Marcus Roberts discovered his fascination for sustainable design in the 1990’s when he was a lecturer in Design at Deakin University. Since then, he has been dedicated to providing the best thermally-efficient housing designs for his clients at Marcus Roberts Architect. “During that time, I developed a keen interest in design and how sustainability can be incorporated into good design outcomes, and that started with the process of teaching students in the design studio,” he says. “In the early 2000’s, I started my own practice, working mostly in inner city Melbourne at that stage. Small practices tend to do a lot of renovation work and extensions to existing houses, and it was the terrace houses that I was working on.
Inherently, those projects come with restrictions in terms of getting good sustainable outcomes. So, I was always interested in how we could reorganise a traditional terrace house into a space that was more efficient to heat and to get some light into but, just as importantly, as a more modern living environment as well. Then, around about 2004, I moved just outside of Lancefield in Central Victoria to Benloch with my partner. We built a house and a studio to work from at that time. It was a purpose-built studio and dwelling, and I got to put a lot of the ideas that were being developed at that stage of my career, into a building that I was putting together from scratch. So, that was one of the first new buildings that I did.”
Through his experience in design, Roberts has created his own strategy that utilises the maximum efficiency of each site and structure. Most projects are designed with a north-facing orientation (or innovative solutions to allow north light into less ideal orientated sites), double window glazing, and high levels of insulation; this provides the ideal means to control both the summer and winter sun for optimal heating outcomes. Since the move to Benloch, Roberts has found more of his projects in the surrounding area; but, he continues to cater to other loyal clients throughout Melbourne, Yarra Valley, Lilydale, Port Fairy and Ballarat. His adaptation to his new home front is also highly respected by resident clients. “We’re finding that a lot of our clients are really interested in the fact that we have a good understanding of the local climate,” he says. “People around here understand how challenging the weather can be at times.”
While they do provide standard core architectural services, Marcus Roberts Architect is also avid to cater to client-specific needs, even those needing to adhere to a strict budget or guideline. We’re also currently working in a sustainable development in Lancefield. Initially, we worked with the developer there on a design aesthetic for the development, so he would have control over how the houses on the lots would be designed.”
The Lancefield development includes six house sites, as well as a community glasshouse to deal with a challenging climate and utilise any incoming sunlight for planting all year round. Among these houses are the Dava House – first on the lot, and a prime example of the forthcoming site aesthetic – and the Dunsford Street Relocated House. “[The Dava House] is interesting because it was also on a very tight budget, and we managed to get a very spatially-efficient two-bedroom, two-bathroom home into 119 square metres, which is quite small for houses today,” says Roberts. “It’s sort of more like a larger apartment size than a house size, yet it does feel very spacious when you’re inside. It’s orientated around a courtyard, and the idea was that we didn’t have enough space to play around with inside the house, however, if we built it in a form that allowed you to look from one side of the house across the courtyard to the other side of the house, the space would seem much greater. In this one we put a lot of the money into the glazing for the big north courtyard area, and then the rest of the windows are quite small; they’re just there to let light in. There’s essentially no windows on the south side, the west, or the east, because we’re not going to get any advantage on that – though there’s a little bit more on the west than the east.”
The Dunsford Street Relocated House was a pre-existing cottage that was inconveniently situated on the site; however, instead of removing it completely, Roberts and his colleagues made the decision to move and incorporate it into the design plan. A new butterfly-style roof allowed solar panels to be added to the existing structure, which was also oriented northward with a 30-degree soffitt. “The dwelling was a typical house with a gable roof that has a veranda at the front,” he says. “Although that gives you a certain degree of solar control for north windows, it doesn’t work really well, because it doesn’t let enough light or winter sun in. In order to have the veranda wide enough to be efficient as a veranda, it needs to be designed up not down to let in the winter sun. So, it was still a cold house, as they usually are unless one puts in a lot of energy in the form of heating.
The other idea there to was to say, ‘What can we do with a traditional cottage? How can we transform it? How far can we push the envelope on this one?’ So, that’s what we’ve done there. It’s a completely different house. We worked with the existing room layout so, surprisingly, the original house is all still there. It’s just had the cladding taken off so we could put in new insulation in the walls. The original house didn’t have any wall insulation, floor insulation, or ceiling insulation, so we needed to redo all of that anyhow. The new windows that are being put in are all double glazed as well. The nice thing about this project that I like is that we are recycling a house and I think, from a point of view of embodied energy, it’s a good thing to do. You don’t just send off a building with all that embodied energy to the scrap heap. You’d like to reuse it into a new building.”
The concept of recycled housing is newer to Marcus Roberts Architect; however, it is something that they are excited to hone through their current work on renovations and extensions, as the goal is very similar. “In each case, what we’re looking at doing is getting sunlight in, maximising the thermal efficiency by upping the insulation levels and, quite often, that means taking out the existing windows and putting in double glazing. We’ve recently completed a project in Mt Macedon which was a house that, because of planning restrictions, we couldn’t really do any extensions; we were though able to refurbish the existing. So, we took out all of the old windows, which were single-glazed colonial-style windows, and we put in thermally-efficient aluminium frame windows. The clients were actually living in the house during the renovation, and as the double glazing went in, they said there was a noticeable difference in how much warmer the house was.”
Other innovative works-in-progress for Roberts are three off-grid houses on remote sites. Not only will the main principles be integrated into the projects, but experimentation with new solar roofing and water catchment will be a focus as well. He finds that working with like-minded clients helps the design process, and builds trust that the project will be completed in their best interests. “We tend to attract clients that are wanting to work in that way and, if I do get inquiries from people that are not really after a thermally-efficient home, then we tend not to take on the project,” he says. “So, we’re a little bit selective in the clients that we agree to work for and, by doing that, it allows us to push the boundaries on each project a little bit. It gives us the opportunity to explore some design techniques that maybe we haven’t looked at before, and most of our clients are happy to indulge us on that, because they know that the result is a good outcome at the end. No matter what the budget is, we try to get the best possible result for our clients.
We have a number of sub-consultants that work with us. We have an engineer that we work with closely; he allows us to explore some of the non-traditional structural ideas for homes – like the butterfly roof and the 30 degree soffits – and we look at efficient structural ways to put those forms together. That’s really essential for us to do our work, to have that good working relationship with our engineer. The company that we get our lighting from is highly efficient; they help us out in terms of doing lighting calculations for minimising the amount of wattage that we need to put into spaces to illuminate them which in turn reduces the energy consumption. So, it’s very important to have that relationship, but it’s also important to have that trust with the client that everything you’re doing is to get the best possible outcome for their project.”
Over the years, the state of the economy has often been the deciding factor in regards to the amount of projects the company receives; however, the decreased pace of project planning approvals is the main issue that Roberts feels is affecting the future of the industry. “More recently, the planning process to get residential projects approved either in the regional areas or Melbourne is taking longer. Trying to get simple projects – from an urban planning point of view – through the planning process is really bogging down, and it’s getting quite difficult to get planners to make decisions. Sometimes, I’m feeling a little bit like the planners aren’t aware that their slowness in making decisions has big cost and time implications for projects. The whole construction industry gets slowed down because they’re not making decisions in a timely manner, so that’s a negative. A positive is that people are much more aware of the advantages of putting the effort into a good passive solar home design in terms of sustainability and their reduced costs over time; people are educated in terms of what’s available.”
The evolution of Marcus Roberts Architect towards more complex projects has really helped them grow as a company, which is highly recognised by not only Roberts, but his clients as well. Ultimately, the hope is to continue this growth for the future, increasing innovation through sustainable architecture. “Some of the early projects that we did looked at some fairly simple, achievable and standard passive design principles, and the further we go, the more we’re wanting to integrate that into the design aesthetic,” he says. “We think that projects should not just be energy efficient, but they could also be really delightful to look at and live in; it’s the integration of that principle that we like. We’ve done enough projects now that, years after we’ve finished a project, we’ll get invitations from clients to come around to have dinner just to keep in touch and say, ‘Thank you for this wonderful living environment you’ve created for us.’ We’ve got a couple of dinners in the next few months that we’ll be going to with clients of recently finished projects. That’s a really nice thing; it makes the efforts and the occasional heartache worth it, an acknowledgement that you have achieved something really good.”