This is the edited text of a talk given by Darwin-based architect Jo Best to the symposium “Cool Future: Development Planning for Northern Territory Communities and Towns” at the Northern Territory Natural Resource Management conference, Darwin, November 13 to 15, 2018. 

Discussion about sustainability in housing design in the Territory, especially in the Top End, is often reduced to a polarised debate of whether or not to use airconditioning.

This is exacerbated by our limited energy efficiency legislation that only measures how much energy is lost through the building fabric, instead of providing strategies for owners and developers to encourage lower consumption through appropriate design and thus reward actual energy efficiency in housing stock.

Figure 1: Brazil has a two-tier certification system allowing for low energy use housing

There are without a doubt many different approaches evident in the many words written on this topic, but the most straight forward I’ve come across from a country of similar climatic conditions is that promoted by Brazil: a two-tier regulatory system that considers adaptive potential by nominating from the outset, whether or not a house will be airconditioned, and if not, acknowledging the cost to alter the building envelope should a future owner choose to mechanically control temperature.

This results in an increase of regionally appropriate building form and material choice, more affordable construction and most obviously lower whole of life costs for the occupant.

The Brazilian government terms this a “rational use of energy”. Hopefully this policy will survive during the presidency of the recently-elected Jair Bolsonaro.

The other popularisation our policy makers from all levels of government tend to fall foul of is a lack of contextualisation of the broader topic of sustainable house design and building more generally, which is considerate of the embodied energy cost of construction within a global setting. This of course situates housing design within the broader energy policy, something that Australian governments have manifestly failed to address in recent years.

This has not always been the case though and in 2010 the Australian Government’s Report of the Prime Ministers Working Group on Energy Efficiency, stated:

The energy that drives our economy and underpins our wellbeing in everyday life is also the biggest single source of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. Doing our part in the global response to climate change requires that we not only reduce the carbon intensity of our energy supply but also improve our energy efficiency. This will ensure Australians achieve the maximum benefit and emit the minimum greenhouse gases from the energy we consume.

Energy efficiency is Australia’s untapped energy resource—a means to improve the productivity of the economy as well as an important element in moving towards a prosperous low-carbon future. As many other countries have found, improving energy efficiency also delivers a range of other benefits. It can help reduce pressure on household budgets from increasing energy prices that result from burgeoning global demand for energy, it can vastly improve the level of comfort in our buildings (both homes and workplaces) and it can help business adjust to changing competitive pressures. Enhanced energy efficiency can improve energy security, providing greater confidence that global future needs can be satisfied …

So at some point during the drafting of legislation around energy efficiency in housing, that term became separated from ‘sustainability’ when they should in fact be complimentary.

I believe there exists an interesting macro/micro bounce on this topic when it comes to housing provided by government departments for Aboriginal people and recent examples of alternative models/designs constructed by Aboriginal organisations offering a more sustainable solution, not only for the individual occupant, but within the global context.

But first, I think we need to consider the milieu of aboriginal housing in this country and the continued application of untruths, which current policy continues to propagate.

Figure 2: Ceci n’est pas une pipe

This paper penned by Tess Lea and the sorely missed Paul Pholeros, outlines the dynamic thus:

Diagnoses of why indigenous housing remains so poor despite seemingly vast program expenditures may alternately blame the racist state or point to inadequate consultation processes. But by far the most common tendency is to attribute much of the cause to the incapacities of the Aboriginal householders. Whether hard-line or empathetic, aired in policy backrooms or as eyewitness accounts on talk radio and Internet postings, there is a dominant mode of interpreting damaged houses that places indigenous values and behaviours at the centre of the housing problem, an interpretive syndrome that tends to bounce off the seeming look of things into well-worn grooves of explanation and remediation. The prevailing theory is that houses become structurally compromised in swift time frames more or less because of the way householders tend the house.

The authors illustrate a culture of casual scrutiny that approves buildings for occupation that do not meet the most basic structural, service or health standards.

Figure 3: A nonhouse. Photo by Paul Pholerus

… indigenous houses might look like houses, most especially when they are newly constructed or refurbished. But the appearance of new “affordable” houses, buttressed by scripted policy announcements about dollars spent and program achievements, misdirect our interpretation away from what is literally in front of us: a cheap, copy of a house of bare utility, which looks like, but is not, a house. It is a nonhouse”

I’m not suggesting this is the scenario for every house, and I believe there has been rigorous effort on some levels to improve building performance on communities. Certainly this is visible within my own profession – but the continued mantra from housing providers and the media of Aboriginal people willfully destroying houses – is also used to excuse ill-considered generic designs, with no regional appropriateness that could improve sustainability of the product and create better performing buildings for thermal comfort.

And if the main motivation driving design and construction is to never provide a standard maintenance program that any other tenant in this country expects and is entitled to by law, then the opportunities for good design diminish substantially.

Additionally, if the building has a reduced life span engineered into it – that favours demolition and rebuild over regular maintenance – where does our nonhouse now sit on the sustainability scale? Especially when we’re considering embodied energy and whole of life performance costs.

Are we designing and building to fail?

Figure 4: Home improvements – Galiwin’ku

This photo shows a house where there has been no provision for sheltered external spaces, so tenants – unable to bear the oppressive heat inside the un-shaded concrete-walled dwelling or simply because they prefer to be outside taking advantage of the usually benign climate – have built their own.

Figure 5 House at Buthan, Elcho Island NT

This photo is of a house at the new subdivision Buthan near Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island on Arnhem Land’s north coast. This duplex was built around 2014-15 and you can see that the occupants have worked hard to make it their home; tending a thriving garden and doing what they can within the limits of their tenant status to make the building more liveable.

It is constructed from concrete block, and although it would have been issued a building and occupancy permit that would include energy efficiency compliance, it is hot inside and the tenants rely on an airconditioner they supplied themselves.

On the day we visited, there was no power to the house. This meant that not only the airconditioner couldn’t be used, but neither could the most basic cooling device, the ceiling fan. Poor design, reliant on airconditioners for thermal comfort is seen across all locations and demographics in this country. Increasing energy bill stress results in the same outcome.

Figure 6: Home improvements 2

In an attempt to help cool the house, and make it less reliant on the aircondioner these tenants have also built a makeshift shade structure to protect the west facing rear façade in an effort to prevent heat absorption through solar gain to the masonry wall.

We know the time lag for this material to release that energy is around 8 hours, meaning that the afternoon heat is felt inside well into the night.

Figure 7: Home improvements 3

Interestingly, there’s something else the extended roof eave is protecting. You can see in the image on the left the laundry tub, beside which the washing machine is supposed to sit. Until the tenants constructed this roof extension, the washing machine was completely vulnerable to the elements, and as a result more than one was damaged at the tenant’s expense.

Unfortunately, though, this extension has no building or occupancy permit and so thus is dismantled before every building owner inspection … it falls under the label of “a damaged house”.

I just want to put these examples to one side for a moment, and talk a little more about my designated topic, but hopefully it will pull together as we proceed.

When we talk explicitly about cooling a house sustainably outside of the broader theme of Sustainability, there are two basic methods.

1.       Stick an airconditioner on the side, with enough individually produced renewable energy supply to offset the power demand.

Figure 8: Offset energy load for AC with renewable energy

2.       Design for the context using the prevailing climatic conditions to your advantage.

Figure 9: Troppo Architects – good tropical design principles


If we tease these out a little more, the first option is still limited in many cases by the cost of the energy production infrastructure, though this continues to reduce. And an upper limit of production allowed by the reticulated power provider, in our case the NT Government-owned, Power Water Corporation, which has a monopoly over utility supply in the Northern Territory.

In Darwin’s urban setting control is deemed necessary to regulate the grid – others might be better able to explain this policy than me. But what it means is that there may be an imbalance between your power demand, your personal power production and the degree that the Power Water Corporation limits that production. So, even if you can afford the photo-voltaic panel array to power all that you are airconditioning, that may be restricted by the same agency that sells you the power from the grid.

The other scenario is what is generally called passive thermal design, or free-running houses. This can be a complicated model to quantify in terms of thermal comfort (or coolth) because it has a level of subjective measurement, and although there are well established charts of thermal comfort envelopes related to specific climate zones, occupant behaviour and personal comfort vary greatly.

What we can all gain from regionally specific design is improved building performance without complete reliance on mechanical cooling by using some some pretty basic design strategies.

I’m sure most of you are well acquainted with these, but a quick list for Top End construction:

  • Orientate for breeze;
  • A long thin plan that doesn’t stack rooms against that prevailing breeze;
  • Shade all surfaces and openings;
  • Provide a big (tall) hat; and
  • Allow for roof ventilation.

If we broaden our thinking to capital S sustainability, then we should also include:

  • Reduce building footprint (just build less and/or take up less space);
  • Build from locally sourced renewable materials; and
  • Push program outside, eg replace expensive internal spaces with well designed external spaces, that allow for seasonal and daily climatic variations, and allow residents to migrate around the building.
Figure 10: Obesogenic suburbs of Australia – designed around the personal vehicle

This is the recently-developed Darwin suburb of Muirhead. Much like other fringe developments around Australian cities it illustrates what is known as an obesogenic suburb.

It is designed around the car. There is little or no provision of public transport.

Streets are meandering, providing no opportunity for pedestrians to cut across for direct transit. Roundabouts rule, further impeding pedestrian ways, and even if there was good foot passage, there’s nowhere to go. There are no retail, commercial or social facilities or amenity within walking distance.

There’s no milk bar, there’s not even a pub!

Residents are forced to get into their cars and drive to Casuarina shopping mall for a litre of milk and a packet of fags.

There were originally some great aspirations in the urban design of Muirhead in relation to breeze corridors and green spaces, but when overlaid with design caveats that require ‘privacy’, i.e. solid, fencing between lots, these are quite literally obstructed.

The caveats attempt to imbue a sense of identity, but this is made meaningless by things like a token single bay of louvres required on the front façade – apparently making the building ‘tropical’. Coupled with homogenous aircondition-reliant design, with today’s current definition and legislation for energy efficiency these houses all pass, often with flying colours.

But what if we were to apply some of the principles of regionally specific design – which can’t help but read ‘of it’s place’ – as well as improve thermal performance and thus reduce energy consumption?

Figure 11: Troppology for Defence Housing Authority. Photo: DHA

This is a duplex we were commissioned to design by Defence Housing Authority (DHA) for Muirhead in response to a brief that focused on:

  • Recognisable local identity;
  • Small lot size, requiring in reduced footprint and resulting in more compact urban design: essentially we put two houses where usually there would be one;
  • Capital S, Sustainable design;
  • Affordability, both in construction and for whole-of-life costs; and
  • Good tropical design principles – see Fig 9 above.

Plus we were required to meet the standard DHA design guidelines, within the confines and opportunities of our context of the Top End.

Although we weren’t able to convince the client of a full passive response to thermal comfort, we combined good tropical design principles with solar panel energy offset to achieve a contemporary, sustainable, recognisable, re-imagining of Darwin housing.

Think modern C19.

Zoning of airconditioning to bedrooms coupled with open or porous skinned interstitial spaces like corridors and stairs minimises the volume of airconditioning needed and reduces construction and whole-of-life costs.

Pushing one of the living spaces (DHA required two) outside also achieves cost savings … a tree is cheaper than a verandah is cheaper than an enclosed space, is cheaper than an airconditioned enclosed space. Now and forever.

The lower ground internal living was originally conceived and approved for passive thermal design. The only thing that prevented this in the end design was the energy efficiency legislation which specifically requires the kitchen be located within a fully sealed and thus airconditionable space.

Why in an environment like ours would we be stipulating by far the greatest heat producing element in the house to be located internally?

And if the client did want to pursue the alternative, why is the only option in the Territory a further cost to the environmentally conscientious consumer via a peer review currently completed in Queensland?

This I suggest broadens even further the fundamental disconnect created by the legislation between energy efficiency and sustainability.

So how does this example fold back to the conversation about Aboriginal housing in remote areas?

Well, the themes and principles are one and the same. And while current policy limits design prospects through a one-size-fits-all approach, this hasn’t always been the case, and there are other examples being produced today.

Figure 12: ATSIC-funded houses, Galiwin’ku, NT

These photos are of a house built in the 1990’s, again at Galiwin’ku but under a very different delivery approach.

Sufficiently funded by ATSIC for meaningful consultation, tenant and location-specific design and training and employment opportunities for community members, the 25 houses delivered were considerate of tropical design principles, cultural nuances and had an inbuilt sustainability and a whole-of life low-cost requirement – airconditioners just weren’t available then.

Not all, but most of these houses are still standing and happily occupied despite not being constructed from ‘indestructible’ concrete blocks but instead a lightweight external fabric suitable to their climatic setting.

They use glass louvres that provide the required access to natural light and ventilation and all afford generous sheltered outdoor rooms that provide the flexibility for a variety of uses (including cooking)

If we look to the present, I struggle to find an example of housing that is considerate of these simple ideas and basic principles – except when we step outside the current government models and look instead to what Aboriginal people are producing themselves.

Figure 13: Housing at Yilan, built by Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation

Yilan is located on the coastline of West Arnhem Land and is home to approximately 10 people depending on the season or residents’ cultural obligations and responsibities.

This house was constructed by the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation for and by the people that would occupy the building.

It ticks more sustainability boxes that any recent remote area housing produced by government agency housing providers.

And the responsive design and construction approach also outdoes most urban examples.

Figure 14: Yilan, north coast of Arnhem Land, NT

So what are we looking at here?:

  • Locally produced materials – those mud bricks are fabricated in Maningrida;
  • Appropriate material specification, low maintenance, hard-wearing, and well-crafted;
  • Suitable for climate, function and culture;
  • Generous roof and verandahs to shade walls, and openings;
  • Ability to passively cool with generous openings;
  • Small footprint, despite the seemingly abundant space to spread out;
  • Stacking of volumes; living/ cooking at ground where it’s coolest during the day, sleeping upstairs to catch the sea breeze, and when solar exposure reduced;
  • Fire-proof – as can be seen from the photos referenced;
  • Security against buffalo and crows; and
  • Built, lived-in and maintained by locals.

While government housing departments are continually being directed to produce more for less – to achieve greater efficiencies in quicker time-frames and to streamline and simplify – the result only suffers.

To reignite a sustainable housing future – both in the city and in the bush – we have to play the long game.

Longevity is achieved through good, appropriate design, careful construction and diligent scrutiny.

Houses cannot be thought of as disposable items, but to succeed long term they need to do more. I wonder if delivery would be better achieved by those with skin in the game. If the NT government’s Department of Housing was to relinquish delivery of stock, and instead support and help enable local communities and aboriginal corporations – possibly even land councils – to drive this basic need, could we see a more sustainable future?

This model would in turn foster enterprises such as the Maningrida mud brick plant and the Gumatj timber mill which as we’ve seen have proven they can sustainably supply a much broader market.

The Anindilyakwa Land Council on Groote Eylandt certainly thinks so.

Figure 15: Anindilyawka Land Council will assume control of social amenity at Groote Eylandt, NT

In mid-November 2018 a deal was signed that will see the Anindilyawka Land Council take eventual control over education, justice, health and governance from the NT government. The Land Council will control administration of services and assets including the provision of community housing for themselves.

As reported on the ABC at the time:

Houses would be designed in collaboration with the local clans regarding how they’d like to live, which would then be taken to tender. This is the inverse of how government housing is currently commissioned. Sixty houses need to be built over the next five years on Groote Eylandt, and the housing deal alone is worth around $80 million.”

Australia – and the Northern Territory in particular – are in a unique situation. We are a wealthy country both economically and environmentally.

We have a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips about the land, the ocean, the climate and our place within it should we chose to engage more equitably and respectfully with the cumulative experience of Aboriginal people.

It is our collective duty as a member of the global village and our current challenge to address climate change.

We need to reconnect energy efficiency with sustainability, in our own homes and in our policy.


Photo: DHA