April 6th, 2011

"Sustainable weekender": an oxymoron if ever there was one!

A little white lie has been floating around the Australian architectural scene for over a decade that, protected by the web's anonymity (real name Steven Fleming—just don't tell my mum), I am about to expose. It concerns the rather, um flexible, use of this term "sustainable". The "sustainable" holiday house: now there's a tough concept to sell.  Typically built to indulge bankers, lawyers, doctors and other prime suspects, these weekenders are almost always a 2 to 6 hour drive from any place such a client would ever be likely to live. They cost the globe a whole tank of petrol, every time someone comes to unlock the front door.

Even if houses like these did provide maximum year-round comfort with minimum energy (as if a glass house could ever do that!), they would be about as "sustainable" as a the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. True fact: the pit crew area at The Yas Marina Curcuit is likewise non-airconditioned!

Big name architects have been badging themselves with sustainable honors quicker than Idi Amin can make himself medals, and those of us who know better, are guilty of not pulling them up. We've been sycophants to their fame, and all the benefits flowing from that fame to Australian Architecture generally. But all cartels of cronies eventually topple. So let's tell the truth.

A weekender is a bourgeois extravagance. A few such commissions do provide the kind of free space architects can use to some good, by pioneering low energy principles with some help from generous patrons. But building houses like these, again and again, only brings doomsday forward. Dare I say, flying me to a conference to say something about sustainability, would do less harm to the world, than building these houses. (Not sure what I would say yet. Guess I could think something up on the plane). 

But I have a solution. A remedy, if you will. All these houses just need rings of bollards around them, so that people are forced to hike in. If the rings were extended to the edge of whatever city the owners would have been driving from—and I'm talking really huge fricking rings of bollards now folks—those bankers would have to ride in, on touring bikes. We're looking then at a fairly low energy proposition for escaping the rate race, while in the process pioneering some low energy design tricks, that we might later use on buildings we actually need. Best of all, we would not be stymying a beautiful architectural genre for the sake of our current panic regarding the state of the planet. Few would deny the buildings pictured above are exquisitely built; beautiful even. Having had the opportunity to visit many of Australia's most acclaimed houses, I can tell you, they are made almost as well as my titanium road bike. Any would look better though, with a touring bike leaning against them, than with a 4WD parked out the back.