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Hilltribe Architects - Central Coast, Sydney & Newcastle

Sustainability in home design

Sustainability starts at the very beginning of the design process with the aim being to utilise the characteristics of your site and develop a complementary design to create a home that is comfortable year-round, healthy and cheap to run.

When we consider the benefits of a sustainable home most of us think in terms of being good for the environment and good for our pocket. But there are a range of ways to choose a sustainable approach to your build. Here are just a few.

Work with your site.

You have paid good money for your building site so you should be maximising its use. A sustainable design always starts with your site and what Mother Nature has chucked in “for free”. These include warmth from the sun, cooling from the air and water from rain.

An accurate site appraisal will include consideration of all these natural elements and how to take advantage of them. This will include thinking about orientation, arrangement of rooms, outdoor areas and materials used to achieve maximum solar efficiency.

TIP: Water harvesting is becoming an important consideration with modern homes. Consider your water usage needs as early as possible so that we can exploit the rain-collecting potential of your site.
Clever design.

A sustainable design can take your home beyond the idea of shelter and makes it an engine that can generate the utilities necessary for comfortable living. Heating, cooling and hot water are generally the biggest sources of energy use within a home and the target of passive solar design.

The aim is to reduce the necessity for mechanical heating and cooling through orientation, materials used and efficient appliances. Incorporating insulation into your build is a great way to help maintain a comfortable indoor temperature naturally. There are a few types of internal insulation on the market, and floors, walls and roof can all be insulated.

TIP insulation needs to be your first priority in creating a passive home. If your home is poorly insulated other passive techniques can actually make your home less comfortable.

You also need to consider the overall insulation of your home, i.e. minimising gaps and heat transference via glazing. Windows and frames are rated for their insulation and a good rating can make a huge difference to the performance of your home.

Modern home designs often depend on large areas of glazing. This isn’t ideal for controlling your climate but we can work together to create clever solutions using superior glazing, orientation and smart, seasonal shading solutions.

Using materials that have thermal mass is another component of passive solar design. Materials with thermal mass have the ability to store and release heat, rather like a sponge. They are usually dense materials such as concrete, masonry and tiles.

Thermal mass will absorb the sun’s heat during the day, keeping temperatures down, and then slowly radiate this heat into the home as the temperature drops. In winter this is quite straight forward your home’s thermal mass soaking up the sun’s heat (and any heat from other sources) during the day and releasing it when the temperature drops at night.

But the way thermal mass works is quite complex and it can have an adverse effect if used in unsuitable areas. In summer thermal mass should ideally be shaded from direct sunlight and exposed to available breezes. In this way its cooling capacity is maximised as it draws ambient heat from your interior spaces while avoiding overheating.

TIP floors with the best thermal mass include concrete and ceramic or stone floor tiles. These are best left exposed as rugs will significantly reduce the heat being absorbed.

There are a few ways to think of materials when it comes to sustainability. You do need to think about what is most important to you. Do you want to use materials that are made from recycled or renewable components? Is the carbon footprint of the materials used important to you? Or will low maintenance options create sustainability? Or perhaps healthy, low emission options?

It would be great to tick off all these possibilities in one but you generally have to prioritise. For example concrete is made from mined components that are not renewable. But it is recyclable, has impressive thermal mass qualities and is an effective material for allergen-free designs.

Something like mud bricks might seem a more sustainable, or eco-friendly solution, if you are able to make them onsite. They are definitely a very low energy material with negligible inputs for transport and construction, but they have surprisingly poor thermal mass performance and usually require lining or extra mechanical heating.

Neither of these examples show that one is better than the other, but they do demonstrate that it is not a straight forward conversation. You do need to consider what aspects of sustainability in materials is important to you and most suited to your build.

Future proofing.

Sustainability also means designing a home that will last. This means using quality materials that are made to last and creating a design that will see you through all stages of inhabitancy. This means designing with some flexibility and with consideration of the stages of life to come – for example a growing family, or older age.

The best time to think about your ‘future home’ is when you are designing your ‘now home’. This is the time to consider issues such as access. While you are young and fit and child-free this isn’t of much concern. But once you have a pram to manoeuvre, or reach an age where you are not so nimble, you will so the benefits of ‘future proofing’ your home.

Considering how you wish to use your spaces now and how that might evolve over time is a great exercise going into the design phase. This might include having extra living spaces that can easily be converted into bedrooms should your family increase. Or the ability to have separate spaces for teenage children to entertain their friends.

Some forward thinking clients are now requesting designs that have the scope to convert into two dwellings with minimal changes. In this way ‘empty nesters’ can capitalise on the the investment in their home by creating a separate dwelling for family or for rental while downsizing their own home. All without moving!


Considering sustainable features in your home can cost more initially although this tends to be based on your idea of sustainability. For example if efficiency in use of materials is a consideration then this can actually reduce the price of construction.

If your ideas run more to incorporating clever technology, water harvesting, energy production and passive solar design this can take initial cost up, but you will reap the benefits in significantly lower ongoing costs.

Like most of the questions around sustainability there is no easy answer. The best way to approach it is to have a clear idea of what is important to you, a wish-list of inclusions and a good idea of your projected budget. We can take it from there and deliver the best solution for you.

We are committed to creating homes that grow with you and provide the best economic outcomes for your budget. If you would like to discuss a sustainable build go to the contact page and get in touch.