We just reached another significant milestone in our sustainable home journey. After so many highs and lows leading up to this point, Unit 1 is now our home. That’s not to say construction is finished, but it’s definitely closer to being a home than a building site. I thought this was an ideal time to reflect on the first impression of actually living in a sustainable home.
First impression from the footpath.
With the construction fencing out of the way, the facade is easier to see. The overwhelming impression is something completely different from anything else in the street or, probably, in any of the surrounding suburbs. From what I’ve seen of new sustainable homes at places like The Cape, this is often the case. Designers start with what works best for passive heating and cooling at the site before adding their creative flair, unrestrained by concepts of standard design.
Approaching from the west, the different roof shapes and angles are obvious. The garage roof soars over the entrance way, providing a sheltered space for visitors. Timbercrete block walls for the garage provide a solid anchor for the design. However, the block’s limestone-like colour gives the structure a lighter feeling than standard bricks and avoids the appearance of a WWII bunker.
The lady delivering junk mail for our street made a point of telling me how much she loves the overall design, but the garage is her favourite part. She’s not sure why, but she is drawn to the look of the garage. Having unsolicited compliments from people passing by confirms our belief we are making a good impression.
Continuing along the footpath reveals the house curving away from the street. Three cladding materials become obvious. The reclaimed timber board and batten cladding gives way to the curved Shadowclad with its timber highlights before going onto the Colorbond steel sheeting.
The two roofs angling upwards to the north gives an obvious clue as to how the design takes full advantage of the Sun for lighting the interior.
Light streams into the rooms.
High ceilings and large windows in the family area create a large, airy space. The passive heating and cooling design works well. Despite the recent return to wintry conditions and outdoor temperatures dropping to 10C or so overnight, the indoor temperature stays above 18C without any mechanical heating. Living through winter in the old, poorly heated house on the property has toughened us so this feels very comfortable.
A first impression is a very personal experience so it’s fascinating watching visitors form their opinion when they enter this space. After commenting on the comfortable temperature, almost everyone engages in a tactile sense. They begin by running their hands over the curved entrance wall just to experience the feel of the rough Timbercrete blocks. Next stop is the reclaimed messmate timber on the island bench-top. How could anyone resist touching the smooth, shiny surface with its knots, whorls and imperfections?
Check out the kitchen’s dollop of colour with the splash back. The idea is to complement the wood and stainless steel features. As Libby said when planning exterior colours, “I just love a splash of colour.” She’s at it again with this feature.
One possibility missing from first impressions is a “new house” odour. Using natural products avoids bringing potentially harmful chemicals into the house. Livos Australia oils seal the burnished concrete floor and low VOC paints cover the walls. Organoil brings out the natural colours in the timber window/door frames from Aspect Windows, as well as the reclaimed timber used elsewhere.
Using natural oils on the reclaimed timber floorboards in the bedrooms helps make these rooms healthier in the long term. There’s no trace of a residual chemicals from the standard polyurethane treatment. Avoiding a highly polished finish and keeping things simple assists with maintenance. Being nearly 100 years old, these floorboards already proudly show their age. A few extra marks from us won’t be an issue.
Connected to outdoors.
A thoughtful choice of window sizes and location encourages a connection between indoors and outdoors.
One of the kitchen windows frames the mature Swamp Gum. Try not to focus on the old garage (whose demise is imminent) and imagine being able to watch the comings and goings of birds. Windows like this one make it easy to engage with what’s happening outside the house and appreciate the local wildlife. I didn’t realise how many different bird species pass through our property until I spent a while looking out the windows onto the back yard.
Clerestory windows in the main bedroom serve a variety of purposes. They allow light into the room, even on the dullest of days. On hot nights, opening the hopper window vents warm air and allows natural circulation to bring in cooler air through lower windows in adjoining rooms. In addition, they connect us to the environment. These windows frame a constantly changing view of the sky and our neighbour’s canopy trees.
Acoustics are different.
Moving into a brand new house that lacks fixings such as curtains and carpets highlighted the acoustic differences from our previous residences. Sound waves tend to bounce around for longer without the usual sound absorbing materials of carpets, curtains, etc. It will be interesting to see how this changes over time as we populate the rooms with furniture, wall hangings and soft furnishings.
Noise from outside isn’t an issue thanks to double glazing which is also essential for reducing the heat flow into or out of the house.
Feel the love.
One more impression to finish with. This one I can’t see, touch or smell, but it’s certainly there. I’m thinking about the care and attention everyone contributed to the construction. There’s a good vibe about the home that I’m sure comes from the way it was designed and built.
A good example is the “curved room” (aka second bedroom). I’m sure few houses have a curved wall as, to me, it looked more complicated to build. However, everyone involved rose to the challenge, from the concreter pouring the foundations to the plasterer finishing the interior walls. Each of them mentioned their enthusiasm about doing something different for a change. I know they feel proud of their contribution because they all made a point of coming back to view the finished product.
My photo can’t do justice to the room but it’s a place where visitors stop and look around with amazement. Without a cornice, the wall blends seamlessly with the ceiling so it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Looking closely shows the curve is quite complex as the height of the wall gradually increases.
Every room has a similar story. Another example is the main bathroom where the brickies carefully crafted a section of Timbercrete wall to accommodate the trapezium shaped window.
What’s next after my first impression?
First of all, I’m looking forward to learning how to make the best of this amazing house. How can I optimise the passive cooling features in the coming summer and then swap to passive heating in winter 2019? Remembering to close both doors in the entrance hallway airlock is a good start. I want to explore the limits of the design capability. Yes, we do have a reverse cycle air conditioner if all else fails, but I’m confident that will be a last resort if I learn what the house can teach me.
Next on the to-do list is landscaping the front garden. The view from the window in the second bedroom is marred by a large pile of dirt left over from the driveway construction. However, that view will change over the next month or two. A well-planned garden will enhance the facade and add to the street appeal.
Why only the front garden for now? Well, that’s because things are about to happen in the backyard. That’s not a large yellow garden ornament lurking amongst the weeds. All going well, the plan is to build up the packed earth bases for Units 2 & 3, then drill and pour the bored piers before Christmas. Completing this task gets the team ready for a fast start next year.
Exciting times ahead as we live in Unit 1 and move on from our first impression. Libby and I are looking forward to watching the crew build Units 2 and 3.