Interview with Geoff Clark
Geoff Clark commenced work with Troppo Architects in 1994 and worked for 13 years in Townsville on projects of all types across the state. He is now a Senior Lecturer in Design and Building Technology at the University of Tasmania's School of Architecture and Design, and 'trying really, really hard to make a difference.'
This article is an abridgement from a soon-to-be-published design note, EDG 72 GC, 'Designing for Difference'.
EDG: For many years you designed buildings for the tough North Queensland climate, for people conditioned by that climate. Are there lessons from designing for the tropics that have applicability to southern Australia?
GC: I suspect that the real lesson that I take from the tropics is that comfort is relative.
In temperate climates we always have access to excess cool or excess warm, in some form. In the tropics you nearly never have access to excess cool - everything is too warm, but this does not prescribe discomfort. The pleasure you get on a hot day from suddenly gaining access to a cooling breeze is exactly that - pleasure. You could not at the same time claim discomfort despite all of the climatic indicators pointing to that conclusion.
The Australian climate, at least in the inhabited regions, is in reality quite benign. Whether a bit too hot or a bit too cold, the fact remains that if we think about where we are at any particular moment we can probably achieve a greater degree of comfort, sometimes pleasure, by finding another spot: in the tropical wet, in the breeze and the shade; in the southern winter, in the sun and out of the wind.
It is nearly always possible to achieve comfort outdoors, given the opportunity. This fact implies, correctly I believe, that we should not consider that comfort will only be achieved by containing and controlling the climate, but that mitigation or moderation of key climatic influences is likely to be enough. If all else fails, we can always resort to dressing for the occasion.
It is interesting to watch a dog go from shade, to sun, to shade, to sun…alternately overheating, overcooling… They do not do this because they can't find the spot that would represent the happy medium - they enjoy the sensory feast.
Our buildings fail us if they deny sensory variety beyond the visual.
There is one fundamental cycle or variable that we must be able to exploit in order to achieve what we each consider to be comfort, and that is our location - our location from one minute to the next, as conditions change. We must be allowed to find comfort.
We can follow the dog.
Nowhere in the tomes of legislation is there a clause that refers to our ability to move to another room.
In consideration of the manner in which we 'achieve comfort' in houses as legislated, I would expect that we would be expending well in excess of 50% of our climatic control energy on not moving to another room, and failing to dress accordingly.
EDG: You state in one of your talks that when you design a building you always start from a building performance standpoint. What do you consider essential to good building performance?
GC: If we do not consider building performance to be a starting point for design then it is likely that we would be considering building aesthetics to be primary. Many a buck has been made out of this approach to building design, but it is difficult for me to get past the fact that we build in the first instance to shelter - at least in 99.9% of cases.
Shelter does not mean containment, it refers to an ability to filter or select out desirable from undesirable attributes. This again is where we come back to choice: the choice between attributes.
It is common for the choices that we exercise not to be primarily about comfort as defined by numbers. We will choose to sit outside when it is cold because it is pleasant for some other reason.
Why is it that we are allowed to make the choice to be uncomfortable outside, but we are not allowed to make these choices inside? I suspect that the building design industry has a lot to do with this, but the codification of comfort compounds the problem. It fails to acknowledge the need for choice based on variables beyond thermal attributes.
EDG: You have been a long-time vocal critic of the BCA. What are your issues with it?
GC: The apparent inability of the BCA/NCC to deal with difference as I have described it above is a primary concern. It appears on the face of it reasonable to legislate 'comfort conditions', but it is not possible to legislate the choices that people make in terms of occupying space. The fact is that we choose what space to occupy for far more complex reasons and this complexity is denied in the legislated approach.
But perhaps more concerning is the fact that attempting to influence energy consumption by regulating how buildings should be put together is symptomatic relief only. The real cause of overconsumption is cheap power.
If the cost of electricity rose overnight by a factor of five I am quite sure that we would see a dramatic drop in demand if our buildings would allow this. In actual fact, the way that we make buildings does not allow this because it requires that we operate the building as one, as a thing as opposed to a set of things.
The point here is that my concern with the BCA/NCC is that a legislative path was chosen when an economic one would have been far more effective and it would have left the design issues to be dealt with by the designers - the choice to offer choice, to include outdoor spaces as part of the comfortable habitable spaces, and so on.
EDG: Which current trends in building design make you optimistic? Are there any which make you despair?
GC: I have thought long and hard about the question of what current trends in building design make me optimistic, and have managed to come up with not one single thing. I have asked others too, but to no avail.
Working in the teaching environment at the moment, I despair of the aesthetic focus of architecture and of architectural critique. We are reinforcing our students' gleaned understanding that nothing really matters, as long as it looks cool.
I think that the architectural profession is at a cross roads, a point where we can choose to continue down this path into irrelevance or where we can elect to solve rather than create problems, to put our work up for public critique rather than peer review and mutual back-slapping.
When I first started working as an architect our profession gave up the vast majority of building design work to 'building designers'. Today we are giving up the vast majority of building design work and building procurement to building designers, engineers, kit-home suppliers, prefabrication experts and the like. We are giving it up to people who solve problems. Yes, we can give an educated and articulate aesthetic opinion of the outcome, but who cares? Nobody has ever come to me as an architect with an aesthetic problem.
What is our profession doing? Architects have the reputation of being problem makers, not problem solvers. It feels to me like architects have spent the last few decades abrogating responsibility wherever possible - to structural engineers, civil engineers, drafters, interior designers, technicians, project managers, compliance certifiers - and there has always been someone there to take that responsibility up, and to make money out of doing so. I have to ask myself what is left…
Treasury indicates that on current trends Australia will grow by around 6.2 million people by 2030. According to the Property Council, those extra millions will require:
- 2.7 million extra homes
- 104 thousand extra childcare places
- 29 thousand extra classrooms
- 133 thousand extra aged-care places
The list goes on. In an effort to getting all levels of government and industry pulling together to manage this growth, the Property Council has launched a campaign, Make My City Work, spearheaded by CEO Peter Verwer.
The campaign has the support of a broad range of industry groups, including the Institute of Architects and ASBEC (Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council). 'ASBEC has been calling on all levels of government to take a consistent, national approach to the development of our cities... Make My City Work is an opportunity for people to discuss and debate what's good and what's bad about their cities and to help shape the way they develop into the future,' said the Chair of ASBEC's Cities Task Group, Romilly Madew.
The launching of the Make My City Work campaign coincided with the release in April of the COAG Reform Council's Review of capital city strategic planning systems. That report was widely welcomed as an important first step towards a national approach to urban development.
The Victorian sustainable built environment lobby had a rare win in April with the announcement by Premier Ted Baillieu that the government would not be scrapping the new six-star housing standard.
Early in April there was speculation that lobbying by the Master Builders Association (MBA) to drop the new standard was about to bear fruit, with reports of top-level government support for a rollback. The sustainability lobby hit back and after an intense 36-hour arm wrestle between the two camps, Mr Baillieu announced that there would be no rollback.
This is the second time in that past year that the MBA has found itself directly opposed the sustainability lobby on a key policy issue. Last May it was taken to task for opposing a carbon tax based on a questionable analysis of the tax's impact on the price of a new home.
In separate tests in NSW and Victoria, a straw-bale building system designed by Joost Bakker and a double-glazed window system by Paarhammer have stood up to severe bushfire burnover simulations.
The Joost Bakker house consisted of a light steel truss frame, ModakBoard cladding and strawbale internal walls. The roof also had 150mm of earth. The glazed door and windows contained Pilkingtons Pyrodur. All components survived the tests, with CSIRO reporting preliminary findings that the system looked appropriate for BAL (Bushfire Attack Level) Flame Zone.
The Paarhammer window, meanwhile, consisted of red ironbark frame, custom seals and Schott Pyronova glazing. It is the first Australian window to be approved for building in a Flame Zone.
(Image: Nic Granleese)
With a plan that looks something like an Escher composition, Melbourne architect Andrew Maynard has cracked the material logic of the ubiquitous 2400 x 1200mm laminated plywood sheet.
Using a CNC (computer numerical control) router, Maynard prints his CAD drawing onto the plywood sheet and, 'hey presto', table. Maynard explains:
'One sheet of plywood... is cut into a set of unique shapes symmetrical along a central axis, and every single piece can be used to assemble a table...
'Typically a CNC routes around the edge of each component. Instead we aimed to have the release of two components with each single cut. Time of production is halved. Wear and tear on the CNC is reduced to a minimum, drastically extending the life of the tool.'
(Image: Nic Granleese)
Once printed, all you are left with is the parts for a table and a small bag of sawdust.
'The most exciting thing...for me...is that there was no applied aesthetic. The table emerged from the process, from a material logic, without the imposition of decoration.' And yet it looks great!
web: Zero Waste Table webpage; about plywood
Is there no end to what the Google wunderkinds can do? Google employees Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg are computer scientists and artists. They are also co-founders of IBM's groundbreaking open-source visualisation platform Many Eyes.
In their latest project, using surface wind data from the US National Weather Service, the two have created a dynamic map of the wind currents tracing the continental United States. The resulting graphic looks like something Vincent van Gogh might had produced, had he been a cartographer. The accompanying blurb says it all: "An invisible, ancient source of energy surrounds us - energy that powered the first explorations of the world, and that may be a key to the future."
And so it may be, if the latest figures from the US power sector are any indication. They show that between 2007 and 2011, while electricity generation from coal dropped by 4% a year, and gas grew by 3% a year, wind power grew by an incredible 36% a year.
Globally, wind power capacity is projected to at least double between 2011 and 2016 (Earth Policy Institute). In Australia, where installed capacity already lags behind the developed world, wind power is only expected to climb around 25%, hampered in part by political and public opposition (Review of the Australian Wind Industry 2011).
The Sustainable Developer
A panel discussion about sustainable architecture in a developer's world. Panel:
- Jeremy McLeod - Breathe Architecture
- David Waldren - Grocon
- Tosh Szatow - Cape Paterson Ecovillage
When: Monday 30 April, 6 to 8pm
Where: Meeting Room 1201, Level 12, 60 Collins Street, Melbourne
New Futures for Heritage Buildings: Responsible Adaptation, Additions and Reuse
Presented by Elizabeth Vines OAM, Heritage Architect, McDougall & Vines. Covers the role of architects in considered interventions. Outlines the importance of understanding heritage management principles by architects. Provides international and Australian case studies of successful adaptive reuse projects.
When and where: Touring nationally, 29 May to 13 June
Maximising Energy Efficiency in Residential Design
A web tutorial covering informed materials specification and thermal performance in timber-frame designs. Geoff Clark, formerly of Troppo Architects and now Senior Lecturer at the University of Tasmania, uses a lateral planning and design approach focusing on everything from the macro to the micro. He has a firm understanding of 'function' in built environments in most places, a knowledge of the vernacular and a solid appreciation of 'place'.