Sustainable Housing: Lessons we have learned so far

Warwick Rowell

House location is as important as its spatial design.

Most of us have the luxury of actually choosing where to live. Most times we take it for granted, and yet many migrants came to Australia in the 1950s from all over Europe because here they could own their own home. There is some evidence that this unusual opportunity may be coming to an end. See the next item. A healthy environment is the most important consideration, and the most important of these is clean air; because you can do things about the making your soil and water healthy if you live in clean air. Then next in importance is proximity to services you need, such as schooling, transport, shops, employment, particular forms of leisure activities, and public open space. Real Estate agents are copping out when they say value is determined by “position, position and position.” It is when we ask “Position in relation to what?” that Permaculturists start their design work.

The money is wrong in most buildings.

“There should be more in basic structure, less in finish, more in maintenance and adaptation. Once a building heads downhill, you lose motivation to fix it. You have to maintain a steady flow of money into a building, and mortgages skim that. Two out of every three dollars spent on the purchase of the building go into paying interest. The best way to build equity quickly is to buy wisely and remodel to add value.” ( Chris Alexander in Brand 1997 pp 85,86)

There are two further major factors making the money in buildings wrong in my view: One is the relationship between the cost of an average home and average annual earnings. When I was first buying, my house cost me one year of my gross salary. Now it would cost somewhere near ten years’ of the average wage. The other key issue is that with the rapid changes in our economic environment, where job security is a myth, twenty-five year mortgages are harder to justify.

Check the detail of your mortgage out too; years ago when I checked out the reality of mortgages, the average lifespan of a mortgage in Australia was seven years. If you look at how much capital you have to repay after seven years you will find it is very close to the amount you originally borrowed. So most of your payments are in fact interest payments. If you do the sums, you will find this gives you an effective interest rate of probably two and a half times your nominal rate. This is why you could be better off with a fixed interest, interest only finance deal, rather than a conventional bank mortgage. If you can find a reliable finance broker. Try someone in your family first.

Little boxes for 2 adults and 2.4 kids waste resources.

Look at the details of pension allowances; if your older family members are one of the five of seven seniors who receive a partial pension, your family might consider an option Paul Meleng and I have been recommending for years: Aging mum and dad spend their assets generously on setting up the perfect Permaculture home; low running costs, low maintenance costs, good location. Concentrate on designing it well for two or more families. This house is in their name, but is not counted in their asset list for calculating their pension amount. One or more children and their families live in this house, and pay the parents board. Income in the form of board from a family member is not counted as income for calculating their pension. So perfectly legally, you have supported you children, and maximised your pension. And then you start looking at the benefits for all concerned in terms of role models, social support, childcare, sharing housework and income production, and the extended family makes sense again.

Design for catastrophe.

There has been a cyclone through Perth that many of you will remember. Greenhouse predictions are very clear: more and stronger cyclones, 500 miles further south than we experience them now. Contamination of the public water supply was identified as the most likely catastrophe to affect Permaculturists in Perth when we surveyed members eight years ago. Put in a rainwater system.

Components of a house have different life spans. (Brand)

Avoid such classic mistakes as solving a five minute problem with a fifty year solution, or vice versa. Site dominates the structure, which dominates the skin, which dominates the services, which dominate the space plan, which dominates the stuff.

A Scale of Permanence for Buildings:

SITE: This is the geographical setting, the urban location, and the legally defined lot, whose boundaries and context outlast generations of ephemeral buildings.

STRUCTURE: The foundation and load bearing elements are perilous and expensive to change, so people don’t.

SKIN: Exterior surfaces now change every twenty years or so to keep up with fashion or technology, or for wholesale repair. Recent focus on energy costs has led to re-engineered skins that are airtight and better insulated.

SERVICES: These are the working guts of the building; electrical and communications, wiring, plumbing, heating ventilating. Many buildings are demolished early if their outdated systems are too deeply embedded to replace easily.

SPACE PLAN: The interior layout – where walls, ceiling, floors and doors go. Be generous and conservative. Don’t make rooms too specialised in their shape.

STUFF: chairs, desks, phones, pictures; kitchen appliances, lamps, hair brushes. Furniture is called mobilia in Italian for good reason.

(From How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand)

Minimise environmental impact by building for longevity.

This means investing most heavily in structure; drainage and footings, attachments of walls and roof to the foundations, roof fastenings. Build in the ability to shutter windows from flying debris and the radiant heat of fire.

One third of the total cost of a house is its ongoing maintenance, so make it very easy to maintain; build your roof with simple lines and fairly steep pitches so it is less likely to leak, ensure you have easily cleaned gutters, make windows flush, place service lines so they are visible or at least easily accessible, use readily available and easily repaired materials.

Piecemeal growth demands and delivers versatility.

“Piecemeal growth is based on the idea of Repair. Since replacement means consumption of resources, while repair means conservation of resources, it is easy to see that piecemeal growth is the sounder of the two from an ecological point of view. But there are even more practical differences. Large-lump development is based on the fallacy that it is possible to build perfect buildings. Piecemeal growth is based on the healthier and more realistic view that mistakes are inevitable. Unless money is available for repairing these mistakes, every building, once built, is condemned to be, to some extent, unworkable. Piecemeal growth is based on the assumption that adaptation between buildings and their users is necessarily a slow and continuous business which cannot, under any circumstances, be achieved in a single leap.” (Alexander)

Communication and Privacy are both necessary.

Think about the needs of babies, children, teenagers, adults, old people when you design a house. We all need privacy and company. We all need some private spaces that are respected, and common spaces where we can share activities. For more details about the six questions to ask refer back to my article about Pattern Language.

Housing is not sustainable if it doesn’t sustain us.

This is more a matter of functional design and maintenance and adaptation than one of budget and visual aesthetics. It is certainly not an issue of fashion statements and keeping up with the Jones. Don’t be distracted by the apparent attractiveness of your home as a tax free investment. Houses make it easy to feed ourselves, wash, sleep, store our food supplies and our possessions, and they shelter us, helping us avoid the extremes of climate, and providing safe, less formal places for us to lead the intimate, real life we want.

“Do not design for resale; design for yourself.” (Dorn)

If you design your house really well, and build it on the right site, with a strong structure, other people will want to buy it. Even if it is unconventional.


  • Brand, Stewart. How Buildings Learn – What happens after they’re built, 1994
  • Alexander, Christopher et al. The Oregon Experiment. Oxford University Press, New York, 1975.
  • Alexander, Christopher, et al. A Pattern Language – Towns, Buildings, Construction. Oxford University Press, New York, 1977.
  • Chermayeff, Serge and Alexander, Christopher. Community And Privacy – Towards A New Architecture Of Humanism. Penguin Books 1966
  • Meleng, Paul. It helps if you know all the rules.  Essay in this section
  • Dorn, Gary, Personal Communication