“Sometimes the light's all shinin' on me

Other times, I can barely see
Lately, it occurs to me
What a long, strange trip it's been”

Trucking (Garcia, Hunter Lesh, Weir – Grateful Dead 1970)

Last month I was awarded a Lifetime Achievement award, most likely for staying power as I've been involved in sustainability for over 50 years. In my acceptance speech I commented on “what a long, strange trip it's been”, and I described four distinct stages of sustainability in the built environment, although for much of that time it wasn’t called that.

As part of the celebration, I made a podcast with A&D’s esteemed editor, Branko Miletic, which appears on this website for the first time today. In it I speak about my involvement in some of the work, but moreover I wanted to acknowledge the memorable people I met along the way. What follows is a guide to those four stages; you will have to listen to the podcast to hear more.


Our understanding of sustainability arose from the work of women writers in the 60s and 70s. In 1961 Jane Jacobs writes The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a riposte to modernist planning in general and Robert Moses and Le Corbusier in particular. In 1962 scientist and journalist, Rachel Carson, writes Silent Spring; the US Environmental Protection Act (and others such as Australia’s) are a direct result of her work. In 1972 Barbara Ward and Rene Dubois write Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet, where the word sustainability as we use it now first appears. In the same year Donatello Meadows et al. write The Limits to Growth, 50 years on it is still a leading text. You can read more about them here.

First stage: moral encouragement

The first manifestation of sustainability in the built environment was the ‘passive solar house’ movement in the 1960s and 70s, drawing upon ‘alternative technologies’. Experimental houses, often built by hippies, mushroomed. My journey started in first year at Sydney Uni with Marr Grounds who opened my eyes to passive design. His enthusiasms led me to live on hippy communes in SW USA, reading the Whole Earth Catalog and Shelter.

Upon returning to university the mighty Col James encouraged me to work with other students to build my thesis: an autonomous house. With increased knowledge of ways to design ‘low energy’ buildings, proselytisers, including moi, published designs showing how they could use less energy and water, whilst being built with materials that were less harmful to the environment. We encouraged, almost begged, society to change.

But all that moral encouragement was all in vain. We 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. But we had learnt an invaluable lesson: it's about community not autonomy.

Second stage: government intervention

After graduation I worked in Canberra for the NCDC on passive solar and suburb design, meeting Dirk Bolt, an early pioneer of sustainability. I taught sustainability at the Canberra CAE and Sydney Uni for 10 years without using the word, preferring ‘good design’. Many students from that time have gone on to great ‘green’ roles, notably Caroline Pidcock, with whom I shared the National AIA Leadership in Sustainability Prize this year.

Outside of my safe haven of academia there was little popular support for sustainable ideals. Nevertheless, some governments sought to regulate for it. They had two choices: control supply or control demand. Changing to sustainable supply requires considerable political will (still lacking) so, they chose to regulate demand.

They adopted ‘demand side management’ - the complex art of persuading people to change habits with 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. The sticks attacked house design; the biggest stick was NatHERS (the National House Energy Rating Software / Scheme)

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. The early NatHERS benchmarks favoured big houses over small, the exact opposite of what was desired, so corrections were made. All of which I saw from the inside as I served on various boards that administered NatHERS and the assessors, as well as being chair of the National AIA Sustainability Committee.

The program encouraged people to build houses that worked (and sadly looked) like eskies, whilst designers wanted houses that worked like ‘sophisticated tents’. Only now, some 25 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.

Third stage: lifestyle

If you can’t encourage people to adopt more sustainable ways, and can’t force them, what do you do? The answer is to appeal to lifestyle. 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).

The stellar example is the Your Home website. Chris Reardon, a former student at the CCAE, had developed an absolute obsession to change people’s minds about sustainability. We had a loose collaborating practice at the turn of the century as he embarked on a PhD at the Institute for Sustainable Futures. I clearly recall his first piece of research: do NOT call it sustainable, or green, or passive solar (or anything that he so vehemently believed in).

He soon understood that the idea was to turn the market economy back on itself: 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. And the website soon filled with examples.

Understanding how thermal comfort works will show that passive solar provides superior comfort, without mentioning energy efficiency. Building conditioning, rather than air conditioning, is better for the occupants (and by the way it is also good for the environment and saves your operating costs).

Likewise green commercial buildings: better indoor environmental quality with fresh air supply has lower absenteeism, better productivity and less churn in the workforce. The economic gain in staff costs far outweigh the savings in energy and water. A happier workforce, with a better lifestyle at work, has greater impact on the bottom line.

Fourth stage: the green karma runs over the brown dogma

We are just entering the fourth, and hopefully final, stage of sustainability in the built environment. The ‘alternative technologies’ of the 70’s are now so successful that they are more economical and more desirable than the conventional. You don’t have to encourage, or force, its adoption; it is winning people over in its own right.

Australia is home to the world’s worst brown supporters: a PM holding up a lump of coal in Parliament, to the applause of crimson-faced right wingers. The world’s worst climate-denying media baron is at heart an Australian, pulling every string to prevent a progressive government with sensible policies. But they are on the losing side now: PV’s beat fossil fuels; EVs beat ICE (internal combustion engines). So, we may rightly say that “the green karma is running over the brown dogma”.

To expand: PV panels deliver 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 better to drive: safer, better handling, quieter, less vibration, more comfortable and quicker in acceleration. Water tanks are vital if you want to grow a big garden of fruit and vegetables; or to fill the swimming pool or make unlimited evaporative cooling and provide protection in the face a bushfire.


The loony right, looking to fund an uneconomic coal fired power station, are now bereft losers; the country is running away from them, and towards a more sustainable future. The flywheel of change is gathering pace; achieving carbon net zero by 2050 is clearly possible, even if it cannot speak its name.

I rejoice in the world slowly turning differently, after 50 years wishing it was so. Enjoy the podcast as I unfurl my lifetime struggle, mostly failure, with sustainability. It’s been a long, strange trip from hippy, to hip, to hip replacement.

Some of this material was first published in Tone on Tuesday 49 and Architectural Review Australia AR 109, April 2009.

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].