The recent articles on passive solar house design, NatHERS and solar water heating elicited a few comments from readers.

All accepted that passive design ideas are great, BUT they asked two salient questions:

  • why don’t more people adopt the principles, and
  • why doesn’t the government regulate for them?

The short answer is that homeowners are too stingy and selfish; and governments are politically timid and inept. The longer answer requires an understanding of the historical arc, from passive solar to low energy to green politics. This can be typified as three waves of sustainability, the first two eliciting pessimism, but there is an optimistic light at the end of the story in the third wave.


Sustainable architecture has always been centred on climatically appropriate buildings. We had a good start with the early Georgian buildings with added verandas, an idea brought to Australia via India by the NSW Corps, and celebrated by William Hardy Wilson in his beautiful pencil drawings of brightly sunlit and deeply shaded colonial buildings.

Climate as a design force waned through the latter part of the 19th and early 20th C, as architecture tended to follow the stylistic influences of England such as Queen Anne (aka “Federation”), where wide eaves and verandas were oriented to the street, not the sun and climate. Nevertheless, some successes were evident, such as the lightweight timber and tin Queenslanders, with high-peaked rain-sheltering roofs and timber sun-screens and lattices around the ‘sleep-out’.

The first wave: moral encouragement.

Climate-derived architecture became a conscious movement with the publication of Homes in the Sun by Walter Bunning in 1945. An elegant book, it showed the history of climate design to that date (including William Hardy Wilson’s drawings), summarised good planning at both city and building scale and emphasised modern technologies. Its centrepiece was a series of modest freestanding houses called Suntrap Houses. It set a beautiful benchmark.

A ‘passive solar house’ movement grew in the 1950s and ‘60s, became ‘alternative technologies’ in the ‘70s and turned ‘green’ along with the political movements of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Over that time there was increased knowledge of better ways to design sustainable buildings, and many publications on how designs could use less energy and water, whilst being built with materials that were less harmful to the environment.

Scientists and architects waxed lyrical about the benefits of passive solar, but despite their manifest ‘moral encouragement’ they completely failed to convince the mainstream. Suburban subdivisions took no account of orientation; house designs were dumb and numb to the climate; and larger buildings, with a few notable exceptions, were tricked-up business-as-usual modernism.

In the second 50 years of last century house design actually went backwards in sustainability: houses doubled in size but were built on sites half the area, necessitating two storeys which overshadowed their neighbours; the glazing to floor ratio doubled, but was oriented indiscriminately; garages had twice the number of cars; the number of fridges and other energy hungry appliances doubled, as did the size of the HWS (but few had solar water). Despite this, the houses had only half the number of occupants on average in 2000 as they had in 1950. It’s the 2x2x2x2x2x2 conundrum.

It’s no better today: project homes are advertised with stone benchtops and multiple bathrooms as standard, but roof and wall insulation are extra. Homeowners buy a new five-star fridge, thinking that is the right thing to do, but then put the old one-star fridge, with its leaky CFCs, in the garage or rumpus room. The ‘market penetration’ of air conditioners is now 95 percent of new homes, whereas it was only 20 percent twenty years ago. And you can buy a one-star air conditioner from the local electrical retailer, but not a solar water heater.

Moral encouragement hasn’t worked. For all the raising of green consciousness by enthusiasts promoting solar design and energy efficiency in response to climate change, the public did not take practical action. Sustainability was sold as something you had to do for the planet, but the implication taken by the public was that you had to give something up; it was a threat to your lifestyle.

Everyone had an excuse not to go green: elderly parents or young babies needed air-conditioners, manual workers needed longer showers, families with teenagers needed bigger fridges. Sustainability was something that was good for my neighbour, but not for me.

The second wave: government regulation.

Sensing that climate change was real, but that most people were reluctant to adopt sustainability on their own, some governments sought to regulate for it. Their interest wasn’t entirely altruistic: brown and blackouts from electricity peak demand for air conditioners was proving intractable to fix, at a sensible cost. And no government was willing to run the gauntlet of getting a new dam past the greenies.

They had two choices: control supply or control demand. Changing the supply of energy and water to sustainable sources requires considerable political will, something that is in short supply in Australia right now. So, they chose to regulate demand, but not in a traditional market economy way, by increasing the price through taxes, like petrol or cigarettes. And certainly not by creating a carbon tax, which Abbott’s puppeteer Credlin has now admitted was never a tax.

Rather governments chose ‘demand side management’ a complex art of persuading people to change habits with a nudge, so they don’t notice and don’t feel that their lifestyle is under threat. Two choices: carrots or sticks. The carrots went after the low hanging fruit: subsidies for solar water heaters and water tanks, low-flow taps and fluorescent (now LED) light fittings.

But they took a big stick to house design, not realising that it was such a wicked problem with so many varying parameters. As we discussed two columns ago, NatHERS was staunchly resisted by the design community, failed as a program, and failed to deliver an outcome that traditional methods of specifying insulation levels and controlling glazing could have.

But worst of all, the NatHERS benchmarks measured energy per square metre, not total energy, which favoured big houses over small, the exact opposite of what was desired. The program encouraged people to build houses that worked (and sadly looked) like eskies, while designers held out for houses that worked like ‘sophisticated tents’. Only now, 20 years later are we seeing the development of “tentskies” that can do both.

Like moral encouragement before it, regulation has largely been a failure, and for the same reason: it is seen as a lifestyle threat. NatHERS has barely stemmed the tide of ridiculous oversized houses; solar water heaters, which should be mandatory, are only ‘encouraged’; there are no restrictions on air conditioning; and despite having introduced star ratings for electrical goods there is no minimum standard. The horrors of the past to continue to be built.

The third wave: a better lifestyle.

We are now seeing a third way to ensconce sustainability through better design. This approach accentuates the lifestyle value to the homeowner or occupant above all else. Forget saving the planet, forget loopholing the regulations, just emphasise how you can live better and save money in a sustainable home (only don’t call it that).

This turns the market economy back on itself: if an improved lifestyle is the goal, then encouraging a belief in a ‘better life through green’ will convert many more to the cause, without the ‘nanny state’ hectoring or scolding. Far from being seen as a threat, green will be seen as a boon to users. Some examples show the way forward.

As argued earlier it is vital to understand how thermal comfort works, and to promote the benefits of passive solar in providing superior comfort, from radiant warmth and coolth in the thermal mass, BEFORE discussing energy gains. Building conditioning rather than air conditioning should be designed primarily on the basis that it is better for the occupants (oh, and by the way it is also good for the environment and saves your operating costs).

Last week’s column on solar thermal panels showed how they were a dismal failure, not least because the owners couldn’t see the savings, particularly as they were presented as opaque ‘payback’. By contrast PV panels are seen as delivering a return from day one, with reduced bills AND payment from the electricity authorities, particularly if there are ‘useful’ subsidies involved.

EVs, or electric vehicles, are actually much better to drive: safer, better handling, quieter, less vibration and more comfortable and, for the lead-footed, very quick in acceleration. You will never meet an owner that wants to go back to the ICE (internal combustion engine). Beauty in motion, and a great driving feeling, can also have zero emissions. And electric bikes are ridden twice as often as un-powered ones.

Water tanks are often seen as a liability, but not if you want to grow a big garden, grow fruit and vegetables or just grass in a drought. To fill the swimming pool or make unlimited evaporative cooling. And defy water restrictions. Not to mention protection in the face a bushfire. The liability needs to presented as not having one as climate change bites harder.

Another win-win story is in green commercial buildings: the better interiors, with fresh air supply, chilled beams and higher indoor environmental quality (IEQ) have lower absenteeism, better productivity and less churn in the workforce. The economic gains from these considerations far outweighs the monetary savings in energy and water. A happier workforce, with a better lifestyle at work, has greater impact on the bottom line than the pursuit of cost savings alone.


For sustainability to succeed it needs to tell a story about improvements in the quality of life – the improved IEQ that comes from passive solar is better for the occupants, but moreover it is better for the environment. Sadly, that appeal to ‘lifestyle’ is the only way that green design will succeed in today’s personally selfish and politically timid and inept environment.

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].