This year we spent the holidays visiting family and friends in California. At the time, we were looking for a metaphor to explain our sustainability philosophy of abundance through design. As has often been the case, it wasn’t focused brainstorming that helped us identify the example we were looking for but a seemingly random series of events that reminded us of a great example we were already very familiar with.
Two days before returning to Melbourne, we were staying with friends south of LA. We were supposed to spend the night and then get up early to start packing for the return trip to Melbourne but got delayed helping to hang a heavy mirror. As a result, we were still around in the early afternoon when another old friend popped by. He mentioned that his family had just cruised driverless from San Diego in their new Tesla Model X SUV and asked if we wanted to go for a test drive. We looked at each other and couldn’t believe it. We had spent the last three weeks promising ourselves that we would organise a test drive for my parents, who were the ideal early adopters for a high end electric vehicle.
Ten minutes later and we were out front with the suicide doors open. We were able to easily place and buckle Georgie into the car seat in the back. Georgie hates driving in cars and the fact that she fell immediately asleep during the 15-minute test drive, was a big tick for the Tesla. Its doors close themselves, the car breaks automatically and gains additional electric charge in doing so. The windshield runs from front to back providing unparalleled lines of sight. With no engine and few mechanical parts there is heaps of storage in the front and hidden spaces underneath the back. No knobs or buttons, just one large sleek touch screen. The car drives itself, is ridiculously fast and feels rock solid on the road with its low centre of gravity. We got out of the car and were completely gob smacked. It was as if we had stepped into the future for a short while and our present world of driving felt entirely antiquated.
The test drive was especially impactful because we did not know what to expect from an electric vehicle (EV). Recent EVs haven’t always been so appealing. When they first went on the market in the late nineties they were typified by cars like the GM EV1. They were small, actually tiny, and had a driving range of under 150 km. The GM EV1 and others like it were cars of compromise for the already converted. For those deeply committed to doing the right thing by the planet, having a lesser and limited driving experience was a reasonable compromise they were willing to make. Nonetheless, converting friends and family with a car of compromise was not easy and unfortunately the EVs of the late nineties never gained a foot hold in the mainstream car market. It wasn’t long before these cute cars were under attack from the fossil fuels industry and traditional auto manufacturers and sent to an early grave.
We are part of the already converted population who have been serious about sustainability for a long time. The challenge, as many who have joined the movement know, is that living sustainably was like driving a GM EV1. There was the satisfaction of doing your part, but ongoing compromise and guilt everywhere. Shop sustainably, but have fewer food options and less convenient store locations. Turn off the lights, run the heating and AC less, drive less, buy less clothing. And on the occasions when the sustainable choice was not possible or overlooked, guilt. Like the GM EV1, this type of sustainable living wasn’t particularly inspiring and as a result not easy sell to friends and family who are accustomed to the ever-increasing options and convenience of contemporary consumption.
As we learnt more and more about the desperate state of the planet we became further committed to educating people about sustainability. Yet, our frustration grew as the vocabulary and lifestyle of 'less' failed to produce many converts. Everything changed when we came across The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. The Upcycle gave us an inspiring paradigm from which to begin thinking and talking about a different future. It showed us the way to mass scale sustainability.
The authors describe the same uninspiring paradigm above asking us to contemplate “falling in love less waste fully…about having an efficient childhood…or a sustainable marriage.” Having rejected this approach to environmentalism they challenge us to go far beyond a world of “less bad“ to one of “more good.” According to the authors, “Human being do not have a pollution problem; they have a design problem. If humans were to devise products, tools, furniture, homes, factories, and cities more intelligently from the start, they wouldn’t even need to think in terms of waste, or contamination, or scarcity. Good design would allow for abundance, endless, reuse, and pleasure. They go on to introduce products already in existence and those in development that aren’t just less bad but more good. Products not just for the converted but products that can convert.
Back to the Tesla Model X. This is a car without compromise, a car that proves that you can be compatible with the environmental health of the planet and still be the fastest production car on the road, the safest car on the road, the smartest car on the road and the most beautiful car on the road. It has jump started a sustainable transport revolution because the best car is a sustainable car.
The Tesla X typifies “abundance through design” — building products that are unparalleled in the marketplace in every way and that are also environmentally friendly. The result, mass adoption of sustainable transport. This ambitious project to take a green vehicle and make it a no brainer for mass adoption is what we want to do for sustainable housing. The challenge, prove that the best home, in every possible aspect, is a sustainable home. As we work to make this a reality the discourse around sustainable housing will change its focus from efficiency, saving, and reduction to one of abundance, comfort and convenience without cost to the planet.
Let me tell you a little about our first project to explain what I mean. At the Melbourne Vernacular house we were uncompromising in our goal to showcase both the best in local design and sustainable technology. We could have attempted to build a fully passive house with few modern luxuries. We could have focused entirely on performance and not worried about the aesthetics. And we could have measured the project’s success entirely on the home’s efficiency and star rating. And whilst there is nothing wrong with this “less bad” purely environmental approach to architecture, we knew it would have the same impact as a GM EV1. Friends and family may have been impressed by the curious little house but it wouldn’t have convinced them to build something similar.
Instead our choices were uncompromising. When we chose hydronic heating it was because it was the most sustainable option but also the most pleasurable. As a result my discussions with neighbors touch on both the fact that the heating is produced from free renewable solar energy and provides an unparalleled ground level comfort that does not negatively impact on the homes air quality. I tell them that if they want the highest quality heating on the market they can also have the most sustainable. No compromise.
When we chose to install an 8-seater hot tub, air conditioning, induction cooktop, wine fridge, and countless electric gadgets, it was because we wanted to showcase how higher overall electricity usage was compatible with a much smaller electricity bill. The house is fully electric, luxurious in many ways and yet because of solar power, smart automated energy management and great design, it uses a fraction of the grid power consumed by my neighbors and at a significantly lower running cost. During the first year of inhabitance before further optimisation was achieved, the house was already $100 a month cheaper to run and was producing 2500 KW of excess solar power that could be exported for use by our neighbors. This is enough renewable energy to run one of their homes for 4-5 months.
The Melbourne Vernacular house is still far from achieving our goal of a fully sustainable home of abundance. Nonetheless, by committing ourselves to the same uncompromising approach as has been taken with the Tesla electric vehicles, there is a real chance that we can build a mainstream movement towards sustainable housing. Over the coming months we would like to invite you into our home to explore abundance through design. We want to build a community of like-minded individuals and give them the knowledge and language to inspire others. We are also in the planning stages of our next project, so if you own land, have capital, produce green or smart tech for the home, are a like-minded trade or want to contribute in some other way do not hesitate to drop us a line.
Much love, MV