Green Architecture, Excellent house design, Healthy living

An Italian Experience

ITALY Architecture at is best

Having just returned from a trip around Italy, initially courtesy of RAC Insurance and Trafalgar Travel from a competition for the first 8 days, then hiring a car and driving great distances, experiencing the AutoStrada and SuperStrada, the latter being not maintained by government and no tolls, the former being heavily tolled but in condition equal to that of Perth, I felt to include in my blog my observations in Architecture around the country.

They say there is nothing new under the sun and for me I found that to be very true. In the early 1990’s I built a home with my family in New Zealand on the Coromandel Peninsula. It was timber construction on a step South West facing sight that bounded a 6m high bank before emptying out onto a country road and the other side of the road was a view to the racecourse. the Kauaeranga River and the Hauraki Gulf beyond. You couldn’t want for a better view except that the Northern sun was difficult to get into the home, but I managed. My then wife had chosen the colours for the house which I didn’t like but as ever dutiful husband does accepted and compromised by painting my office a different colour. I then proceeded to rag walls internally and a whole palette of colours was introduced making it a house of real interest and even to the point I wanted to include a mural on the end wall of the lounge to capture the South facing view looking down the valley. It was never completed and neither was the house unfortunately although we lived in it for 5 years.

In Italy I was surprised because I saw the exact same thing design concept, although from thousands of years ago and the mix of colours on the outside matched exactly the colour my wife had chosen and I saw the matching colours of my office occasionally. Neither of us had been to Italy but I had a penchant for lean too roofs, I guess from the NZ bach era but the finishes and colours we used have not been used in NZ in my experience and here it was all over Italy. We think we can be inventive but maybe we have lived another life sometime. Another story.

My trip began in Rome for 3 days where we saw the sites of Roma, the usual, the Vatican, the crypt as I refer to it now as the Sistine Chapel as it felt like I was in a mausoleum or Sepulchre. Not a pleasant feeling at all and when you consider all of those people exploited by the Catholic church to build that and many other churches around the nation I didn’t feel awe but sadness and even more so because we were prevented to take pictures, something about copyright. I digress. The Colosseum was much larger than I had thought as was most of the churches with their proportions of grandeur we were dwarfed but didn’t feel so inside these magnificent buildings. The fact the Colosseum was clad with white and pink Marble was astounding to me, what a magnificent picture that would have been when new.

Sketch of the Roma Colosseum
The detail in the drawings give a good indication of the layout of the famous Colosseum of Roma
An Artist Sketch showing the sails
An Artist Sketch with the sails in full operation allowing for excellence in passive solar design.
The Colosseum of Roma
The ruins of the Colosseum reflect the state of the nation in some way with its collapsing economy.

When we began our own journey with our hire car the Fiat 500, I had to do it, we were in Italy after all said and done. We drove to a place called Verona. This place was set apart from every other city or town in Italy because of its Architecture. It was a small town in the Northern part of Italy and wonder of wonders had an arena smaller than that of the Colosseum but same design. We watched an Opera by night there, the first of the season but saw first hand the white and pink marble as the Arena was in much better condition than the Colosseum.

Open Air Opera at the Arena Verona

Opera is breathtaking when you are entertained in such an ancient building.
The original arches showing the pink and white marble.

Just imagine that Marble in its original condition, not weathered and worn as it is now and glistening in the sun. What a fantastic building it was and this Arena was built before the Colosseum. It has lost some of the exterior perimeter walls but not from marauding armies and looters who changed the Colosseum in Roma but from and earthquake. Verona holds greater importance than Roma in some ways in that is was the main connection to the North from the South and also East to West. She was at the crossroads and was vital in the 700 years of war that Italy encountered. The river surrounding it became the demarcation at one time between the Austrians living on the outside of the river and the Italians living on the inside. Napoleon set his headquarters at the Castlevecchio a Castle on the opposite side of the road to where we stayed at a medieval B&B San Reno Residence. This was an amazing residence as each room was still maintained in its heritage decorating with furniture to match, well worth even one night for the experience.

Napoleon's Castle

Now a Museum the inside courtyard to Castlevecchio where Napoleon once held his headquarters.

Because of Verona’s strategic placement in the North of Italy any controlling government or army would maintain its headquarters here to keep the rest of Italy safe. Consequently the people were much more affluent and in fact even today they have the highest income per head of population. This in turn attracted the architects, artists, sculptures, writers, poets and painters. As a result the marry of Architecture and art over the life of this city are second to none anywhere I saw in Italy. Walking down the main retail street of Verona I was aghast with the detail and variety on each building. It was breathtaking and beautiful every building crafted but much different from its neighbour. It was a place we had planned to spend one night in and watch the Opera but we took another 2 nights and could have easily take another two to see everything they had to offer.

The bridge had lookouts and sentry walks for keeping watch.
Castlevecchio looking back down the street to our place of residence.

A main street in Verona

All the buildings built with stone and brick and marble did not lend themselves to comfortable homes. While the massive building of churches and arenas portrayed a world of affluence from a bygone era and excellence in Architecture. The houses were simple, multistory and small, with few windows because of the time they were built. I learned that the taxes of the day were levied against the size and number of windows you had which is why they had few windows and small.

I was impressed by the white and pink marble used to build the Arena in Verona, which was built before the Colosseum in Roma but we don’t build with marble today arena’s or churches. We don’t even design our stadiums in the same way with maintenance free stone steps doubled as seats. We don’t beat gold coins to create artisitic paintings and frescos either.  We don’t copy any of the designs for public buildings and do not even use the buildings in the same way they were used back then so why do we insist on building our homes in the same way?

Old Fashioned entertainment houses
Like Picture Theatres to modern cities today, Arena’s were built in many towns of repute to engage the masses with entertainment.

Every place we stayed at in Italy was hot because as we all know stone and brick and marble are excellent for storing heat and cold. They take a long time to heat up and a long time to cool down. They are excellent for thermal mass for both cold and heat. If you want to store heat build brick, if you want to keep things cold build brick. The trouble is summer comes when it is hot and so for 3 weeks you delay the heat but it catches up with you at the other end of the season as the heat is retained in the building while it cools down.

Today we have legislation that enforces certain design criteria from both developers who want to make a subdivision look a certain way and the council who are trying to legislate to make building simple and sift out the cowboys in the industry. The trouble is legislation and restrictions only frustrate excellence in Architecture and force the build of inadequate housing run by profit making group home builders.

Today we attempt to copy this centuries old Architecture in our modern houses using double brick, we fail because of the requirements we have to live in a comfortable home. We also fail because we have escalating utility costs which mean we can no longer afford to heat or cool those stone and brick Thermal Mass walls.

There were some interesting design ideas to provide adequate water for inhabitants and the design of steps was intriguing, especially those purported to have been designed by Michelangelo that provided ease when walking up or down them. When they were copied, however, I felt like a man with a limp. It interested me that new designers had copied the look of the step and not its functionality which was why I ended up limping up or down them.

A place of relaxation and communal discussion for the wealthy in the Italian communities.
Pompeii was covered in ash 79AD and wasn’t uncovered until the 16th-17th Century.

The same is the case today where project or group home builders introduce a house that looks good but has no real function, they do not improve our standard of living or help to reduce utility costs, maximize privacy or elevate surrounding views. Good Architecture focuses on spaces and light and also acoustics.

The challenge is to not only design a home that meets the requirements of heat and cold through the seasons but to also convince the public in Perth that there are options to building materials which are proven in countries that have far greater extremes in temperature than Perth. Even those south of Perth and in the hills around Perth will build in different materials.

Italy was a place of marvel, the sheer size of public buildings and churches, the proportions within those spaces and the play of light all contributed to create an ethereal space where if you listened intently you could almost still hear choirs singing. The detail was in the structure sometimes with the use of marble but adornment by way of statues and artistic frescos and mosaics was breathtaking and seemed ostentatious to me. Ironically those statues were pillaged at the fall of the Roman Empire and many lost their heads, arms or legs to vandals looking for a memento to remind them of a bygone era. Marble columns were removed and transported to build new buildings miles away from Roma in Venice as marble could not be found in that region. Could it be that the state of the nation in fact is reflected in the ruins it maintains?

What of Perth, are we ever going to break free from the tyrannical business owners who have subjected us to build brick so they could get rich and in fact are or are we going to embrace the 21st century, design intelligently so our great grand children inherit homes that are comfortable and easy on the environment reducing pollution with no need for heating or cooling because we have adopted sound passive solar design principles?












How do you design a comfortable home?

I was looking through the newspaper yesterday in particular the New Homes section where all the group builders or project builders advertise their new home designs. I never look at the paper ordinarily but opened it to talk to a friend about what makes a difference between a passive solar designed house and a group builder’s home.

The group builder takes a floor plan and adjusts it to suit a site meeting the R-Codes and council guidelines. A good passive solar designed home discusses with the client their lifestyle, living standard, entertainment requirements and family needs. Good design promotes excellent health and well being. The latest research indicates that we need sunshine to maintain excellent health and yet if you standardize a home and place it on a piece of land anywhere chances are you will not maximize the benefit from the sun.

I showed a number of homes from the paper to my friend analyzing their failure to provide the best in design and in fact every home I looked at would have had extremely cold bedrooms in the winter months and too hot in the summer. So how should you design to maximize the benefits of the sun?

Ideally a house should be positioned where the sun strikes a line North South diagonally through the building. Kitchen, bedrooms, laundry and bathrooms should be on the eastern side of the home while living spaces should be facing the west for the winter sun. Windows should be positioned to allow winter sun into the room at its maximum but minimise it in the summer. To place a large window central to a room doesn’t work if it facing east or west.

There is a theory that you can position your home with the largest wall facing south while the opposite northern wall has 80% glass. This won’t work simply because in the winter you will never have sun on the Southern wall and while that isn’t an issue in Perth because the weather is warmer by day, at night time it is still better to have a warm room rather than an icebox.

When I first moved to Perth and slept in a south facing room, the wall was freezing and made it very uncomfortable sleeping to the point I needed a heater on in the room to keep it dryer and warmer. Good passive solar design cannot be copied, every house should be designed with the client’s needs in mind considering the aspect of the land, access to the property and using the suns energy to warm while allowing for excellence in ventilation. That way you will have a home that is passive solar designed and provides for better health and well being. Anything short of that only adds utility costs and maintenance.



The process to complete working drawings can sometimes be long winded and especially when Christmas and holidays occur in the middle of the process but here we are ready to lodge to council.

It always surprises me however that there may be issues about the time it takes to do the working drawings and details but the council can take as long or longer to approve a building license when all they do is check the drawings that have been supplied.

The next step is to take schedules of materials and determine a building programme and time to construct integrating all the sub-trades and supportive contractors. The only way to save time in a build is to ensure the planning is well documented.

Those who fail to plan plan to fail so it is vital that all of our projects are planned from beginning to end. Also there is an old proverb that speaks about what fool would build a tower without first counting the cost unless he get half way through and not have enough money to finish. You can’t plan too much in my opinion.

The council has finally sent a letter requesting additional information and I cannot help thinking this is to delay the whole process giving them time to complete their workload that has increased because of Parliament legislating so much in the building industry that the councils workload has increased ten fold. The problem with legislation is that it doesn’t ever provide for common sense. Anyway we have to identify the insurer for the project and also prepare additional drawings showing the actual design of the staircase which is shown in the drawings to the required codes allowing for the correct treads and risers and on site will have to be checked in any event for accurate heights and distances once the structure is up.

Still is it great that it has come this far and they give us 21 days to respond otherwise we have to go through the process all over again to resubmit for the building permit. Oh and while I am on that subject the law makers have now decided to change the application to a building permit and no longer is it for a builders license, which makes sense but why do we really pay wages to these people who legislate how we should live our lives, it seems they plan the rules in a darkened office somewhere and yet the councils have the best Architecture in the country it seems but don’t think to seek advice from those who have voted them in to begin with. Ah well that is government and we have no way of eliminating it so follow the rules and toe the line and stop fighting city hall because you will never win.

New Home Design

We are getting closer after discussions with the engineers for the project. There had been a lot of steel designed for the project and with my background in House Design in New Zealand particularly building exclusively with timber frame I was able to discuss other options with the engineers to reduce the amount of steel in the project, in fact cutting the costs in half. Steel is unavoidable in long spans and these days with Laminated Veneered Lumber we can obtain greater spans but even in using solid timbers and in this case pine we can double up joists to give the same support as the steel beam except in one situation we had to turn the joists in the other direction.


The engineer alluded to the fact that if we were fixing tongued and grooved flooring to this home design without a substrate we would have the timbers going in different directions when you walked across the floor. That is a very valid point and fortunately we do not have that issue as the clients want carpet upstairs, but to my way of thinking why not change the house design in Perth and use the Plyflooring with a stain, you can create quite and interesting floor and later carpet if you require it.

Second Floor Joist perspective showing steel structure below.
Home design examines floor structure

The repositioning of the joists in the bedroom means that there will be less noise transference between the floor. It is important to make breaks in the floor between rooms and in this house design  I have tried to adopt that principle even to completely segregating the Study and Bedroom Floors from the guest room and bathroom with the installation of a glass floor.


The bathroom will be separated from the Bedroom with the use of Compressed Fibre cement board and with the positioning of the joists in the bedroom at right angles to those in the study we have 4 very distinct areas where noise transference will be minimised and consequently will reduce sounds transference to the Ground Floor.




Maylands New Home in second phase

The wheels turn slowly, it is a juggling act keeping things moving with balancing council requirements, clients wishes, compliance drawings and someone to pay for it all until the banks come to the party. This is why it is easier if you have funding to begin with.

On Tuesday we employed Advanced Building Engineers to design the structure for the new house design, the floor slab, size the beams to carry the floor to the second storey and detail the roof construction. Robert David the Managing Director was very helpful and explained the process with clarity and simplicity and their costs were not as high as other engineers.

Robert advised that we have to obtain a GeoTech report which will be an additional fee as the Maylands area is the worst for soil types. In fact there can be sand on one site and right next door can be clay and according to Robert the clay can move as much as a metre in any direction so a foundation has to be designed to give allowance for that extreme level of movement.

We have appointed wageotechnics to carry out our subsoil tests to determine the soil types. They spend two hours on site taking soil samples and then they prepare a report including drawings and detail investigations of the soil to present to Advanced Building Engineers and ultimately council to satisfy the building requirements.

Wageotechnics have provided in excellent time the GeoTech report at a cost of $1250 plus GST. The information clearly identifies soil types to ensure the right structure is built to the soil capacity and reduce the risk of building failure. With that information the engineers are now able to complete their structural details moving us closer to an application for building license.

We finally have our engineering from Advanced Building Engineers, it was delayed because in my phone calls they said it had been posted and I thought the Christmas postal service may have caused delays. However the delay was because the office receptionist had thought the payment had not been made and instead of phoning to check left the plans at reception. I arrived to collect another job and asked about them and was told they had not been sent out for that reason.

Sometimes delays in a project are beyond our control and even though you someone may tell you it has been sent there is never any guarantee until it is in your hot little hand. Anyway it is now time to complete the working drawings so we can present the project to council for the final stage a builders license and price the job properly.



What do people really look for in a home?

When I look at the builders in Perth and the house designs, even the latest I lived in a brand new home unit was developing dampness that has no stained my couch fabric from the ground up. Perth is presumably hot but I am learning that we can have rainfall and dampness, sand doesn’t eliminate it but minimises it by providing excellent drainage.

However our house design allow for the summer months and take into account the rest of the year when we need our winter woollies. I am about to spend a 3rd summer here but I am beginning to understand the climate and considering better ways to provide better house design to minimise heating and coolingcosts. More on that topic in another spiel.

To the work at hand. We had obtained the approval for the Maylands job and that was all good but did you notice the time it took? 14th September 2011 it was lodged and now we are determining how to proceed from here. You see now comes a balancing act, where we have to provide working drawings to present to council to obtain a building license to construct this home but that costs money.

Where does the money come from? The banks I hear you say, and that is true but the banks won’t release funds until they can see a concrete slab has been poured. So the client has to have a certain amount of cash to start with or we cover the cost to employ engineers and pay council fees. Or we can work a mix of these ideas.

Ideally we would like an investor who can provide funding on a project from start to finish however no investor would ever provide funding unless they knew what costs were associated with the project. And to determine the costs of a project working drawings would need to be completed.

So again it comes back to the owners having funds to get the best value for money and the project under way. We would suggest clients would have between $20-30,000 to take a project from concept through to slab down payment on a standard type residential build, i.e. 3 bedrooms, lounge, dining, kitchen, study and double garage.


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