Oliver Steele of Steele Associates discusses Australian building codes and apartment design

Oliver Steele of Steele Associates discusses Australian building codes and apartment design
Oliver Steele of Steele Associates discusses Australian building codes and apartment design

Following the launch of Australia’s first Passivhaus apartment The Fern, Urban.com.au caught up with the man behind the design – Oliver Steele, founder of Sydney based architecture and building practice Steele Associates.

Oliver discusses code compliance, building loopholes, Passivhaus design and what buyers should be looking out for.

Urban.com.au: What do you believe are the safest materials to install in a home for the health of its occupants? (Flooring, walls, insulation, etc.)

Oliver Steele: Look for low VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) products. The pungent smell of some paints and varnishes, and even that ‘new car smell’ are VOCs ‘off-gassing’ as the product dries or slowly cures. These VOCs can be emitted for extended periods by some products, including plastics. Some of the newer water-based polyurethane floor coatings are very low in VOCs and quite hard-wearing, The technology has improved a lot in the past few years. Natural oils on timber veneer joinery give a soft, warm glow, and doesn’t scratch like polyurethane finishes. Interior paints have also improved a lot in the past decade, and low VOC paints and even water-based enamels are improving in their ease of application and durability. Knauf Earthwool is a good insulation product. It's not as itchy as the old fashioned glass-wool batts.

U: What iterations do you feel need to be made to the Australian building Code to ensure buildings are constructed to the highest quality and safety for their inhabitants?

OS: The codes are pretty thorough in terms of quality and safety. The main issues are with compliance. The area that the code most needs improvement is in environmental standards. There’s a push to include minimum standards of airtightness in the code, but a lot of resistance from industry. Insulation and glazing standards for energy efficiency should also be improved, especially in apartments.

U: Have you discovered any loopholes in the Australian building Code where developers and builders can potentially cut corners, compromising the quality of the build?

OS: Compliance with BASIX (the environmental compliance minimums) in NSW is self-certified by builders. That leaves a lot of room for cutting corners. Poor insulation, draughty buildings, and ‘sick building syndrome’ can result.

U: How has being a qualified builder as well as an architect influenced your design methods and processes?

OS: I’ve learnt a lot about building from designing, and a lot about designing from building. Knowing the building constraints of costs and materials helps me design and detail buildings that will be affordable, durable, and hopefully uplifting for occupants. Having the design background helps me resolve construction issues in a way that won’t impinge on the architectural integrity of buildings, and gives me a deep-seated appreciation for maximising the functionality and beauty of buildings throughout the building process.

U: Which areas of a home do you think require the greatest financial investment for long term benefits?

OS: Insulation and draught-proofing are the best value for money in building. External shading is another great value investment. Stopping the summer sun before it hits glazed doors and windows is always more effective than mitigating summer heat after its made its way into your home. Energy-efficient doors and windows cost more upfront, but will help keep you cool in summer and warm in winter for a lifetime. 

U: Passivhaus design appears to have fantastic long-term rewards – such as significantly decrease power bills even heat distribution and airflow etc. – how does the upfront building cost of a Passivhaus home compare to a standard build of the same size and configuration?

OS: It depends on many factors including specific climate location, site orientation, and building design. I’d estimate the cost premium at 10-15% over a code-compliant building for Sydney, but these estimates will become clearer in the coming years as more Passivhaus buildings are completed. Hopefully, the cost premium will reduce as this better way of building becomes more popular as well. 

U: What changes would need to be made to the Australian building code to reflect the attributes of Passivhaus design?

OS: More than will happen in the foreseeable future! Australia, and especially NSW lag far behind in this area, sadly. One achievement we’re particularly proud of at The Fern is that we had Heat Recovery Ventilation accepted as an alternative solution under the BCA, so it’s now available for all apartment projects to use.

Oliver Steele of Steele Associates discusses Australian building codes and apartment design
The Fern. Credit: Steele Associates
Oliver Steele of Steele Associates discusses Australian building codes and apartment design
The Fern. Credit: Steele Associates

U: What do you believe Australian apartment buyers are seeking from a home in today’s market, and do you think Australia is fulfilling this demand?

OS: With the cost of housing so high, most buyers are just looking for something they can afford that’s large enough and well-located enough to be suitable. Unfortunately, this means the ongoing running costs of power bills and the qualitative wellbeing elements of a healthy, thermally comfortable space are often overlooked. Hopefully projects like The Fern will be part of a wider push towards quality over quantity, but cost pressures will remain a big factor.

U: What are your favourite modern apartment design techniques and why?

OS: On the practical side, minimising circulation space to maximise usable living space. Lots of built-in storage well-placed so the joinery keeps your stuff out of the way without getting in your way. On the lifestyle side, open plan kitchens connected to dining and living areas so cooking and eating are shared daily rituals. And sheltered balconies that work as extensions of your living space when the weather is good. And building in high environmental performance for occupant and planetary wellbeing, of course!

U: What would your ideal mixed-use precinct community look like?

OS: Net-zero energy use, plenty of green space and shade trees to help keep the precinct cool in summer. Stormwater used to create mini-wetlands integrated into parks, attracting native birds and insects. Human-scale buildings with organic forms designed to capture the winter sun and shade summer sun. Degrees of public and private space to encourage community connections whilst allowing people to feel secure and serene when they need to. Solar and wind power integrated into the architecture seamlessly. Can’t wait for this project. What’s our budget?

Olivia Round

Olivia Round

Olivia Round is the Features Editor of urban.com.au. Olivia specialises in news reporting, in-depth editorial content and video + podcast interviews with industry experts.

Steele Associates Passivhaus


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