Sustainable Design. These two words together, though very cosy these days, make me have a little cringe. I will have a little unprofessional moment here and say that green-washing is a pet hate when used as a selling point for a product that is basically over-priced, looks terrible and has pictures of leaves somewhere. I always feel I’m being tricked for wanting to not run out of clean air and water. Like most people, the biggest ticket item I’ll probably ever spend my money on is our home and these days, a first mortgage has some crippling extra zeros. Building in regional areas, you can easily add to 20% on to the cost of your build. This is where most people shed their good intentions of energy efficiency, low environmental impact materials and importantly, the emotional and social aspects of our housing. I get that – cost is an issue. I still don’t have a rainwater tank or solar panels despite my left-wing bumper stickers.
Paul Hassall and Robyn Gibson get it too, and they understand that using standard size materials, creating a re-useable design that can be flexibly moulded to individual client needs and putting environmental considerations as necessities, not add-ons in the design process, can be done on a low budget and without fuss. Applause! They know all this because they’ve done it for themselves and others and they’ve picked up a swag of awards on the way so I know they’re not tricking me!
LiFEHOUSE Design has been powering along on a philosophy of simplicity, connection to nature and energy efficiency since 1997 in the Victorian Central Highlands town of Castlemaine. They’re now just out of town, in Campbells Creek, living in one of their LiFEHOUSES and working from an office at the front of the block. The demand for their excellent work and more awareness around ‘green’ housing has seen them grow to the point where they’ve had to downsize and refocus their business to create space for the reason they moved from inner city Melbourne in the first place. This is the new definition of success. ‘Busy’ is no longer a valid way to answer “How are you going?”. These guys just get it.
Like all the Design Satellite creatives who have said ‘Yes!’ to a photo shoot and interview, Paul Hassall and Robyn Gibson are warm and generous, whilst being incredibly skilled professionals with an eye for detail and the bigger picture all at once. Robyn does not appear in these photos because she was busy printmaking in a church (you’ll have to wait a few weeks to lay your eyeballs on that awesome shoot!) and in the meantime, have a look at the Lifehouse website to see more of their completed projects.
LiFEHOUSE has sustainable design as a core principle. What have you seen change in the ‘sustainable design’ industry in the last few years?
Client and industry knowledge about sustainability issues generally (when we started in 1997, our work was predominantly about ‘education’; people are much more informed now, which is positive). Greenwash in all its varying shades! The massive proliferation of green products, all vying for attention – while more sustainable products is a positive thing on one hand, we tend to be cynical about the fact that it is just consumerism in another guise. We try to steer our clients in the direction of less ‘stuff’ and ‘green gadgets’ to focusing on the quality and efficiency of the building envelope and the spaces we are creating.
What are the opportunities and challenges of working in a regional town like Castlemaine?
One interesting opportunity is that many of our clients are part of the same community, so we often share common community interests, and often end up forming close friendships with our clients (or we end up designing houses for our already good friends!). Another positive aspect of working in a regional town is that our cost of living is significantly less than living and working in a major city – so we don’t have to work as much, leaving time for other interests and time with friends. The challenges include a reduced ‘pool’ of potential work, with regional populations being smaller generally, and the associated reduced number of builders and tradespeople to select from. There is certainly not the urban/rural split in terms of a sense of isolation and even discrimination that perhaps occurred 15 years ago when we first started working in Castlemaine.
What are you working on at the moment?
After several years of working with a larger team, Paul and I decided to downsize Lifehouse again a couple of years ago in order to get back to our vision of more balanced living, and so now we select projects based on their interest to us in terms of scope, location and sustainable vision. Currently, we have custom-designed houses being built in Kyneton and Barham (NSW), our LiFEHOUSES modular designs being built in Clydesdale (near Castlemaine), Maldon and Sutton Grange, and several projects on the board, including three new houses and a few renovations. We continue to strive to design houses with as small a physical and environmental footprint as possible, endeavouring to create beautiful spaces that are compact, highly efficient and have strong connection to the natural environment outside.