In Australia, the city of Melbourne is a diverse blend of architectural styles. It showcases a mix of modern sustainable skyscrapers alongside historic homes and culturally significant public buildings. The challenge arises in balancing resource demands and mitigating extreme weather effects on heritage buildings.

The Key Question: Can we merge sustainable design with the preservation of historical structures?

The architect and his solution

Anthony DiMase is a prominent architect known for his innovative and sustainable designs, creating spaces that not only meet the needs of the occupants but also contribute positively to the environment. His innovative approach to design, coupled with his commitment to sustainability, sets him apart as a visionary in the world of architecture.

In this article, Anthony, as a guest author, explores his perspective and principles of natural design, with the goal of conserving cultural heritage amidst the challenges of climate change.

Everyday and every moment, the past echoes around us. Fragments of history embedded in the bricks that line the foundations of well-loved homes and sagging stone steps from years of use. As Architects, we see a diverse array of structures over the years and Melbourne has its fair share of hidden architectural gems. Heritage buildings may not be commonplace here but they are preserved pockets of Australia’s cultural history. Unfortunately, their age also comes with a rigidity that can make navigating the demands of a modern eco-conscious world all the more treacherous for these senior structures.

According to the Heritage Council Victoria, there are two types of heritage buildings, local and state. For simplicity’s sake, our focus lies on local-level heritage where local councils are consulted, given that this is the realm the architects at DiMase are most familiar with. The City Of Melbourne website defines a significant heritage place as one that possesses historic, aesthetic, scientific, social or spiritual significance to the municipality. These places often exhibit features that identify them as belonging to a bygone era, style or method that has since become obsolete or unused. The heritage laws in Victoria are designed to preserve cultural heritage by meticulously monitoring alterations to these buildings.

A permit is required before any modifications can be made, whether it involves changing the colour schemes or undertaking demolitions and additions. Little can be changed in a Heritage build without the required permission. For homeowners the process requires navigating a multitude of forms, ranging from a qualified arborists report, an approved cultural heritage management plan and a Heritage Impact statement describing the impact of the proposed work on the heritage values of the place. While this process may appear daunting and overly complicated, Heritage Victoria insists it is in place to safeguard the cultural history of these older Australian buildings.

The architects at DiMase possess firsthand experience addressing the unique challenges associated with updating heritage or dilapidated buildings. During the Ramsden Project, DiMase was faced with modernising a beloved family home to meet the occupants’ needs. The heritage facade of the house was to be left untouched with period picture rails and rose cornices intact while the interior underwent a transformation to achieve a lighter, more enjoyable and more functional design. This was achieved by opening up the segregated space, strategically placing skylights to encourage a naturally well-lit interior and the addition of extra square footage to the property. The Ramsden Project is a prime example of how heritage buildings can still be functional and beautiful homes with sustainability in mind.

Ramsden Project back garden, large open windows connect the living spaces to the outdoors. Photo credit: Katya Menshikova

Unfortunately, not all buildings share equal standing, and the laws protecting these places can also hinder their growth. In 2022 The Age reported that a man named Richard Barnes had been instructed to remove the solar panels on his heritage home on the grounds that it detracted from the heritage significance of the dwelling. Which begs the question, at what point is the structure itself more important than its continued usefulness?

Eventually, Barnes was permitted to keep some of the panels on his roof, provided they were not visible from street level — a guideline reinforced by the City of Yarra’s informational site.

According to the city of Melbourne website, Victoria has experienced a notable increase in climate warmth of up to a full degree on average when compared to past decades. This accompanies predictions of catastrophic ecological damage should the climate warm even 0.5 of a degree further. Currently Melbourne averages 11 days with temperatures exceeding 35 degrees, a number projected to rise to 16 days by 2050. Heatwaves, flash flooding and drought place significant strain on our economy, jeopardising lives and livelihoods. At DiMase Architects, sustainability is at the forefront of our design philosophy, emphasising the creation of low-energy spaces through thoughtful design, minimal consumption, the repurposing of unused areas, and maximising the use of natural light and air flow.

Sustainability is a paramount focus for us and I firmly believe that our spaces should be designed for use, adaptation and reuse across generations. While owning a heritage building might be more complex when looking to update or renovate your home, these places are treasures to be cherished. As the world grapples with climate change and strives for more eco-friendly ways of living, our heritage homes should not be left behind in the clutter.

Inga Yandell
Explorer and media producer, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide resources and opportunities for creative exploration.