Build an Energy-Efficient House the Murcutt Way

Australian architect Glenn Murcutt shows how to build energy-efficient homes

Pritzker Prize-winning architect Glenn Murcutt used local timber for the Marie Short House
Pritzker Prize-winning architect Glenn Murcutt used local timber for the Marie Short House. Photo by Anthony Browell cropped from The Architecture of Glenn Murcutt and Thinking Drawing / Working Drawing published by TOTO, Japan, 2008

The most energy-efficient houses function like living things. They are designed to capitalize on the local environment and to respond to the climate. Australian architect and Pritzker Prize-Winner Glenn Murcutt is known for designing earth-friendly homes that imitate nature. Even if you live far from Australia, you can apply Glenn Murcutt's ideas to your own home-building project.

1. Use Simple Materials

Forget the polished marble, imported tropical wood, and costly brass and pewter.

A Glenn Murcutt home is unpretentious, comfortable, and economical. He uses inexpensive materials that are readily available in his native Australian landscape. Notice, for example, Murcutt's Marie Short House. The roof is corrugated metal, the window louvers are enameled steel, and the walls are timber from a nearby sawmill.  How does using local materials save energy? Think of the energy used beyond your own home—what fossil fuels were burned to get supplies to your work site? how much air was polluted to create cement or vinyl?

2. Touch the Earth Lightly

Glenn Murcutt is fond of quoting the Aboriginal proverb touch the earth lightly because it expresses his concern for nature. Building in the Murcutt way means taking special measures to safeguard the surrounding landscape.  Nestled in an arid Australian forest, the Ball-Eastaway House in Glenorie, Sydney NSW, Australia hovers above the earth on steel stilts.

The main structure of the building is supported by steel columns and steel I-beams. By raising the house above the earth, with no need for deep excavation, Murcutt protected the dry soil and surrounding trees.  The curved roof prevents dry leaves from settling on top. An exterior fire extinguishing system provides emergency protection from forest blazes that are so prevalent in Australia.

Constructed between 1980 and 1983, the Ball-Eastaway house was built as an artist's retreat. The architect thoughtfully placed the windows and "meditation decks" to create a sense of seclusion while still providing scenic views of the Australian landscape. The occupants become part of the landscape.

3. Follow the Sun

Prized for their energy efficiency, Glenn Murcutt's houses capitalize on natural light. Their shapes are unusually long and low, and they often feature verandas, skylights, adjustable louvers, and movable screens. "Horizontal linearity is an enormous dimension of this country, and I want my buildings to feel part of that," Murcutt has said. Notice the linear form and expansive windows of Murcutt's Magney House. Stretching across a barren, wind-swept site overlooking the ocean, the home is designed to capture the sun.

4. Listen to the Wind

Even in the hot, tropical climate of Australia's Northern Territory, houses by Glenn Murcutt do not need air conditioning. Ingenious systems for ventilation assure that cooling breezes circulate through open rooms. At the same time, these houses are insulated from the heat and protected from strong cyclone winds. Murcutt's Marika-Alderton House is often compared to a plant because the slatted walls open and close like petals and leaves.

"When we get hot, we perspire," says Murcutt. "Buildings should do similar things."

5. Build to the Environment

Every landscape creates different needs. Unless you live in Australia, you are not likely to build a house that duplicates a Glenn Murcutt design. You can, however, adapt his concepts to any climate or topography. The best way to learn about Glenn Murcutt is to read his own words. In the slim paperback Touch This Earth Lightly Murcutt discusses his life and describes how he developed his philosophies. In the words of Murcutt:

"Our building regulations are supposed to prevent the worst; they in fact fail to stop the worst, and at best frustrate the best—they certainly sponsor mediocrity. I’m trying to produce what I call minimal buildings, but buildings that respond to their environment.”

In 2012 Great Britain's Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) rigorously used sustainability principles similar to Murcutt's to develop Olympic Park, now called Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. See how this urban revitalization happened in How to Reclaim the Land - 12 Green Ideas. In light of climate change, why can't our institutions mandate energy efficiency in our buildings?

In Glenn Murcutt's Own Words:

"Life is not about maximizing everything, it's about giving something back - like light, space, form, serenity, joy."—Glenn Murcutt
  • Touch This Earth Lightly: Glenn Murcutt in His Own Words
    Buy on Amazon

Source: "Biography" by Edward Lifson, Director of Communications, The Pritzker Architecture Prize (PDF) [accessed August 27, 2016]

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Craven, Jackie. "Build an Energy-Efficient House the Murcutt Way." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2016, thoughtco.com/build-energy-efficient-house-murcutt-way-177567. Craven, Jackie. (2016, August 27). Build an Energy-Efficient House the Murcutt Way. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/build-energy-efficient-house-murcutt-way-177567 Craven, Jackie. "Build an Energy-Efficient House the Murcutt Way." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/build-energy-efficient-house-murcutt-way-177567 (accessed November 24, 2017).