The International VELUX Award is a competition for students of architecture that runs every second year. We challenge students from all over the world to work with daylight as an ever relevant source of light, life and joy. The award is one of the most important global student competitions of its kind.

Submission is now closed. The jury will review the projects in July and the regional winners will be announced in August.

Educated by Nature

At first glance, the houses that Peter Stutchbury has designed throughout the 35 years of his career remind us of the modernist villas to be found elsewhere in the warm temperate climates of the world, such as in California or along the Mediterranean Coast. With their immaculate detailing and stripped-back construction, they may well seem like typical lifestyle choices of affluent, post-materialist, cultural elites. Yet Stutchbury’s architecture is, to a large extent, informed by real scarcity. “Survival was part of our vocabulary,” recalls Peter Stutchbury of his childhood, which he spent on a sheep farm in the barren outback of Australia.

Contour House (2006–2011) is located on a hillside in the mountains of Berry, south of Sydney. A massive, tubular access corridor shields the building from hot winds and bushfires from the west. All the elevated, partly-glazed living spaces open towards the valley in the east.

This upbringing led him to design buildings that achieve maximum comfort with minimal means. In the climate of New South Wales, which has mild winters but hot summers, Peter Stutchbury generally seeks to avoid air-conditioning in his houses. In most cases, he succeeds in doing so by cleverly using the forces of nature. According to the Norwegian architecture critic, Ingerid Helsing Almaas, his buildings appeal to much more than just the sense of seeing, and can hardly be captured in images: “You cannot photograph moving air. You cannot photograph the effect of a 20 degree drop in temperature in the scorching heat of the outback; the image will not show the relief of shade in an Australian mid-summer day, the coolness of concrete or the hot breath lifting the air beneath a sheet of corrugated steel.”


Mr Stutchbury, what – or who - has shaped your approach towards resource saving and climate-responsive architecture? When did you first feel the need to consider these topics?

I suppose these ways of thinking have to do with our own origins. My father, for example, was brought up in the Depression. He used to recycle everything - the plastic around the newspapers, the newspapers themselves, the rubber bands, the jars that the vegemite came in, everything in his garage was recycled. He wasted nothing. Furthermore, as an engineer, he built things to last, and he constantly reminded us of how much time and energy was involved in maintenance. I have never met anyone with the pursuance of quality that he demanded. Everything had to be perfect and when I asked him why, he’d say, “If it’s perfect, you respect it and only do it once”.

“Touch the Earth lightly” – this old aboriginal proverb is exemplified in the design of Paddock House in Tarago (2006), not far from Canberra in the hinterland of New South Wales.

On my mother’s side, we were farmers, but of a particular kind. Our farm was a big property of more than 40,000 hectares in the semi-arid desert. Here water is a precious resource. As a child, I clearly remember only being allowed to have a bath once every two to five days depending on whether it had rained or not. The bath was shared with my siblings and you rotated who was first because for the last person the water was very dirty, and only about two inches deep. So water as a resource is something we learnt from day one.

Then, when you farm the desert, you can’t farm insensitively, otherwise you destroy the land that’s producing the food you sell. So if you cut trees down, for instance, the land becomes parched and erodes, and it’s no longer sustainable. If you take a natural windbreak down, the land, which consists of fine sand, blows away. If you put a fence line in and you don’t carefully select where it goes, you might end up having kilometres of fence in rock. So when you’re brought up in the desert, you have to think carefully about everything you do. You can’t just manage a day-to-day activity by habit, you’ve got to perceive the day as a moment by moment consideration.

With my children, I see that their attitude to sustainability comes through our personal environment; they’ve never had to live it day by day. Anyone younger than 30 years old has never truly experienced lifestyle hardship. I recall visiting the supermarket with my mother and going through the price of every item we were buying in order to get the most economical. We grew tomatoes in the backyard because we couldn’t afford to buy them. We were brought up with an understanding of economics as part of our vocabulary.

So would you say that in order to understand and value sustainability, one has to live it, or even be forced to live sustainably?

In order for you to truly appreciate the values of sustainability, you need to understand its complexities - and I’m not sure you can understand patterns unless you’ve experienced their logic. You need to be on the farm in 45 degree temperatures with no water. You need to see dead animals on the ground. You need to see the erosion gullies created by bad water management. You need to see paddocks of trees and vegetation die. We have just come out of a winter, and do you know what we had last weekend? Bush fires. On the edge of winter! This country is so unpredictable.

Terrace of Paddock House in Tarago. Massive walls act as a thermal buffer. The lightweight roof construction protects the building from the sun’s heat; the water pool provides cooling and reflects low sunlight into the house.

The reason why there are only 20 million people in Australia and not 300 million as in the U.S., which has a similar landmass is that we just can’t sustain more people. We are the driest continent in the world, and anyone who steps out of their door in this country and looks around, should reach this inevitable conclusion. We get announcements on the TV and radio: “There’s a water restriction. You can’t water the garden or wash your car for the next three months.” When you are brought up like that, you tend to respect resources.

How would you describe the relation of your buildings to the sun, having experienced this as something very strong and very dominant in your country?

I think Australia has the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world. Unlike your country, quite simply, we need shade to protect us from the sun. Nonetheless, we do enjoy the sun outside our harsh months, when it is safe and manageable to be exposed to it. We don’t get snow in Sydney, we don’t have to wear warm overcoats or anything similar. There are no air locks on our buildings and we don’t even require double glazing.

The light management in our buildings is quite different from natural light management in Northern Europe. We manage the sun by creating refuge from it. This can be through screening or through vegetation or through solid mass. Daylight in Australia is rather similar to the Scandinavian light. It has a bluer hue, particularly on the coast, because we get so much light off the ocean, which is usually reflected by clouds back onto the land. As you move into the centre of Australia, the light becomes more orange-red - it is being affected by the desert dust.


How we manage the sun in our buildings will also determine the degree of comfort we achieve inside them. How have people’s demands in terms of indoor comfort changed over the last few decades?

When I was a boy, we had no air conditioning, and we just had a single bar heater in the home. I can remember some hot nights, when I slept with a sheet or less and had to open all the windows in the room to get cross-ventilation. Nonetheless, I can’t ever remember being acutely uncomfortable.

What happened with the advent of air conditioning is that people got lazy. People stopped wearing jumpers inside. People took the verandas off their houses or built them in for more room. Air conditioners also changed our tolerance to weather. In countries where rooms are predominantly air-conditioned, people’s tolerance is just a few degrees of temperature variation. Out in the landscape in Australia, our tolerance by necessity is up to 35 degrees.

How do you deal with these changing requirements in your own work?

Once people have become used to this kind of thermal intolerance, the comfort inside a home becomes critical. We avoid air conditioning in the houses, but sometimes clients insist and we manage to restrict it to particular rooms – bedrooms, say, so they don’t have to sleep in the heat of the night. We have only ever designed three air-conditioned homes, the third of which is under construction at the moment. Of the other two houses, one client has used it just three times in five years, and I don’t think the other one has ever used it.

On a coastal plot on the outskirts of Tokyo, Peter Stutchbury designed Wall House for a Japanese designer in 2007–2009. The building shows two distinct faces towards its environment: towards the street it is closed off with unplastered grey masonry walls; whereas towards the gardens, the house opens up with ceiling-high glass doors that can be shaded with filigree wooden panels.

One reason for this is that if you balance the indoor climate by purely passive means, for example using thermal mass, the temperature fluctuations are reduced. Furthermore, your body is far more sympathetic to natural temperature variations than to unnatural temperatures. When you go out into the sun from an air-conditioned room, it takes at least half an hour for your body to adapt. Whereas if you’re in a passively-cooled environment and you walk outside into the heat, you notice it, but it is not disruptive and you adapt much faster.

I often discuss the comfort levels in our buildings with clients. I am confident that we can manage 90-95% of the comfort passively simply because of the knowledge we have gathered over time on ventilation, thermal mass, heat storage, the management of moisture in the air, and cooling. For example, I am currently building a house for my family, on a site with one of the most magnificent views in Sydney. The living is at ground level, below the view line. People are mystified but I know that if we put the bulk of living area up at the view line, that is also where the heat is, and the tough coastal weather. And we won’t enjoy living there, we’ll always feel we have to shut the windows and isolate ourselves. Whereas at ground level, we’ll live incredibly comfortably, even in summer, and we will journey upstairs to the view whenever we want to.

The upper floor of the house will essentially consist of a series of solid panels around a partly glazed and ventilated box. We can open and shut the solid panels according to the time of year, so that in winter, the ones to the low sun in the north will be open. In summer, they’ll be shut and we will open the ones to the south instead, where there is no direct sun. The whole building will be modulated and changed based on the weather patterns.

Building envelopes

A striking feature of your buildings is their horizontal permeability. You often work with large expanses of glazing and large, openable sections in facades. What is your motivation to do so?

There are two essential reasons why our buildings tend to be more open than the traditional European ones. Firstly, we can afford it climatically. And secondly, we aim to create connections. If you can connect people with place, their world expands. It’s not restricted to the house any more, but becomes far bigger - it becomes an understanding of the natural environment. You will find that people adapt very quickly to connection with nature. Not to connection with an urban street full of cars or people - but if the manner of the openings in your buildings connects you with the change of nature and enables you to watch the sky or to watch a plant grow, you are in effect educated by nature. The Japanese are exponents of this art. I designed a house in Japan and, at one point I asked my client, “Why did you get me to come to Japan to do your house?” He said, “Because you will connect me with nature.” And when I asked another – South African – client a similar question, she replied, “Because it will educate my children.”

Beach House (2006) is located in Newport Beach on the very northern edge of Sydney. Its spatial concept can be described as ‘living on the beach and sleeping in the sky’. The bedrooms on the upper floor can be protected from the wind and weather by means of robust, sliding metal louvres. The living rooms at ground floor, in contrast, can be largely opened up towards the coast.

These kinds of statements might appear poetic. On the other hand, when people are connected with nature, this will create a respect that leads to a certain attitude to sustainability and energy use, and to a responsibility that goes far beyond economics. When I arrive home the other night, bush fires were ablaze locally, their smell was in the house. If I had an airconditioned house, external life would be absent. I was very aware that these bush fires were less than 20 kilometres away. Last night at about three in the morning, I heard a possum jump from a tree to our roof and I intuitively identified that the possums, so quiet over winter, are again active. When your house has a life, when it is a living organism – and the Aboriginal people talk about buildings and rocks and caves as living things – then you develop an attachment to the cycles of nature. We don’t design buildings in isolation, we design them as connections. That way, they have an expansive understanding of what contributes to place and composes life.

How do you try to achieve this openness and connection with nature in urban settings?

Although it might not seem so at first glance, many of our buildings are actually located in urban settings. Many of them are close to a town centre. In this environment, we connect houses to their exterior environment, even beyond the boundaries of the site itself. The Japanese traditionally practiced connectivity. In their more famous temples, particularly Entsuji, on the outskirts of Kyoto, they ‘borrowed’ the landscape beyond to connect to the greater place. Entsuji is on a small hill, and right in front of it there is an urban development. When you walk up to the boundary of the temple precinct and look over the wall, you’ll see a suburb of buildings, but if you go back to the temple and sit on the veranda, the mountain that is about five kilometres away comes into your view line, seemingly becomes a part of the garden. Very clever – and in many ways a paradigm of what we try to do in our buildings.

In general, what external factors and what design principles are most important to you when designing a new house?

We are not focused on style in our work. Rather we concentrate on the place where buildings are located. You will notice that all our buildings are different; they derive their difference from the site. Every site has a very particular set of qualities and therefore the buildings should respond to those qualities. It would be unworkable to grow desert plants in the rain forest. Likewise, every client has a very particular quality to which the building must respond and ultimately house. Our clients are both the benefactors and beneficiaries of our work - we are forever grateful for their insight and generosity. Regularly, the most remarkable outcomes can be traced to the clients’ contribution.


How did your approach to architecture evolve over time, and what role did user feedback play in this evolution?

The wonderful thing about architecture is that you never reach the final verse. You travel through cycles, wonderful cycles. You are educated by your last building and equally by the life it promotes. Our buildings evolve through patience, and through a growing understanding. You have to be patient with your thinking. This whole issue of computer education frustrates me because a wise education usually comes from the stewardship of an elder. An older person will pass on knowledge in a very educated and sympathetic way, traditionally through story telling. A computer doesn’t pass on knowledge in the same way. You’d be hard pressed to assemble the same sort of knowledge from a computer as from an elder, and to assemble it with the same passion of interpretation. I often say, “Hug an elder, then go and hug a computer! And understand the difference.”

The last question I have is related. You’ve been teaching at various universities and architecture schools. What main messages do you try to convey to your students?

The main message I would like to convey to students is design responsibility. We’re like the conductors of a big orchestra. We are led to assume the money people control destiny, but in fact architects are building for the future. Their buildings represent the culture of our globalised world. I therefore believe it is essential for architecture students to develop a respect for people, for place and for culture. And the second thing I try to convey to students is the lifting of spirit through beauty. What makes us as architects and designers different from a builder or an engineer or a project manager? My sense is it’s our understanding and perception of beauty. A building is not a work of architecture unless it’s beautiful, and unless it contains some form of serenity. It is essential that qualities that take you beyond the mundane are found in architecture. I am always challenging my students to find qualities that lift the soul and engage one’s perception of beauty.

Beach House (2006) is located in Newport Beach on the very northern edge of Sydney. Its spatial concept can be described as ‘living on the beach and sleeping in the sky’. The bedrooms on the upper floor can be protected from the wind and weather by means of robust, sliding metal louvres. The living rooms at ground floor, in contrast, can be largely opened up towards the coast.

Sydney-based architect Peter Stutchbury graduated from Newcastle University in 1978. Today, he is a professor at the same university. He has held professorial chairs in South Africa, USA and South America. He is a founder of and has been teaching at the Glenn Murcutt International Masterclass since 2001. In 2008, his firm won the International Living Steel Award in Russia and, since 1995, Peter Stutchbury Architecture has won 46 AIA (Australian Institute of Architects) awards, including both of the nation’s major awards in 2003 and 2005. In 2012, he was made an AIA life fellow.

This article is featured in D/A magazine #20, for more information visit

By Jakob Schoof | Photography by Michael Nicholson