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Building a more comfortable home

April 23, 2018
Building a more comfortable home

Bricks. Bricks and Mortar. Even the word sounds solid, reliable, with lasting value. For a very long time Australians have chosen to build their homes in bricks, and these brick buildings have lasted. Our cities and towns are full of homes that are fifty, one hundred years, and older. Beautiful Victorian, Federation, Post-war, and Mid-Century homes all built from brick.

These buildings have lasted so well because of the very nature of clay bricks – they have incredible longevity – it’s not unreasonable to expect them to last a century and beyond.


In addition to their longevity, brick are durable, and require very little maintenance (always good news); are a non-combustible material, so can be used in bushfire prone areas; are an effective sound insulator (ideal in built up urban environments) and tick the box for sustainability – bricks have both a low embodied energy and are re-usable.

But the key thing our homes are for, regardless of style, is to shelter and protect us from the elements. Keeping us warm in winter and cool in summer. That’s where the brick homes of today are so different to some of those period homes.

In a country like Australia where there is often a wide range of temperatures between day and night, having a home that has been thoughtfully designed to provide thermal regulation without the cost of additional heating & cooling is very appealing.

How to build a more comfortable home

It sounds like the perfect home doesn’t it? Comfortable all year round – not too hot, not too cold, but just right. But how do you achieve it?

There’s a few elements involved in getting a great result, but none of them are overly hard – all it takes is some planning.

  • First of all you need to look at the positioning & orientation of both your block of land and your home on it.
  • Then there is understanding the climate conditions that you live in, and how these should inform the design of your home.
  • Then you need to understand a bit about how we as humans feel & perceive temperatures and therefore what we consider comfortable.
  • Then from here, it’s time to think about how to use different design elements in the home to help manage temperature regulation, and material selection will play a big part in achieving this.

How humans feel & perceive temperature

We humans are robust, and resilient, but for the majority of us there is actually a very narrow range of conditions that we actually feel comfortable in – and how we perceive this is both physical and psychological. Temperature, humidity, air movement, and exposure to either radiant heat or cool surfaces depending on whether we are feeling hot or cold are the key elements.

The challenge is achieving this without just turning up the heating or the air conditioner. Particularly when every one degree you turn the heating up by or the air conditioner down, it adds a crazy 10% extra to your bill.

It has to be in the design and construction of your home.

What you are aiming to achieve is a home that:

  • Has a much narrower range of temperature variation than outside,
  • Allows for breezes & air movement in summer to help with the perception of feeling cooler,
  • But in winter, keeps the draughts out,
  • And then incorporated surfaces that radiate heat or cool – this is generally achieved via thermal mass.

How can House Design & Material Choice help?

Let’s go back to those period homes – I have really clear memories of living in a gorgeous little terrace house in Carlton, and as much as I loved it, and it was built to last, between April and October the house transformed into a virtual fridge – that house was so cold!

So how can houses actually moderate the temperature changes of the seasons and really protect and shelter us from the elements?

With good design it’s easy. So let’s assume you’ve ticked the boxes of block orientation, done your climatic zone research, and have started the think about what comfort feels like to you.

Then it’s time to bring in good design. There are eight distinct different climate zones in Australia all requiring different design responses, but if like me you live in Melbourne, sometimes it feels like we’ve got all eight covered, and often in a single day!

Here are some examples of good design that will make a real difference to the way your home feels in winter and summer, and how much heating and cooling will be required.

Of course – good design for your area might look very different – but these are examples of how thoughtful choice of materials and good design can create homes that are both visually appealing and comfortable to live in.

Let the winter sun in

As we are heading into another winter, let’s look at options for passive solar heating first. The good news is, that this is low cost and easy to achieve. Key elements are adding glass to your northern facades, and then making sure that materials with high thermal mass, like bricks, are used. Bricks absorb the heat from the sun during the day, and then slowly release it overnight. Choosing a material like bricks is a great way to bring thermal mass into your home while also adding style and texture.


This project designed by MRTN Architects

In the photo above, the north facing window let’s lots of beautiful winter sun light into a hallway. Bricks have been used on the floor and walls creating a really interesting visual rhythm to lead you up the stairs and break up the space, but more importantly the bricks will act as thermal mass, absorbing heat through out the day and then releasing it into the evening as the temperature drops.

In the summer when the sun is higher in the sky the floors and walls would be shaded from the sun and the bricks will help to keep the home cooler, as without direct sunlight they will take a lot longer to heat up than other building materials.

In this example, an appropriate material choice, brick, has been combined with good design – northerly facing windows to create a suntrap during the winter months. The other upside is, aesthetically it looks great and it would be a really lovely spot to sit – I’m imagining cups of tea.

Let the breeze in but keep the draughts out

Seriously, humans are quite fussy – what we call a draught in winter and worries and bugs us, is barely a breeze in Summer.

For this reason, a big part of naturally heating & cooling your home is getting the right balance of windows, doors and thermal mass.


This project by Klopper & Davis

In the photo above, the architect has used a double brick wall as thermal mass, an appropriately sized window, and then curtaining to create layers of thermal regulation in the bedroom to make sure that its comfortable sleeping conditions year round.


This project by Architects EAT

In this photo, curtains have been used to insulate large areas of glazing on both sides of the room, and would be key in making this room feel comfortable in the winter months.

Shade seeker

Understanding the varying angles of sun through the year is key to creating shade where you need it, in the right season.

In general terms, the sun is higher in the sky in the summer months & much lower in winter. But there’s further differences depending on the latitude of where you live.

Getting your shading right – through eave design, alcoves, and external devices like deciduous trees, vines, blinds, and awnings will make a really big difference to how much the sun can warm your home in winter, as well as staying cooler in summer.

In the two photos below the building’s structure creates its own shading while still allowing the winter sun in the hit the brick walls and passively heat the home.


This project by Matt Gibson Architecture


This project by Klopper & Davis

Plus – did you notice that brick feature wall? It’s called hit & miss. Using bricks in this way allows you to bring thermal mass into a space while creating an interesting textural and visual wall.

Other added benefits of hit & miss brick walls – depending on where in the home they are positioned - they can let filtered light through, allow for ventilation and even allow for a visual connection between spaces.

Ready to start re-thinking your house plans

If you are in the planning stages of a renovation or building project, make sure that you are talking to your design professionals about how you can use good design principles and materials that are durable, sustainable, like brick, to create a home that will be a pleasure to live in year round – cooler in the summer months and warmer in the winter months.

Building in materials like brick, means that the homes we build today will last a lifetime, and become the period homes of tomorrow. By including appropriate passive design features, it’s good to know it won’t be like living in a fridge (or oven!).

If you are planning a renovation or building project we found this website particularly helpful when writing this article.