My teaching colleague and friend Steve King passed away late last year. He was a far too rare practitioner: he loved architecture and science, and devoted his life to bringing them together. Let’s start his story with some extracts from his obituary by his fellow student and close friend Michael Neustein (to be published by the AIA).

“Reluctantly retired” – his message on Linkedin says it all. Architect, architectural scientist and educator, Steve Earnest King died on 24 December 2021 after a long battle with illness.

Steve commenced architecture at The University of Sydney in 1966 having achieved a very high score in the old Leaving Certificate. This was a triumph for the son of Hungarian Jewish refugees who fled Hungary in the aftermath of the 1956 revolution. Steve arrived in Sydney in 1958 with his parents and younger sister Vera, with no English language. His meritorious graduation from Vaucluse Boys High, only seven years after arriving in Australia, was evidence of his keen intellect. This was also evident in the architecture course in which he excelled and beyond into his architectural teaching career.

Following his completion of a B.Arch at Sydney University, Steve enrolled immediately in the DipBdgSc course also at Sydney University and so began a lifetime of work in architectural and building science.

For a time in 1974/5, Steve travelled across Asia and around Europe and then worked in London for prominent brutalist firm, the Owen Luder Partnership. Within weeks of starting, Steve was challenged by the local architects in the practice, to slow down! His Australian pace of working was not to their liking!

Back in Australia, Steve worked on residential alts and adds in Sydney before moving to Canberra in 1975 to take up a position as lecturer in architecture at the CCAE (later Canberra University). For 16 years, together with David Harmon, he forged a pedagogy of integrating architectural science seamlessly into the design studio.

At the start of 1992 he moved to the Faculty of the Built Environment at UNSW as Senior Lecturer where he was in charge of all architectural science courses at undergraduate level and professional M.Arch curricula. He was instrumental in combining the oft-separated disciplines of science and design, running rigorous design projects and employing practicing architects to emphasise practicality.

A dedicated teacher, Steve invested extra effort to assist those who showed their commitment. He spent much time and energy promoting the role of science in architecture and building, always championing rational decision-making in design. His method of helping students with assignments was to ask them where they were up to, where they wanted to be and how they were planning to reach their goals. Steve then helped them to achieve their plans.

In parallel with his teaching, Steve became the go-to consultant to the profession on issues of solar access, overshadowing, comfort conditions in buildings, ventilation, daylight and energy conservation. He had been involved in bringing NatHERS to fruition. His design advice on residential flat buildings was sought by developers, architects, lawyers and local government.

I knew Steve in three of those settings: he was my tutor at the University of Sydney whilst he was studying for the DipBdgSc; he was instrumental in bringing me into full-time teaching at the CCAE in 1978; and he brought me into the UNSW as a part-time teacher, where I have been for 10 years.

Steve never really liked the term ‘architectural scientist’. He repudiated the idea that it was an oxymoron, the approach taken by Henry (Jack) Cowan, founder of the Department of Architectural Science within the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Sydney, who called his autobiography ‘A Contradiction in Terms’. And he was dismayed that for 50 years the scientists and engineers within that separated department frustrated design rather than contributed to it.

His appointment at the CCAE was a gift in that regard: the school was barely three years old and there were to be only seven full time architecture staff, to teach five years. He was the sixth appointment (and I was the seventh and last). The head, Roger Johnson, formerly commissioner of the National Capital Development Commission, was an exceptional teacher and pedagogue. He wanted interwoven multidiscipline courses (initially architecture, landscape and industrial design), with multidisciplinary teachers. Perfect for Steve.

He taught the three basics of architectural physics (heat, light and sound) to the same students that were in his design studio – it was as seamless and united as it was ever going to be. He carried that forward to UNSW where his masters students sat an all-day design exam after coursework. It was a rigour that Steve had encountered as a student that he wanted to inculcate in the 24 years he was at UNSW. His students learned the practicalities of integration of structure and services in preparing working drawings.

UNSW offered another teaching opportunity: five years after his starting, the school moved into the west wing of the ‘Red Centre’, a building intended to have high environmental performance designed by Richard Francis Jones (of MGT, later FJMT) with many experimental attributes. The was both a blessing (as a teaching aide) and a curse (as it was a poor environment to work in). He wrote carefully about its successes and failures – the best article is no longer on line but can some of the issues can be found in a chapter of George Baird’s ‘The Architectural Expression of Environmental Control Systems’ (Spon Press, 2001).

In the late 90s UNSW was to become the centre for the development of NatHERS (National House Energy Rating Software), particularly through the efforts of John Ballinger (who also passed away late last year). Whilst others developed the CSIRO’s program, Steve was instrumental in advocating and developing a user-friendly ‘front end’, so architects could easily enter information and obtain understandable modeling outcomes.

The pushback against NatHERS by architects was extraordinary, dismissing outright an expertly designed program using real weather data to model a huge number of factors such as insulation, thermal mass, orientation, glazing, shading and so on, in order to analyse thermal comfort within a building. The arguments were bitter and unfounded, and have been canvassed in two TOT columns in outline and in detail.

Steve was astonished by the level of ignorance that trumped science in architecture. He re-doubled efforts to thwart the myth making wherever he could, but sadly it continues to this day, particularly in the design of apartments, where Steve next directed his talents.

SEPP 65, the code for apartment design in NSW, attempted to place an emphasis on internal comfort, through controls on sunlight and ventilation. But the Residential Flat Design Code, that morphed into the Apartment Design Guide, was overly prescriptive without a basis in science or evidence. The solutions some architects developed were certainly poor, but they met the pseudo-science of SEPP 65.

Steve became an expert witness at the Land and Environment Court, often finding himself in a cleft stick, defending convoluted designs that evidentially complied with the code. The problem lay, and still lies, with a poorly conceived, overly proscriptive code, but the authors from the Department of Planning, and their supporters, put all the blame on practicing architects, and their demanding clients.

They say you set a thief to catch a thief, but at no time did the Department of Planning think to engage the person who knew the most about the loopholes in their document, the compliant work-arounds that gave so much grief. An easy fix that was missed, and our apartments are all the poorer for it.

I think Steve’s biggest regret was that architects, through a lack of science, have ceded so much to other professionals, particularly all forms of engineers. Not that he didn’t appreciate and engage them, particularly on matters of wind and ventilation, where the studies traditionally done in in wind tunnels are now done with ‘computational fluid dynamics’, requiring ever more sophisticated computation to model the wind.

And speaking of wind, one fix that Steve loved was ceiling fans. And there is an irony here. One of the popular makes is the ‘Big Ass Fans’ from the USA (as if the crass name didn’t give it away). What many don’t know is that they were developed by an Australian, Richard Aynsley, who was a lecturer in 1968 in the Architectural Science Department at the University of Sydney when Steve King was doing his early research. So, we have come full circle.

To finish, let’s return to Michael Neustein’s obituary:

He was assisted in later years by his wife Suzanna, a graduate of UNSW’s architecture course. He took sabbaticals at the University of the Negev in Israel and at the Getty Centre in Los Angeles. One interest was allied to his love of art – how did the work of the great renaissance masters survive so well in museums before the advent of air conditioning? He taught architecture as a guest lecturer in India and Korea. Illness forced Steve to retire in 2019. He is survived by his wife Suzanna, children Joshua and Aurelia, and step children Ken, Ray and Ben.

Vale Steve King, foremost a teacher of science in architecture who resisted the idea of a separate field for ‘architectural science’.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected].