source of rental income.

The greater density of UDIOBF houses, with front doors, home offices and small businesses, can become a new version of shophouses, and enables the revival of a pedestrian and cycle friendly public street with visitor carparking between trees forming a continuous shade canopy.

The push is on to increase residential density, but the rush to high-rise apartments may throw out the sustainable baby with the grey water. A century of freestanding homes has bred a love affair with a private indoor and outdoor life, a lifestyle that cannot be shoehorned into towers, but can be maintained, enhanced even, in houses that are upside-down, inside-out and back-to-front.

Next week: how the reviled red-brick, three-storey walk-up block of flats could be the most sustainable design of all.

Tone Wheeler is an architect / the views expressed are his.

Short pieces are published every Friday in A&D Another Thing.

Longer columns are Tone on Tuesday, published then.

You can contact TW at [email protected]