At home: Reaching new heights

By Rosie Walford

Enviromental expert Jerome Partington gives a basic 80s bach an elegant new lease of life whilst keeping the good of the planet utmost in his mind.

Jerome Partington lazes on his deck made of durable, NZ-grown totara. Photo / Babiche Martens
Jerome Partington lazes on his deck made of durable, NZ-grown totara. Photo / Babiche Martens

When a successful architect buys a Waiheke section with a squat fibrelite bach on it, one might expect him to clear the site and design a glassy, flamboyant showcase of a home. Not Jerome Partington. This 46-year-old Briton, sustainability manager at New Zealand's largest architecture firm Jasmax, has expressed his design skills and values in a very different form.

Rather than flattening the 80s bach, Partington raised the whole thing three metres into the sky and converted the existing rooms into one lofty living space with sea views. He then tucked a new storey of bedrooms, bathroom and entrance hall underneath.

"I climbed on the roof of this low-lying bungalow and spotted its amazing potential for views. To lift and retrofit the old bach meant I could use the existing resources and infrastructure, which fits nicely with my philosophy: do more with less.

"And, by expanding only vertically, I realised I could keep the footprint of the house small. I don't like to concrete over good permeable land - it channels rainwater from the aquifers, and creates stormwater problems." And thus the rudimentary plans for the Green House - which is bright red - were born.

The story of the Green House starts in England, during a physics lesson on windmills. Schoolboy Partington was fascinated by the idea of untapped natural resources, and was soon to be found building a primitive solar system in class. "Learning," he adds ruefully "that it's much easier to save than to generate energy." Partington, now 46, has specialised in conservation and sustainable architecture ever since.

The Green House is bright inside, yet on the hottest day there's no glare. "I used my 20 years' architectural experience to make this a genuinely comfortable home," says Partington, "which means I responded to its position and the extremes of the New Zealand climate.

"While I chose oversize floor-to-ceiling doors on to the deck for aesthetic reasons, I kept the total glazing below 35 per cent. Overglazing lets in too much heat, too much cold, and too much UV."

Partington rails against the fashion for office towers with walls of pure glass. Designed to deliver a financial return for developers, he says many such buildings are based on assumptions that are now tragically outdated. They need copious energy to heat and cool, which is a total liability for users and ultimately society - especially in a world of rising energy prices and climate change.

If we care about future generations, then building habits really matter: apparently the construction sector is known as "the 40 per cent industry". The construction and operation of buildings and infrastructure uses around 40 per cent of all global resources. To Partington, this makes it a significant and practical arena in which to work for positive change, right now.

Working through the country's biggest architectural practice, Partington says he encounters some "crazy, shortsighted norms".

"How is it that I can install insulation for a new hospital which uses an ozone-depleting blowing agent, while at the same time New Zealand has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world? Why do home-owners only focus on the lowest building price, without giving a second thought to future running costs and maintenance? Why do we let buildings suck up resources, undermine environmental systems and release toxic chemicals?"

Using a Swedish sustainability planning process called "the natural step", Partington has been busy educating and advocating. He's been asking first his Jasmax directors, then the wider New Zealand construction industry and their clients, to design more intelligently for the long term, encouraging them to problem-solve together with a clear, common understanding of what it will mean for each new building project to be sustainable.

Avondale College, for example, invited Jasmax to design the rebuild of this large school. There was no special budget for sustainable building, but once Partington had got involved, the client understood the risk of escalating energy costs linked to environmental impacts, and saw that the project could contribute more to students and society than a conventional design.

As with the Green House, Avondale's ambitious whole-life cost targets became fertile ground for innovation, especially in the design of the building envelope. Together, architects and engineers specified a new wall system that produces less waste, is super insulated, has 100-year durability and uses mass as a thermal store. Performance glazing to the cold south and sunny north are making classrooms comfortable over a wide range of temperatures, using less energy. The school uses a smaller boiler and electrical transformer than initially proposed.

Jasmax has won three business awards for its strategic approach to sustainable building. Though it's a challenge for Partington to get sustainability centre-stage in a practice that's famous for other reasons, there are now barely two decades to effect real change before the results of our short-term practices overwhelm our economic and environmental systems. It's increasingly clear that every client will need to shift the way they do business. Jasmax, by setting the direction early, is positioned to gain market share.

In future, says Partington, buildings will earn the right to occupy the land they stand on. Beyond eco-efficiency or even sustainability, they'll actually be restorative - producing more energy than they need, collecting all their own water, delivering fresh air instead of pollution, trees and food instead of barren surfaces - and will be beautiful to meet our sensory needs.

Certainly, concerns for the wider world don't involve sacrifices in style or comfort at the Green House. While sparing with glass on the exterior, Partington has used it cleverly around the suspended stairwell: as you leave the ground floors you see exciting peeks of sky and bush through upstairs windows . Light flows into the hallway and through characterful turn-of-the-century (he would call them "recycled") stained glass doors. Because of the small footprint, storage issues are pre-empted with bookshelves and cupboards neatly set into dividing walls.

Partington is sociable, and his giant living deck is a well-used party space. Made of durable, NZ-grown totara, it is bordered along its entire length by a waist-high garden bed bulging with vegetables, herbs and even citrus trees. "I'd lived in an upstairs apartment before with a deck and no garden. So while our living space is up here with the views, I still wanted access to herbs, lettuce and lemons. I factored the weight of the garden box into the engineer's brief from the start, just like the UV shadecloth structure, which lets us eat outdoors summer-long."

For winter, cosiness and economy go hand-in-hand. Partington combined super-insulation with a wood-burning stove and wetback that heats radiators. One log keeps the living space toasty on the coldest nights. The solar water heating system has put three megawatts into the the tank in the last six months. At current energy prices, that's about $750-worth, so the system will pay itself back in five years. In the end, integrated system thinking, and whole-life costing make it easier for us to house our families affordably and well.

The Green House makes no loud statement from the outside but expresses its owner's values and awareness quietly, throughout. Partington is influencing NZ's architects and builders to think long-term at work, but it's at home that he practiced this thinking. One might imagine that he'd be staying many years in this snug, sleek Waiheke home to reap the benefits but he plans to soon sell the Green House and design another visionary home.

Considerations for your own sustainable home

* Simple building form with less glass and appropriate sun shades.

* Go for high levels of greenstuff insulation in the building skin.

* Use some concrete mass internally and tap into the sun for space heating and hot water.

* Always choose energy efficient lighting and white goods.

* Use water efficient toilets, showers and taps.

* Enjoy a climate friendly wood burner for heating.

* Use well managed NZ-grown and eucalypts for timber.

* Integrate vege boxes and compost with easy access.

* Get a decent size rainwater tank.

* Use recycled materials with care.

* The Green House is due to be the first house assessed under the New Zealand Green Building Council home rating tool, Home Star. See nzgbc.org.nz.

- NZ Herald

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