Recent projects of the Centre have focused on higher densities and urban growth, with design-based research with industry partners on row houses and apartments from three to nine storeys in urban fringe locations. All this has occurred in the land of the detached house, the usual exemplar and our traditional response for subtropical living.
Obsession with orientation?
Discussions about appropriate subtropical design often focus on orientation with an objective to lessen solar heat loads in summer and encourage cross ventilation. North is clearly the preferred orientation for buildings. Architects can be obsessed by this idea and see this as the primary generator of design. At the recent Gold Coast Urban Design Conference I was outed, with others, by Associate Professor Peter Skinner from UQ, as an architect who dared design one of the subtropical row house schemes facing west, as though this was some type of (cardinal) sin. The row houses did face west, but towards the primary street address and a view to a vegetated creek corridor across the street. It did not face north to the side streets, siding onto the primary street.
The design of the dwellings took into account the compromised orientation with balconies, full height adjustable sunscreens and generous eaves overhangs and awnings. The row house was comparatively wide, nine metres, not very deep and had a narrow single storey tail extending along the southern boundary of the site that faced north towards a deep planted rear garden. The site width allowed the deep planting zone and the single storey limited overshadowing of the neighbour to the south.
Perhaps this was not a bad architectural and urban outcome. If these views on orientation are applied to the scale of the city, does that mean well designed urban places only need to comprise collections of well-oriented buildings? Can an over emphasis on ideal orientation for buildings make urbanism, or is there an essential contradiction between orientation and urbanism? In urban places there is the well recognised desire for buildings to front and activate both sides of all streets, to physically define the public realm. Even if streets ran generally east/west or north/south in an interconnected network, not every frontage can have an ideal orientation.
The issue of what is the best orientation for a footpath, a street, a plaza or park is also important and needs to be balanced with the needs of the private realm. It seems simple to me that in order to get the best urban outcome, some buildings may have compromised orientation and this needs to be addressed through the architectural design process. I like orientation as one of the important ideas to inform subtropical design, but I am not obsessed by it. Responses to topography, locations of riparian corridors and taking advantage of significant views, say to the ocean can also shape good urban places. I am more interested in appropriate design for urban environments and places, not just individual buildings.