December 28, 2016

Time for Sustainable House Design

While the Federal Government is making half-hearted commitments to energy efficiency, trail-blazing architecture firms like G-O Logic Homes and Victoria’s own Sunpower Design are proving that sustainable housing need not cost an arm and a leg – nor necessitate the owning of a hair shirt.

In Victoria this May, the ‘six-star’ building standard came into operation affecting all new homes, renovations and additions and bringing the building industry into line with national energy efficiency measures. To achieve a six-star rating, certain measures must be implemented when designing and constructing new buildings such as orientation, insulation, draught proofing, window design, shading and building materials.

In theory, it’s a much-needed step in the right direction. But the problem is that only some, and not all, of these design measures need to be taken to achieve a six-star rating. For instance, the standards require new buildings to have either a solar hot water system or a rainwater tank for toilet flushing—not both—despite that using the two systems together is more environmentally and financially beneficial than just the one. Cherry-picking which measures are taken during the design and construction process deals not only a blow to emissions reduction, but in the long run, to the homeowner’s hip pocket. Among those who recognise this is Matt O’Malia, of G-O Logic Homes in the United States. O’Malia is an award-winning architect designing sustainable projects in Maine. Many of the houses that he builds conform to the Passive House standard, saving up to ten times the heating energy of the average house.

Originally devised by two German and Swedish academics, the concept behind Passive Housing is simple: keep the occupants warm in winter and cool in summer using the smallest amount of energy possible. A Passive House makes use of ‘dumb technology’ rather than high-tech accesories to keep the heating and cooling requirements to a minimum. This means thinking about the placement of the house on the block, using a concrete slab to create thermal mass, choosing appropriate thermally resistant building materials, double glazing windows and doors to minimise heat loss, installing airtight seals to prevent draughts, considering adjustable shading and insulating the building extensively. The result is a building that is remarkably effective at maintaining its interior at a comfortable temperature the year round, only needing supplementation on the coldest of days.

According to O’Malia, constructing a house to these specifications is not excessively costly, especially when you factor in energy savings you make in the future.

“[A simplified heating system] replaces the standard system… saving around US$15,000. The significant financial savings resulting from minimizing the heating system is reinvested in the building-shell improvements…The cost of these improvements is about $30,000. When the cost of the heating system is subtracted from the building shell improvements, the first cost increase for building a Passive House is about US$15,000, or 7% of the total construction cost.

The combination of these improvements, in conjunction with heat-recovery ventilation, results in a home with energy costs for space heating at less than $300 per year, with energy costs savings over 30 years of $170,000 (including inflation).”

Designing for higher latitudes as O’Malia does, however, is a simpler task than designing for the Australian climate. Much of Australia’s population occupies the temperate zones where passive design requirements must cater for both warm summers and cool winters. A more difficult undertaking, perhaps, but not impossible.

Melbourne-based Andreas Sederof of Sunpower Design is bringing sustainable design and Passive Housing concepts to Victorians and winning accolades for his homes, proving that it is possible to build dwellings that are both environmentally sensitive and beautiful to look at. With an emphasis on minimising environmental impact, significantly reducing energy consumption and creating homes that are comfortable while suiting the needs of their occupants, Sederof’s designs are as far as you can get from the mud-brick bunkers we might imagine sustainable homes to look like. His sustainable home at Birregurra, which would theoretically score eight stars on the six-star scale, is a configuration of light and airy spaces employing all the design principles associated with green sustainable design while maximising the use of recycled timbers and concrete.

It’s a shame that the Australian government has not made a greater commitment to energy efficient building design. It would help reduce our carbon emissions and ease a transition to renewable energy, as well as present energy savings for bill payers. G-O Logic Homes and Sunpower Design are proof that energy efficient homes are neither frightening in cost nor appearance; so why are we still running scared?

By Rihana Ries, BZE Media Team volunteer.

This article was first published on Beyond Zero Emissions

Beyond Zero Emissions Inc. is a not-for-profit, volunteer run organisation. Our core goal is to develop blueprints for the implementation of climate change solutions that will rapidly reduce emissions and give our society and global ecosystems a chance of surviving into the future. We also run broad-based education campaigns based on this research.

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