How to create sustainable buildings with help from your dog

Media release

05 July 2021

When it comes to creating sustainable buildings, a Deakin University property design and development researcher says there is a lot we can learn from the family dog.

Deakin Business School’s Property and Real Estate Associate Lecturer Tom Keel says that by paying attention to our furry friends we can make our homes and other buildings more sustainable, comfortable and cheaper to run.

“Since long before we built homes and burnt coal and gas for heating and cooling, dogs have been living comfortably,” Mr Keel said.

“They, and all other animals, evolved ways to live without creating emissions or needing money. Humans had done the same until we became reliant on using up money and resources. But we can relearn what we forgot and again live comfortably with less financial expense, emissions and pollution.”

Looking at the way animals keep cool in summer and warm in winter, the materials they use and how they conserve energy provides valuable insights that can be aligned with today’s sustainable building design practices, Mr Keel said.

“Our goal should be to design and redesign buildings that will hold a comfortable temperature on their own, maximise natural light, produce their own energy, lower utility costs, leave a small carbon footprint and increase the building’s value.”

Here Mr Keel outlines how to ‘design like a dog’.

Pay attention to where sleeping dogs lie

If it's a sunny Saturday afternoon in winter and your dog is basking in the sun on the laundry floor, something is amiss as the sun should be shining on your favourite chair in the living room.

The benefits of good orientation, that require only a few minutes of planning, can last for centuries often at no extra cost.

Orientation is a consideration of how the sun moves across the sky, and of the seasons. Designing around the solar axis is the key; knowing the winter sun sits low in the sky and the summer sun passes high above. We can design to capture and to block the sun’s light and warmth as needed.

One way of doing this is to stop primarily designing our homes to face the street, as when we do that three quarters of properties are missing the best light and winter warmth.

In Australia we should seek for our daytime living rooms to face the north, to capture the winter sun’s warmth and light. Our sleeping rooms should be on the cooler/darker south side of the house in summer. When retrofitting, many options are also available, such as alterations to windows, walls and interior room use changes.

Left to their own devices, dogs use natural materials

When designing a new building or retrofitting an existing one there are dozens of material choices from timber, concrete and windows to carpets, steel and roofing. Each has a level of environmental impact to consider such as the energy used in procurement, travel miles, toxins and options to reduce/reuse/recycle.

What we can learn from helpful hounds is just how few materials are needed to be comfortable and what great materials nature already provides - dogs use only natural materials, dens of soil for the winter, a bed of leaves for summer.

We should look to increase our use of natural products such as rammed earth, a sustainable building material that has been in use for thousands of years. We can also reduce, reuse and recycle as much as we can. Everything old is new again, as timber, now cross-laminated, is offering us a natural product with the strength of steel.

Dogs only use free energy

Thermal mass refers to a material’s ability to absorb and hold heat. This principle is seen with animals in the wild who sleep underground in dens and burrows, knowing the earth is always around 18 degrees, both in desert and icy climates.

Ideally, we should try to ‘connect’ our builds to the earth so their temperature is steady, for example materials such as a dark colour stone floor placed in the winter sun will absorb the heat and help keep a room warm. Just like a sea-dog knows to lie on a dark colour rock heated in the sun.

A concrete floor behind double-glazed glass soaking in the winter sun in also an ideal set-up. Similarly, if we don’t want our building to absorb heat, we can choose materials such as light-coloured timber to reflect the sun.

Our dogs also make use of passive heating and cooling. Their panting for example is mimicked by the heat exchange of thermal piping used by in-ground heat-exchange systems.

A dog pants to transfer their body heat to moisture on their tongue that hangs outside their body in the cool air and the liquids return to them cooler. Similarly, when our room air is too hot, we can run it through pipes underground and it comes back to us at 17 degrees. No air conditioning is needed. Thanks for the tip, doggo.

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