Crafting creature comforts
It is one thing to design and build an aesthetically appealing and functional home, but it’s another to meet the rising demand for sustainable homes that provide the highest level of comfort for its occupants. Justin Felix reports.
As you would be well aware, all new homes, home renovations, alterations and additions need to comply with the 6 Star Standard in the National Construction Code.
The 6 Star Standard applies to the thermal performance of a home, renovation or addition and includes the installation of either a solar hot water system or a rainwater tank for toilet flushing. NatHERS house ratings use computer simulations to determine the potential thermal comfort of Australian homes on a scale of zero to 10 stars. The more stars, the less likely the occupants will need cooling or heating to stay comfortable.
A 6 Star energy efficiency rating applies to a home’s building envelope including its roof, walls, floor and windows.
On top of the 6 Star Standard, there is a little issue floating about the place called climate change and while countless arguments abound regarding whether or not it is actually occurring, myriad data exists to prove that things are in fact changing.
The good news is, you have an opportunity to take advantage of it by implementing building practices that tackle it head on. And as consumers become more aware of the benefits that passive design brings, the more they are going to demand it, so it pays to be one or two steps ahead.
The South East Councils Climate Change Alliance (SECCCA) comprises eight councils: City of Casey, Baw Baw Shire Council, Bayside City Council, Greater Dandenong, Bass Coast, Cardinia, City of Kingston and Mornington Peninsula and collaborates with all levels of government to deliver regional climate change projects that benefit over one million residents in the growth corridor of south east of Melbourne.
SECCCA is due to expand a pilot sustainable homes program currently operated with Stockland at the developer’s Selandra Rise estate on Melbourne’s outskirts.
It exists to advocate, educate and deliver targeted projects in the areas of greenhouse gas abatement, sequestration and adaptation with a vision for the communities of the south east of Melbourne to produce zero net emissions and have highly adaptive capacity to climate change.
SECCCA provide completely independent advice. It doesn’t align with any products or manufacturers and encourages builders to use their own suppliers.
Being government funded means its main role is to advocate for the consumer to get a better deal, improve energy efficiency and reduce energy bills.
“As a result of that vision, we work with new home owners to help build more sustainable homes, reduce energy bills and subsequently reduce carbon emissions,” SECCCA projects coordinator Daniel Pleiter said.
Daniel and his team were based at the Selandra Rise eight star sustainable display home at the Selandra Rise estate with the intention of being able to demonstrate to prospective home buyers what they could achieve in their own homes. Dotted around the home were information points that highlighted various green aspects such as double glazed windows, extra roof insulation, split system air-conditioners and so forth. Visitors collected cards containing QR codes at the various information points that interested them which would then be able to research further online.
“This was the pilot project so we designed a program that would help inform people that came through the door. This facility demonstrates those features and we have used a whole range of information points to explain things. We had staff here on weekends to answer any questions and to go into further detail about the costs and benefits of each,” Daniel says.
“Ideally, we try to speak to people before they have purchased their land and/or signed any contracts. The main reason for this is to look at orientation, which is the first step to take when trying to achieve passive solar benefits.”
Daniel intimated that a large percentage of new homes were oriented the wrong way, and that builders needed to play a vital role in explaining the benefits of considering how a home is positioned on a block, to capture the most warmth from the sun.
“Once upon a time energy was cheap, so no one really cared, but energy is becoming more expensive and the problem is now, with the impact of climate change, we are getting heat waves.
“If we experience a heatwave between 35-45°C for a period of seven days, houses are going to become very hot.”
Other than the correct orientation of a home, Daniel explains that increasing insulation in roof areas to R6 and including double glazed windows can go a long way. So much so that SECCCA believes both should become mandatory in the building process.
Perhaps Daniel’s biggest bugbear though is the issue of draught sealing, or lack thereof in new homes. Gaps around doors and windows compromise the home’s thermal energy performance, and unfortunately it either comes down to a lack of knowledge or poor workmanship on the behalf of builders.
“We advise that all seals be installed to a six star standard. We have tested new homes where the seals were only 2 or 3 stars. The regulations stipulate that builders must draught seal, but they are not required to test it.
“I like to use cars as an example. Cars are ANCAP rated 5. Consumers are paying for that rating which says you have airbags, ABS brakes etc. That’s the rating, but if it isn’t tested, what’s the point if your braking system doesn’t work when it is supposed to? And that’s what’s happening with new homes. Consumers are being ripped off. They are paying for something but the performance simply isn’t there.”
Daniel believes builders could test a certain percentage of their homes to ensure they are up to six star standard before continuing to roll them out once satisfied with the results.
“Once builders have their contractors trained up and confident that they know how to do all of these things, they’re laughing. There will be added costs associated with implementing all of these extras but they can be passed on to the consumer.
“The payback period is short and once you explain the energy bill savings to them, they become pretty receptive.”
And educating consumers is the biggest hurdle to overcome, Daniel believes.
“People just don’t know about most of this stuff. There’s so much to learn and if someone doesn’t sit down and explain it to them, they’re not going to learn. And if the builder or land developer isn’t doing it, then who is?
As Daniel explains, two types of people generally walk through the house: people that are on a tight budget and people who are happy to spend. Before making recommendations, the team at SECCCA would have a conversation to determine their lifestyles (empty nesters, young family etc.) and how they saw themselves using their new home. He highly recommended you advised clients against evaporative cooling and heating systems and suggested split systems instead.
His top four recommendations to buyers are as follows:
Install a solar PV system
Install solar hot water systems
Design living areas to the north to capture the winter sun
Work with the angle of the sun and build eaves around the house, fit external shade devices on the east and west. Install smaller windows on the east, south and west.
“Since starting this initiative we have really noticed that some builders are happy to change anything, while others are very prescriptive in what they do.
“We are actively working with designers and builders and encouraging them to consider some or all of these considerations before or after the contract stage. In particular we want them to educate their customers and explain the benefits of add-ons such as double glazed windows and R6 roof insulation once they know they are building the property.”
Daniel believes the program has the potential to reach a nationwide audience, given the benefits of passive design are unbound by geography.
Over the next 12 months SECCCA will begin to make contact with buyers whom have chosen to include some of the recommended design aspects into their new homes to gain a better understanding of energy and bill savings, as well as comfort factors.
As the push for more sustainable new homes and the demand for passive design features to be included increases, it makes sense to ensure you and your contractors are up to speed. The Master Builders Association has created the Green Living training to provide builders with the necessary tools to pursue sustainability options in their constructions. Builders who complete the training and adopt sustainable innovations in their operations will be able to identify themselves as Master Builders Green Living builders.
Alternatively, if you’re a HIA member, you can hone your green building or design skills, maintain professional development obligations, and promote your services as being sustainable and environmentally aware by completing HIA’s 2-day GreenSmart Professional Training Course. Once you’ve completed training, you will have full access to the GreenSmart Program’s opportunities and initiatives.
If you haven’t already, perhaps it’s time to step out of your comfort zone and into the world of passive design. The future looks comfortable there.