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Sustainable architecture starts at ground level with a site assessment to analyse the local conditions, climate and surroundings, whether the block of land is empty or already occupied.
Designing a sustainable house begins with assessing the unique properties and characteristics of a site: the size, topography, vegetation, aspect and amenity of the land. This initial analysis identifies the potential (pros) and the challenges (cons) of a site and whether it can accommodate the requirements of the client’s brief.
Every region has a local climate, and every site — due to the natural and/or built environment — also has a microclimate. A site assessment will analyse seasonal temperatures, sun and shade angles, and breeze patterns, and how these are impacted by site terrain and vegetation. The analysis of the macro- and microclimate will influence the orientation, form and building envelope of the house so that it optimally performs within the context of the local climate. Increasingly, architects will include risk assessments associated with climate change (i.e. potential natural hazards, such as bushfire and flooding) in their analysis.
Assessing the orientation of a site — how it is positioned in relation to the movement of the sun — determines the potential for solar access and shade. This will vary throughout the seasons and can also be affected by surrounding vegetation and buildings. The direction and angle of the sun and shade not only impact the internal temperature of a home, but also the quality of light, which in turn influences the potential use and feel of space.
In Australia, main living areas ideally face north to maximise the amount of sunlight, regardless of season. The eastern-facing parts of a building receive morning light, while the western façade is exposed to the often hotter, more intense afternoon sun. Southern-facing windows don’t receive any direct sunlight at all.
Looking beyond the boundaries of a site, sustainable architecture seeks to make a positive contribution to the integrity of the streetscape. Community and council planning controls may regulate what is and isn’t allowed in terms of design. And assessing surrounding developments (existing and possible future ones) ensures that the house is respectful and sensitive to occupants and neighbours.