We moved to Ballarat right on my youngest son’s first birthday, 8 years ago. My son turned nine yesterday. I’d always worked in practices that had a focus of eco-homes and sustainable designs. That was very much my focus, not the big corporate end of town. Really getting to know your client and hold their hand all the way through. When we moved to Ballarat I had no plans for what I was going to do but as it happened, an extended family member asked me to do a project and all of a sudden I thought, if I’m going to do this I need to do it properly and found myself starting a practice.
Being recognised as an emerging architect – yes, it’s definitely an emerging practice – but it’s such a slow emerging! Just slowly chipping away over the last few years. Every year a slow incremental step – one day a week, two days a week, three days a week, move out of home into a co-working space, then move into my own studio, then hire an employee. It has been a long time and it just feels like in the last twelve months we have finally grown-up and become a real architecture practice!
The practice is all residential work at the moment. We are completing a lot of renovations, additions and retrofit projects, as well as new homes. Retrofit projects are becoming increasingly difficult to do because builders don’t want to touch them however they are really so important for our current building stock, so we didn’t want to lose that market. A couple of years ago we became certified passivhaus architects, so now almost every new project is heading towards being certified passivhaus.
I spent a lot of time in the early years looking at how to set up a creative business, because everything I was sort of reading about business, was very corporate and it didn’t seem to fit. I went to the Big Hearted Business conference and had an eye-opening experience about how you can be creative in how you run a business. They said, ‘do what you love, make money and save the world’ and I just thought that’s brilliant and that’s what we want to do. The idea of having a purpose but using your passion and skills and making a living from it. I questioned every single thing about creating a business. I saw it as another creation and design process, to start a practice. Why would I do it one way just because someone else did it, what’s a better way of doing that?
Learning all about the business side of things was definitely challenging. The other thing that I discovered early on was getting deeper into what sustainability meant from all angles. I had to explain what it is because some people had a very narrow minded idea, but also that “sustainability” means different things to different people. You know, put up a solar panel and you’re sustainable! But it’s way more than that. I spent a lot of research and development in being able to answer the questions on where people should invest their money in terms of the energy their home would use and how to prioritise this, and that’s really what sent me originally on that passivhaus journey.
I grew up in the Eltham area (north-eastern suburbs of Melbourne). It was quite bushy, artsy and creative. I look back and it was a lot of trees around and mud brick homes and I did feel a connection to the environment early on. There was a bit of a background in the family – my dad was in graphic design, my mum was in engineering tracing and my grandfather was a carpenter. I suppose that was all a big influence, though at the time I didn’t realise that. Like many architects say, I was playing with Lego and drawing doll houses non-stop in my childhood. Of course never assembling the Lego the way it was shown on the box, always pulling it apart and redesigning it from plan view!
Overseas designers are definitely more across PH. Australia is far behind. We should be focusing on quality not quantity but it’s that real shift in our consumer driven lives. Fast food is not healthy. Fast fashion is not sustainable. Neither is fast building. That’s where I hope that 2020 has been a big shift, because we’ve all been locked away and deprived of what our life was. People have started to realise what their priorities are and what we do care about. I feel like even though it’s been an awful year in so many ways, it’s meant that people can stop and reflect and hopefully understand what’s important.
I drafted up new Sustainability Awards criteria for the ArchiTeam Awards this year. Every project had to complete this form to enter – entries weren’t judged on it (yet!) but it was an educational tool and the aim is to be judged in the future. Jeremy McLeod and I then discussed this also being included in the AIA awards as he is a member of CAST (AIA’s Climate Action Sustainability Taskforce) as there’s a strong feeling that as an industry we need to be celebrating projects that are doing the best they can, and not huge energy-guzzlers. The award-winners are what gets celebrated as best-practice, and what the whole industry aspires too. It’s really important these examples are more ethical and climate-responsive and responsible. So he’s been able to get this criteria/checklist into the AIA Sustainability Awards for 2021. Hopefully the year after, it will be mandatory criteria for all entrants…and this will also have an impact on shifting the industry!
Is PH more expensive? Depends on what your baseline is, if you’re comparing a passivhaus to a volume build home, of course there is a big increase in cost. However, if you are talking about an architectural designed home with a certified passivhaus, there can be no extra cost, it’s just where you are choosing to put the dollars. We talk about the form approach to getting the building envelope right and if that means you have a little less to spend on a piece of joinery our clients are really happy about that. If we have a really big budget we can do both! Volume build houses don’t tend to have that attention to quality control. They see it as added extras.
There have been certified passivhaus homes in Australia built for $2500/m2. The ones we’ve completed are closer to $4000-$5000/m2. Square meter rates are fraught with danger as there are so many variables however if you’re already doing a custom home it’s about choosing where you want to prioritise and where you want to compromise.
It also depends where in the country you’re building. In Sydney and Perth there are a few examples were with standard 90mm stud, they don’t need any additional insulation, they just need to make it airtight and put in heat recovery ventilation with better quality windows and they don’t need any heating. In Central Victoria, many places get snow once a year, or temperatures get above forty degrees in Summer, so what we’re finding is we need really thick walls and way more insulation, which immediately increases the cost of the structure to accommodate this. Even to go from a 90mm stud to a 140mm stud is almost double the cost in timber and depending on your builder, they’ll add extra labour. It’s about all these learnings, where we can change something to make it a little more cost effective to balance it out.
My advice to those entering the industry is to just learn all you can – learn about the Living Building Challenge. Passivhaus is not the silver bullet, it’s not the answer to everything. It deals with energy, comfort and health and it’s definitely resilient for future proofing your house. It doesn’t deal with water, social sustainability, biophilia, materials or the garden. There’s a lot more you can do on top of a certified passivhaus.
We’d love to learn more about regenerative development training, because that’s where you go from doing not just less harm, because sustainability at the moment means doing less harm than you did before. How do we move towards that regenerative side where we actually do more good and give back? Plant more, do more, create more habitat, purify the water not pollute it, enhance biodiversity, care for country, and connect with communities…. We’re really keen as a practice to move in that direction.
It was a pleasure speaking with Talina at the tail end of 2020. Fresh out of lockdown here in Victoria, we hooked up on zoom and had a great chat about the ways in which good, sustainable design can change how we live. Talina is down to earth, passionate and a campaigner for recognising projects which are going above and beyond to make more sustainable outcomes. We wish Talina all the best for 2021! S, J & D x