How 1960s environmentalism gave rise to sustainability was canvassed in last week's Tone on Tuesday. Some asked what came next. 1970s hippy technology was one of the oxymoronic directions.

From the mid-1960s, the desire for an alternative to the pervasive consumer lifestyle was being sought in many western countries. Eschewing the trappings of the broadscale suburban life, the hippy inhabitants sought ways to live closer to each other and to nature.

Some were inner city retreats, some were cults, but the best known were a series of isolated communes in the southwest of the USA. All were spawned by a counter-cultural, sometimes revolutionary, movement that sought to have greater sensitivity to the natural systems and rhythms of the environment, all whilst ‘sticking it to the man’ as the mainstream was seen.

The oil crisis of 1973 ignited a popular interest in ‘passive solar’ and ‘solar technologies’ that had largely been the preserve of universities and research institutes until then.

The rising tide of these hippy communes saw this as an alternative technology that would aid their desire for independence from the rest of the world. Experimental building ideas that were university research projects in both the USA and the Europe were studied, published in the Whole earth Catalog, and gained currency with every alternative lifestyle group.

Radical and extraordinary designs for energy efficient and environmentally sensitive projects were built on and off the communes of the US southwest, such as Steve Baer’s Zomeworks extending the ideas of Buckminster Fuller’s triangulated domes into trapezoidal zomes, or Paolo Soleri’s ideas for an entirely self-sufficient city built in concrete half-domes down a ravine north of Phoenix Arizona.

There were many more of these inventive passive solar buildings. Some, like Rob Reines’ massively insulated domes, were meant to hold a constant temperature from one season of hot summer through a winter of snow. Others demonstrated creative ways of using the already well-known passive solar techniques that had been developed in academic institutions.

When I toured them in 1973 I was surprised, and delightedly proud, to see that Australia had played a small part via the booklet Sunshine and Shade in Australasia by Ralph Phillips, published by the Experimental Building Station EBS. It was well-known everywhere and used (albeit upside down in the northern hemisphere).

In the UK, there were two standout projects. One was the ‘Street Farmhouse’ designed and built by Graham Caine at Cambridge University. It featured an indoor greenhouse garden of vegetables and fruits as its ‘living room’.

The other, by Robert and Brenda Vale, was celebrated in their seminal book, The Autonomous House, a title that cemented the naming of this particular movement that progressed from passive solar and some active components towards full autonomy.

Australia had its own taste of counter-culture communes following the 1973 Aquarius Festival in Nimbin. Not long after, in 1974 at the University of Sydney, teacher Col James and 14 second and third-year students built their own experimental building from found, begged, borrowed and sometimes stolen materials.

Christened variously the ‘autonomous house’, the ‘A-house’ and the ‘auto-mouse house’, it survived for six years as a home to students as well as a variety of ‘alternative technology’ and ‘utopian’ fairs which brought in people such as the landscape guru Made Wijaya from Bali and saw the launch of the first edition of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren's Permaculture One book.

The idea in all these projects was to break the house down into a variety of systems, and then work out ways in which each system could be made autonomous to a single house. Very quickly each came to the conclusion that not all technologies work at a house scale. Passive and active solar systems work very efficiently on individual houses.

Photovoltaics also work well at a small scale but are even better at a village scale where sharing and battery storage are more efficient. Wind generation is difficult on small constrained sites and is often far better done remotely.

Water collection, storage in water tanks and use are ideal at house scale, but conversely treating water waste on a house-by-house basis is very hard. Whilst grey water may be safely recycled, albeit with some energy and space, the treatment on a small site of black water of faeces and urine is an almost impossible task without creating a micro-sewerage plant, that takes up otherwise more useful land, as Michael Mobbs found on his inner-city ‘Sustainable House’. Blackwater is better handled, with more nutrient recovery, at the scale of 10,000 homes rather than one home.

The lesson from these various 1970s experiments was that residential technologies work at a variety of scales. The house is a small component of a community, and many systems work better at the communal level. It was a lesson hard won.

It became clear to all of those who were working on these projects that it was very difficult to encapsulate the wider systems into a single home, and that a community of buildings, the village scale or the town the scale, was a far better prospect.

But it has taken some time for such community buildings to reach the mainstream. The best did not appear until some 30 years later, with sustainable technologies woven into more conventional architectural solutions.

Bill Dunster's designs for 100 homes in BedZED in Hackbridge, London, encapsulated passive and active heating and cooling systems as well as water treatment and the growing of food. Its most renowned feature is its emphasis on communal living with work live and play spaces.

Communally-based projects have been developed on the US West Coast by Scarpa and Brooks, (formerly Pugh and Scarpa). These schemes utilise the efficiencies of gathered homes using LA’s tradition of courtyard housing to maximise those things which are best done on site: thermal comfort through passive warming and cooling, the generation of electricity through PVs and the collection of water; all of which were developed in early autonomous houses but here work just as well at scale.

Most of the early singularly autonomous houses have gone, but Michael Mobbs' house is still standing, having had thousands of people shown through on tours. But it is now up for sale, with Mobbs having done a dummy spit, saying he's become disillusioned with the lack of political action on climate change, announcing via the Guardian Australia that he is preparing for Armageddon by moving to a tree change or sea change.

That’s a shame as he has been such an advocate for climate responsibility, albeit that his house demonstrates that although it is technically feasible to build an autonomous house on a tiny site, it is not always the best way forward for many systems, which work better at community level, which he himself admits as he encourages food gardens on the verge of his street.

Sustainability has morphed from passive design to solar house to alternative technology, to autonomous houses to ESD (environmentally sustainable design) to the triple bottom line. In the 50 years since the term was coined, it's come full circle from Carson and Jacob’s concerns with community, through selfish autonomy and back to community.

Addendum 1. Much of this week's column can be found on the Talking Architecture & Design Podcast #35 with Branko Miletic.

Addendum 2. To last week's column on sustainability as a feminist movement, let me add some contemporary Australian exemplars: the founding CEO of the Green Building Council of Australia was Maria Atkinson, followed by Romilly Madew, and now Davina Rooney. Add to that list Caroline Pidcock who this week received the AIA NSW President's Prize for her extensive advocacy in sustainability, not least of which, her recent founding of the Architects Declare Climate Emergency.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by AnD.