Following the Sun.

When I look at photographs of vernacular buildings taken around Australia over the last fifty years, I wonder why it is that most contemporary houses and other low-rise residential buildings have lost their way in a design sense when there are such good exemplars to learn from.

Buildings exist to give us privacy and security and shelter us from sun and rain, heat and cold, so how they relate to the sun is of primary importance.  Many people don't appreciate the way the sun moves at different times of the year, lower in winter and higher in summer with the exact angles depending on your location.  Failure to shade windows from the summer sun correctly can make for uncomfortable interior conditions, particularly in these days of excessive areas of glass.

The Rose Seidler House that Harry Seidler built in 1948 for his mother at Turramurra, his first building in Australia and my first experience of modern architecture, has glazed areas in the bedrooms facing east that are far too large for the Sydney climate. 

Paul Rudolph, writing in the Yale architecture journal Perspecta in 1952 extolled the virtues of regional differences, and said the Turramurra house had,

' jumped from Cambridge Mass. (it might be described as the Harvard house incarnate‚Ķpre Sert) to Sidney, Australia without any modifications whatever.  It is difficult to believe that it would not have taken on a new significance if the principles which formed its prototypes were better understood.'

Hard words from a Harvard contemporary, and a bit tough on Harry; there was nothing wrong with his understanding of the principles but as a newcomer (and an inexperienced young architect of 25) he was the first to confess, mea culpa, that he hadn't appreciated the severity of the Sydney summer sun.

Seidler never made the same mistake again.  In fact he was quick to seize on the architectural possibilities that become available by making adequate provision to deal with the hot Australian sun in all his buildings. I started working as his draftsman in 1950 and we took it as read in all succeeding designs that the sun always had to be treated with respect. 

There was a building research publication about this time with a protractor that enabled you to work out sun angles at different times of the year in different parts of Australia, but we soon established a simple rule of thumb for Sydney.  North facing glass needed an overhang that is half the height of the wall to cut out the worst of the hot summer sun and at the same time to allow the lower angled winter sun to penetrate and warm the house, and I've stuck to this simple guideline ever since.  Many years later these simple facts were re-discovered by a later generation with great fanfare and called Passive Solar Design; we'd being doing it for years!

Windows facing East and West required different treatment as the angles of the sun are almost horizontal from these orientations at certain time of the year.  The most effective devices are movable vertical louvres and external blinds that allow western windows particularly to be totally unshaded in winter or when the sun is in another quarter, and yet able to be completely closed off on hot summer afternoons.

And it also depends of course, whether you live in a hot-dry area like the Riverina, or the hot-wet parts of Australia's north.  In the latter, keeping out the sun is still necessary but more openness is also required as cross ventilation is essential for comfort; there are many different ways of achieving these factors that allow for considerably different sorts of architectural expression.

My thesis is that designing for the sun not only has immediate practical physical advantages (cooler interiors in summer and warmer ones in winter), it also creates architectural design opportunities by exploiting different combinations of shade and openness appropriate in different regions. Combined with the incorporation oftechnological developments like solar panels, it is my belief this will in turn create regional building styles that will not only have great architectural richness but will also be the first necessary and desirable steps to more sustainable buildings for the hotter future.

In his book Veranda; embracing place(Angus & Robertson 1992), architectural writer Phillip Drew points out that the first colonists were slow to alter the initial Georgian style buildings that were built without eaves or verandas.  Twenty years after the arrival of the first Fleet, Drew estimates that by 1809 there were only seven verandas, most of them had been added to the most important buildings and all looked like afterthoughts.

In the same way as young Seidler, immigrant-settlers every-where soon learnt that the easiest way of providing north facing protection from the sun is a simple veranda.  The photograph below shows how verandas were initially simply tacked on to existing buildings.

Telegraph Station Central Australia
Telegraph Station , CentralAustralia        Photo Bal Saini

Homesteads and farm buildings with steeper pitched roofs soon integrated the roof over the veranda with the main roof of the house.

Homestead near Tamogulla Victoria
Homestead near Tamogulla Victoria   Photo Harry Sowden

More important buildings integrated the veranda in slightly different ways but they no longer looked like afterthoughts.

Building at Darwin NT
Building at Darwin, NT       Photos Simon Holthouse

Houses in the hot wet areas of Australia developed adjustable screens and timber lattice became a popular device to give shady privacy without restricting the airflow necessary for comfort.

Houses in Port Headland WA 1

Houses in Port Headland WA 2

Adjustable lattice screens WA

Houses in Port Headland WA with lattice and adjustable screens, and wide verandas .      Photos Bal Saini

To appreciate further the variety of expression these ideas have created, readers are referred to 'The Australian House; Houses of the Tropical North' by Bal Saini with photographs by Ray Joyce (Landsdowne Press 1982). 

For fifty years Bal Saini has been in the forefront in promoting greater engagement and understanding of climatic factors in architecture with his books and teaching; see his major work 'Building Environment; An illustrated analysis of problems in hot dry lands (Angus & Robertson 1973).

I have been quick to learn from some of these vernacular buildings.  My clients for a new resort at Dunk Island in North Queensland were expecting an air-conditioned resort with carpet on the floors.  They were persuaded that an open building with timber floors was more logical in that climate and simple push-up lattice screens were developed to open up to or modify the sea breeze.

 Dunk Island Resort

Adjustable lattice screens, Dunk Island Resort NQ
Architects Don Gazzard & Associates / Photos Max Dupain

Contemporary houses are still being built without eaves, proper sun protection or sheltering verandas and quite often with far too much glass. And too many award winning houses are not good examples of respect for the sun.  In my opinion architects have a responsibility to show the way and their objective should be to revise the Building Code of Australia (BCA) to incorporate mandatory changes to improve the design and environmental performance of all new buildings.   Future newsletters will make a detailed case for what should be done.

Don Gazzard LFAIA
Mid-June 2014