Passive House The Fern living room concrete off form walls

A valuable vision

Oliver Steele, HIA's 2019 Australian GreenSmart Professional, is determined to push beyond the conventional limits of residential building to produce homes that are equally beautiful, welcoming and sustainable.


Laura Valic

Oliver Steele
Passionate about sustainable building, architect and builder Oliver Steele is the 2019 HIA Australian GreenSmart Professional.
Image: supplied

Away from the hustle and bustle that is inner Sydney there’s a place you can go to evade the people, noise and smog of a city that doesn’t sleep; a sanctuary of quiet comfort to unwind and breathe easier. 

Nestled along a leafy tree-lined street in Alexandria – a suburb evolving with rapid gentrification in line with its desirable city fringe location – resides The Fern. This infill medium-density development is the brainchild of Oliver Steele of Steele Associates and boasts many impressive ecologically-friendly qualities, not the least is a 15-metre high indoor green wall that greets you upon entry. 

‘When you walk into the building you come out of the buzz of the city and this rainforest valley gives you the sense of arriving in an oasis,’ he says. 

Urban escapism underpinned by elegant, healthy and energy-efficient living was the vision of a project that was years in the making. A qualified architect and builder, Oliver is passionate about delivering exceptional sustainability outcomes in residential housing within the framework of a conventional business model. His unwillingness to compromise on quality, or rest on his laurels, led him to successfully produce one of the first known certified Passive House apartments in the Southern Hemisphere.

‘I’m very meticulous,’ Oliver says. ‘I like to control everything down to the last architectural detail and make every project a benchmark for sustainability.’

This ecological awareness pre-dated his building career, which unexpectedly began on the day following his end of high school exams. A phone call from a friend about a labouring job turned out to be much more than a day’s work. The challenge and unfolding potential of residential building ignited a spark, presenting an opportunity to combine his creativity, inventive spirit and drive. 

‘Even back at school I was concerned about the environment and the impact of human civilization [on earth],’ he says. ‘I always felt an obligation to do something worthwhile and chose environmental sustainability as the path I wanted to follow. When I fell into building by accident I realised there is a lot of opportunity in design to pursue sustainable goals in the built environment.’

His inspiration, he says, comes from an inherent ‘love of making things’ and an urgent desire to improve the way the building industry interacts with the environment. By delivering profitable and beautiful projects hand-in-hand with sustainable practices, he hopes this will encourage others to adopt sustainability as a business solution rather than an irritating compliance issue. 

And off the back of his pioneering Passive House development, it was this commitment to green building that saw Oliver named the 2019 HIA Australian GreenSmart Professional. Judges were impressed by his ‘innovation and dedication to achieving the best building practice and systems to deliver a smart and sustainable housing option’. 

On achieving the accolade, Oliver says: ‘It felt like recognition of the incredible amount of work my team and I have put into interrogating every detail of The Fern in the last few years to really make it a [standard for sustainability].’ 

Passive House The Fern corrugated exterior
The Fern is certified to Passive House and won the 2019 HIA Australian GreenSmart Multi Dwelling award. 
Photo: Steele Associates Architects
Passive House The Fern green wall
A 15-metre high indoor green wall is like an 'oasis' in the middle of the city, serving to filter air and improve the well-being of occupants.
Photo: Steele Associates Architects

The Fern

The project all began about four years ago when Oliver took greater notice of what Passive House (or Passivhaus) was about while reading a HOUSING article featuring another HIA member who had used this rigorous building methodology. Upon further research he was impressed to discover it could overcome the frustrating shortfalls of passive solar design on infill city developments. 

‘Passive House gives you a much more controlled interior environment,’ he says. ‘It will use passive solar principles of good orientation when available, but when it isn’t, then it has powerful tools to overcome those challenges.’

Oliver was trained in passive solar design – what he considers to be ‘traditional green building’ – which relies on good orientation, shading, good thermal mass and insulation. All excellent principles, he says, and when applied to the context of greenfield developments the method is easy to execute. 

‘But on an infill city site you don’t choose your orientation. Passive solar also relies on opening doors and windows for ventilation. When you’re in the middle of the city you have noise, dust and pollution so it’s not ideal.’

Passive House The Fern living room concrete off form walls
‘Passive House gives you a much more controlled interior environment.' 
Photo: Steele Associates Architects
The Fern Steele Associates passive house GreenSmart
Oliver hopes the success of The Fern will encourage other builders to adopt sustainability as a business solution rather than an irritating compliance issue. 
Photo: Steele Associates Architects
The Fern Steele Associates passive house GreenSmart

Passive House is a scientific approach that reduces energy consumption and improves the quality of internal environments

Consequently, when a promising development site became available, Oliver saw an opportunity to bring the ‘joy of architectural consideration’ to an apartment context with Passive House. Steele Associates, which began in 2002 and offers the full spectrum of building services – development, design and construction – was behind every aspect of The Fern, from concept to completion. ‘There were countless hours of research and consultation with our Passive House consultants, going back to first principles about every single design decision,’ he explains. ‘Often we designed what we thought would be the best outcome from scratch.’ 

Building to Passive House is a scientific approach that relies on five fundamentals to reduce energy consumption and improve the quality of internal environments, including good insulation, high-performance glazing, airtightness, mechanical heat recovery ventilation and eliminating thermal bridges. For the 11 industrial-chic styled one-bedroom apartments, Oliver carefully chose building materials that would provide optimum results as well as up-market enjoyment for its future occupants. 

Externally, the building stands out with its white, corrugated facade (a type of magnesium oxide cladding board) in keeping with the suburb’s industrialised heritage, punctuated by triple-glazed, aluminium-clad timber-framed windows and doors. Their European-style ‘tilt-and-turn’ and ‘lift-and-slide’ functionality provides excellent air sealing and noise barriers, but can be thrown open wide for the indoor-outdoor vibe. Most importantly, three panes of glass separated with sealed, argon-filled gaps, keep the interiors warm in winter, and the double low-emissivity coating keeps the summer heat out.

But given Passive House creates a well-sealed interior through an airtight building envelope (‘so well-sealed it’d be unlivable without good ventilation,’ Oliver says), heat recovery ventilation is a necessary inclusion in the building’s make-up. It works via a heat exchanger to provide fresh, filtered air from outside at a comfortable temperature and at a fraction of the energy consumed by airconditioning. 

The building also contains roughly double the amount of insulation typically included in medium-density developments, installed as a continuous barrier rather than between structural elements, helping to eliminate thermal bridges. Much of this is located externally inside custom-made structurally insulated panels (SIPs), which Oliver says also eliminate thermal bridges.

Internally, FSC-certified herringbone French Oak parquet floors and Carrara marble in the kitchens and bathrooms offer a high-quality touch throughout. The kitchens also feature walnut fronted cabinets and integrated appliances for an up-scale and seamless look, while exposed concrete walls provide not only a distinctive feature, but structural strength and thermal mass: ‘I always use maximum recycled content of concrete to reduce carbon emissions. Concrete was the obvious choice of material for a multi-storey dwelling and gave us the lovely walls [internally].’ 

Passive House The Fern bathroom
Carrara marble is featured in the bathrooms as well as the kitchens.
Photo: Steele Associates Architects
Passive House The Fern litchen walnut cabinetry Carrara marble benchtop
Carrara marble, integrated appliances and walnut fronted cabinetry give the apartments an upscale touch. 
Photo: Steele Associates Architects

At times, Oliver and his team had to invent solutions to obstacles they faced; one example was the creation of structural thermal breaks.

‘Every time concrete leaves the interior of the building and passes through to the exterior, like through a balcony slab, you have to isolate the interior concrete [because they become conduits for heat flow],’ he explains. ‘The commercially available structural thermal breaks are designed for Northern Hemisphere winters, are expensive and an overkill for Sydney. So we used Ancon acoustic dowels and put 30mm XPS foam inside the dowel to break these thermal bridges in all walls and floors. The Ancon stainless steel pin dowels are designed for movement and acoustic isolation but we repurposed them for thermal isolation.’ 

With any landmark sustainable building renewable energy will always be an integral component. The Fern is no different, containing a 21kW rooftop solar power system with individual apartment metering, situated upon ‘a specially-designed framing system to maximise the number of panels that could fit’.

Unsurprisingly then, with its stand-out function and form, The Fern took out the 2019 HIA Australian GreenSmart Multi Dwelling Development award. It is currently being used as executive serviced apartments so people can get a taste of the exemplary sustainable living it has to offer.

‘I wanted to give people a space that’s well considered and thought-out so that it serves their needs for many years to come,’ Oliver reveals. ‘Combine that with cutting-edge sustainability, higher levels of thermal comfort, and a clean, fresh quiet interior, and you really have a cocoon for living in the middle of the city.’

Passive House The Fern exterior solar panels
21kW solar PV system, with individual apartment metering, sits on a custom-designed framing system to maximise the number of panels that could fit on the rooftop.
Photo: Steele Associates Architects
The Fern Steele Associates passive house GreenSmart
‘I wanted to give people a space that’s well considered so that it serves their needs for many years to come.’
Photo: Steele Associates Architects

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