Adopting an Efficiency First Approach to Sustainable Building Design with James Goodlet

Updated: Jul 24, 2021

In Episode 6 of Think Big, I speak to Australian building designer James Goodlet from Altereco in Melbourne, Australia. I'm currently working with him and his team to design, document and execute the landscape design for two of Altereco's projects so I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to take advantage of this and share more with you about what they do.

James founded Altereco Design in 2006 and has grown and led his practice through 12 years of building and design services. In today's episode, I wanted to know from James how he works with the client to educate them and communicate ideas with them about sustainability and what it means to take an 'efficiency first' approach to building design.

We also discuss:

✨ What Passivhaus is and how he uses it as a tool

✨ How he communicates responsible design choices to the client and what's most important

✨ Some of the challenges he faces in his projects

✨ Altereco's design process

✨ The types of materials Altereco uses

✨ Different drawing apps and software programs he uses

At the end of the episode, I also ask James to give his top tips to young architects and designers and he gave some excellent advice about cover letters and applying for practices that share your common values. I think this is particularly relevant when you're applying for a practice like Altereco who have done a lot of work to understand their values and what they stand for.

Altereco Design

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Recommended episodes:

Episode 3: How to use storytelling to connect to your clients - Fiona Dunin, FMD Architects

Episode 1: How to Build Your English Confidence: for Architects and Built Design Professionals

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✨ Connect with me on LinkedIn Tara Cull

✨ Extended Show Notes and Full Transcript:

Ready to take action to speak up and share your voice?

Ready to start making a BIG impact on your English & building the architecture career you want?

You know it's time to make a change and you've got to start somewhere. In the evaluation and action plan, you will get my best tips so you stop the self-doubt and start taking action now. Take me to the action plan

Table of Contents Books and Resources


Transcript Images


Technical vocabulary

Passivhaus - a voluntary standard for energy efficiency in a building

thermal bridge - is a place where heat moves through an object

Mechanical Heat Recovery Ventilation System (MVHR) - energy recovery ventilation system

U - values - the rate of transfer of heat through a structure

underpinning - foundation laid below ground level to support or strengthen a building.


take (something into consideration) - to consider something

to go off on a tangent - consider many options

by and large (it’s important to think about) - on the whole

tipping point - the threshold or the limit

pull in the reins - to begin doing something more carefully

the goalposts are continually moving - the conditions or requirements are changing

keeping up with the Joneses - doing something in order to show that they have as much money as other people, rather than because you really want to do it

You can lead a horse to water (but you can’t make it drink) - (proverb) you can give someone the most effective solution, but you can't make someone do something they don't want to do

Urban design vocabulary

neighbourhood character - he 'look and feel of an area', in particular a residential area.

Important questions or thinking to take away from the episode:

What important environmental factors do you need to take into consideration / consider or when designing houses, spaces, and places for people?

take into consideration = consider

What energy rating tools and models do you know about? How can you find out more?

How might you balance the needs of the client as well as standard requirements while also trying to push the boundaries? push the boundaries = to do things differently



Quick Find Snippets - Take me straight to these sections

The language of Passivhaus

Where Altereco started

Responsible Design

Challenges of working on renovations

Most The important thing when it comes to explaining designs to clients Software and Applications

Preparing for Job Interviews


Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 00:00

You're listening to Think Big episode six.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 00:11

Hello Big Thinkers and welcome to Episode Six of Think Big. I'm your host, Tara Cull, Neurolanguage coach, landscape architect and English teacher. And I'm somebody dedicated to helping people in the built design profession who speak English as a second or third language to build outstanding communication skills. You can learn more about my coaching programmes and courses at

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 00:37

The purpose of the podcast is to share stories from built design professionals and various related disciplines. But it's also about learning more about how we communicate and how we do it better how we can do it better. I've had the absolute pleasure during the last few months of speaking to some inspiring professionals. And after each conversation, I get excited about what we've talked about, and I want to share it with you straight away. But I know that I have to keep telling myself it's a marathon. And it's not a sprint because this is exactly what I tell everyone that I work with. It's a marathon, not a sprint. And I need to practice what I preach right. Now the response to my first five episodes has been overwhelmingly positive. And I wanted to take the chance to say thank you to everyone who sent me a message, who have encouraged me to keep going, it really helps me to feel motivated to keep going. And of course, I just feel like I want to share so much with you. In today's episode, I speak to Australian building designer James goodlett, from Altereco in Melbourne, Australia. I'm currently working with him and his team to design document and execute the landscape design for two of their projects. So I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to take advantage of this and share more about what they do, and to share more about his story. So James founded Altereco in 2006. And he has grown his practice through 12 years of building and design services. He comes from four generations of builders, and so he has sound knowledge of construction, and then also understanding traditional and innovative building methods. And one of those innovations in design is his dedication to become passivhaus certified. And he's passionate about creating sustainable homes for his clients. Every one of Altereco's projects is unique and has different opportunities and constraints specific to the site, the location, and the client's needs. I think it's also important to mention at this point, that Passivehaus isn't the only way to achieve optimal star ratings. But it is a tool. Now if you're interested in learning more about how different practices approach energy efficiency and star ratings, I think it's a great conversation starter to ask them about how they do it and what they do.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 01:42

In today's episode, I wanted to know more from James, about how he works with clients to educate them, and to communicate his ideas with them about sustainability, and what that means for their projects. In the interview, we discuss what passivhaus is and how he uses it as a tool, how he communicates responsible design choices to the client, some of the challenges that he faces. And we also talk about different drawing apps and software programmes that he's been trying and using with his clients. At the end of the episode, I also asked James to give his top tips for young architects and designers. And he gave me some great, excellent advice about cover letters and applying for practices that share your common values. And I think it's particularly relevant when you're applying for a practice like Altereco who've done the work to understand their values, and what they stand for. It's really important to do your research to understand where they come from, and what they stand for, so that you know if your values align with theirs. So before we get into the interview today, I wanted to also share more about Passivehaus with you. I discussed Passivhaus briefly with James but I was more interested in diving deeper into how he communicates with the client. So I wanted to give you a bit more background information into the concepts of passivhaus before we get into the interview, importantly, Altereco adopt an efficiency first approach which means they are designing buildings that are highly insulated and airtight. And they rely on very little heating and cooling to make the house comfortable. So they adopt an efficiency first approach. If you'd like to know more about names and his practice, you'll find links to his website and blog as well as all the images that we discussed from the buildings that we discussed (and the transcript) on today's episode page.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 05:11

So, let's jump into the episode. Let's firstly talk about the language of Passivehaus. Now Passive House is not to be confused with passive design or passive solar design. Passivhaus is a building standard that was developed in Germany. And the way that it works is it's an energy efficient, comfortable and affordable way of designing a house. It's a specific way of designing and building a new or renovated home so that it meets certain requirements that lowers energy use, and it improves the health and the well being of the houses occupants. But it's not the only way that you can achieve this. But I wanted to mention this because this is what James and his team adopts as a tool. In 2019, James and his team at Altereco took a stance, they drew a line in the sand, because they wanted to commit their efforts to work with like minded clients and builders so that they could achieve the best possible outcome for their clients. So he also worked towards passivhaus certification. He did a two week intense training course, which was a massive challenge for James but he documented everything that he learned during the training course on his blog. So I'll put a link to this in the show notes, I highly recommend going to have a look at it and to see all the things that he learned during the training course.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 06:40

What is passivhaus in more detail, so let's have a look at the principles behind passivhaus. In essence, it's striving to create a building that is healthy and comfortable. So passivhaus allows for space heating and cooling related energy savings of up to 90% compared with typical existing buildings, and over 75% compared to average new builds, so a Passivhaus will need to consider good insulation. So passivehaus houses are praised for their high level of comfort that they offer the internal surface temperatures very little from indoor air temperatures, and even in the face of extreme outdoor temperatures. They also include no air leakages and no thermal bridges where the warmth can easily travel through the walls to the outside of the building. They also include proper windows with triple pane glass. So triple pane glass windows are the most advanced windows that you can get on the market today. And of course, they're made with three panes of glass. So as with new double pane window installations, each of the three panes has a spacer around the edge to give them a uniform space between the layers. So this extra layer makes it more difficult for heat to escape, and it allows you to maintain the temperature in your home. A Passivhaus we'll also consider proper orientation to make the most of the sun. So passivehauses make efficient use of the sun, internal heat sources and heat recovery, rendering conventional heating systems really unnecessary, even throughout the coldest winters and then during the warmer months. Passive houses make use of passive cooling techniques such as strategic shading, to keep the house comfortable and cool. Passive houses also include a heat recovery ventilation system. So for Altereco, air quality is their highest priority because this is particularly relevant because in Melbourne's inner west where they work and also where I used to live, there are abnormally high cases of asthma and respiratory system disease. So one of the key learnings from James's Passivhaus journey is the ability to take control of the indoor environment regardless of the air quality outdoors. So in return the clients that they work with get to live in a healthy house with healthy air and to be comfortable. So, to achieve that,

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 09:10

they create an environment that is separate from external influences by insulating the shell and then eliminating gaps and drafts for air quality control. They introduced a mechanical heat recovery ventilation system that brings in fresh filtered air free from pollutants, and then it extracts the stale air. So it also contributes to moisture control and a balanced temperature throughout the home. Now these modern automated systems are intelligent pieces of engineering, they run on very little energy. And the heat recovery element ensures that minimal energy or the temperature is lost in the exchange of air a little more about passive houses around the world. So the Passivhaus concept, it remains the same for all of the world's climates as does all the mechanics and the science behind it. But while the principles remain the same across the world, the details have to be adapted to specific climates. So it will change depending on where it has been implemented. So if you want to know more about what Passivhaus is, I've also included a short video in the episode notes about what passive houses. And because I also love to test your vocabulary and help you build it. I've also turned it into an interactive video, if you want to test yourself, I also highly recommend doing your own research about Passivhaus. And what are some of the other sustainability rating tools that other architects use. This is arguably one of the most difficult things for a lot of the clients that I work with, because every country and every state, sometimes in different countries will use different sustainability rating tools. So the best thing that you can do is to if you're working in practice to ask what sort of tools that you use for sustainability ratings? Or to if you're looking for a job, that could be even a question that you could ask in an interview, what sorts of sustainability rating tools do you use? Can you tell me more about how you adopt a sustainable method or sustainable practice? So without further ado, let's get into the interview with James today.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 11:28

Hi, James, nice to have you here. I've been very excited to have this conversation with you today. So we have done some work together before in the past, I've been following your work for quite some time. So for those who don't know much about you and your practice, could you tell us a little bit more about what Altereco means and where it started and where you are now?

James Goodlet 11:51

Yeah, sure. Thanks, Tara. Good to be here. Yeah, it's a Altereco. It all started. I started like most people do as a sole trader going out on their own. Oh, 13 years ago now. So yeah, that was quite easy at the time, like I actually designed a house for my parents. And while I was working at another firm, I, you know, finished that and started building the house with my parents, my, my dad's a builder and, and I've had a lot of family in the building industry. So I was, you know, aiming learning to get some hands on skills and really, yeah, get some more understanding and experiment with a few different things as well. And yeah, that was that was really good. And then just by the end of that sort of build, I was full time on the dining table, just doing you know, mostly it was drafting work, or some design, small design stuff. And then that evolved, and it just built some relationships and got some repeat work. And then I couldn't handle it got, I got the first person on board and, and then it sort of snowballed from there. So yeah, I guess when I started, I, I had the ambitions to be, you know, quite consciously a sustainable designer, but I guess just by word of mouth, and where I got the work from that wasn't really didn't really happen, to be honest, you know, it wasn't really enforced. And I always struggled with the conversation around approaching sustainability and having some kind of a, you know, ethical conscious towards a building's performance and, and even, you know, embodied energy and where our materials come from, and that sort of stuff. So, and it's only really been in the last few years, where I've decided that there's only so much work that we can do, there's a lot of work that's out there, and it's, we're lucky in Australia to have, you know, a consistently booming industry where there's always work that we've decided that we just want to work with, with clients who are motivated to build high performing, you know, sustainable houses, and, you know, were schooled up on that, we love that and we're passionate about it. So we're really trying to find those kinds of clients and align with them. At the end of the day, we're designing the house for them to live in. That's it, that's all we do when we only do residential work we're quite passionate about, about that and working closely with our clients and and as I was saying, you know, once we invest some time into them, and you know, I guess impart some of our knowledge on on sustainability measures and you know, the budget and as well as your interior design and that sort of stuff. Yeah, we just feel we get the most out of out of the project and not having to pitch or sell being a sustainable designer to somebody, they just know that that's what they're getting in for. And, and they're, they're on board with it. I think there's been a change anyway, in the last few years in in general with in the market, there&#x