Green buildings now go way beyond energy-efficient lightbulbs and low-flow showers. Sue White asked four key industry players how they make an impact.
The Builder Gavin Scott, Earthbound Design and Construct, NSW Central Coast
Pondering the ramifications of the credit crunch, sustainable builder Gavin Scott sees a potential upside. “I think the current trend towards recession will actually bring owner-building back to its strength,” he says. It’s an unusual perspective for a builder, until you discover that Gavin’s perspective on green goes way beyond materials. He believes that by participating in the process, owners better appreciate what goes into their buildings. “The way that banks and financial groups have operated in the past has discouraged people from physically having a go themselves,” he adds. One way Gavin believes owners can become hands on without too many special skills is by using mud brick: “I can’t see any other medium that is as inexpensive and environmentally benign as constructing out of earth. Mud bricks contain almost no embodied energy, particularly if you can make them nearby or onsite. There’s also usually no need for cement. The only real disadvantage is it’s time consuming.” Of course, mud brick isn’t the only good option: “Sustainable timber is beautiful in that it’s low in embodied energy and can be recycled. But to get a good thermal result you need to insulate it. Ultimately the trick to environmental building is to let go of a one-size-fits-all approach. We will build out of any medium or material, but I try to design housing to suit both the client and a site. A lot of people impose their house on the site rather than work with both its virtues and its disadvantages.”
Like most sustainable builders, he starts with the orientation. “In an ideal world you will see the site in different weather conditions, and choose something with a northerly aspect,” he explains. “It’s the quickest way to make a house more energy-efficient.” Beyond this, owners aiming to be green should find a builder they can actually talk to: “The builder really needs to listen to how the client perceives themselves as living. It’s really common for people to think they need areas they don’t use often. Big bedrooms are a good example. If you really get to the crunch, most people are only in their bedrooms for a very small part of their day. For 99 per cent of families, most time is spent in the kitchen and living areas.” Gavin says the rooms used most should be integrated with the external environment to avoid the owner feeling boxed in. “Rather than being forced to live within the house, or specifically be outside, try to integrate the two,” he suggests. While every site is different, Gavin maintains the local environment is always important. “It’s good to reduce the impact on neighbours and to keep your house in context with the local style,” he says. “Ideally, you want to end up with a house that looks like it grows out of the site rather than one that’s landed on it.”
Ben Callery, Zen Architects, Melbourne
“We expend so much energy in heating and cooling, which means your house, where you spend most of your time, is one of the biggest impacts people can have on the environment,” observes Melbourne architect Ben Callery. He believes a building designed around passive solar principles will add to, not detract from, the occupants’ lifestyle. “There are lots of really contemporary ways to build green without sacrificing comfort or lifestyle,” he says. “In fact, green houses should actually be more comfortable. A building designed around passive solar principles will use sunlight to heat the building, which creates comfort. Ducted heating and reverse cycle air conditioning can churn out dry, nasty air, so if a room has been designed to heat and cool naturally it’s more healthy. The feeling of real warmth and light from the sun is wonderful.” Ben agrees with Gavin Scott that we often don’t need as much space as we think: “People think they need a room for every function they do. Our firm focuses on flexible spaces, which have multiple purposes. We recently did a job where the second living room can convert into a kids’ room, a TV room or a guest room with a fold-out bed. We are squeezing lots of functions into a small space because the smaller the room is, the less energy is needed to heat or cool it, as well as the less embodied energy to build it.”
New owners are disinclined to “think small”: “People are often very reluctant to do it — they want a four-bedroom house of 250m square and it’s not till you start designing and they see how small, high-quality spaces can add to their lives. “Eco houses ultimately rely on the actions of the occupants. We’ve got lots of clients who don’t need to be pushed at all; they are keen to change to make their life greener. But we do get some with the misconception that if you put enough money into a green house you don’t have to change your actions. But you do.” Interacting with the space goes beyond opening and closing curtains at the right time. “You can’t just go about business as usual,” Ben says. “It’s just about being sensible: your first reaction can’t just be to switch on the air-conditioner if you could open a window instead. You also have to use it smartly in the way you fit it out. It’s great to use low-flow fittings and fixtures, but that’s just the start; you have to be aware of how much you use these things.” Think before buying appliances and be conscious of shower times and water efficiency. The end result takes eco consciousness to its rightful place. “The owners will develop a connection with the environment on a deeper level,” he says.
Rob Burgess , Surfside, Coffs Coast
For developer Rob Burgess, there comes a point where all of us need to practise what we preach: “I’ve always been attuned to sustainability, but somewhere in your life you decide, ‘I’m finally going to do what I’ve been talking about for years.’” For many of his 40 years in town planning, including 12 years with Sydney’s Manly Council, Burgess has been emphasising the role of developers in defining and maintaining an area’s unique social aspects as a key part of sustainability. “You can define being green as water harvesting, reducing energy and working with building materials that use less energy, but for me the holistic nature of sustainability is far more interesting,” he says. “It’s the total balance, which includes sustaining the character and social fabric of the area in question.” Defining his approach as “slow urbanism”, Rob feels strongly that new buildings in Australia’s small coastal towns should enhance, not overshadow, their natural environment. With Surfside, his family’s beachfront development near Coffs Harbour, he had a chance to put his money where his mouth was.
To ensure a design philosophy in keeping with the region, the architect studied the character and architectural features of the area as well as the naturally-occurring elements in the landscape. “Small-scale coastal villages are not about brick or rendered suburban houses plonked on blocks with walls around them,” Rob says. “If everyone simply moves to the coast and produces a type of housing that destroys the character of the place they’re moving to, what’s the point?” He says rear-loading houses (garaging cars at the back of a property), a practice common in Perth’s suburb of Subiaco, is one way developers can ensure vehicles don’t dominate the streetscape. “By rear loading, the front of each house connects to the street, like the old terrace houses did when you sat on the porch and mum shelled the peas and talked to everyone walking past,” he says. “Slow urbanism is socially a far better way than a big brick house behind double garages. While real estate agents tout ‘location, location, location’, if green builders or developers have a mantra, it must surely be ‘orientation, orientation, orientation’.” As the first multi-residential development on the Coffs Coast to pass the Basix requirements for water, thermal comfort and energy, Surfside was a test case for developers and local government alike. “I wanted neighbouring buildings to function together as a unit,” Rob adds. While optimum orientation had to be shared between the six units, smart design and the will to exceed Basix requirements for sustainable buildings meant that even those with the least favourable orientations were able to achieve good levels of energy efficiency, by capturing natural ventilation and the winter sun. Combining smart design with size restraint resulted in a smaller ecological footprint for the whole project. “Now that it’s finished it looks as if it should be there, and that’s the real test,” Rob concludes.
Warren Perrett, Aquablock Plumbing, Melbourne
It may not have the catchiest name, but the Master Plumbers and Mechanical Services Association of Australia (MPMSAA) knows its subject matter. And, according to the general manager of Australia’s largest plumbers association, home owners overlooking green plumbing are literally letting money and resources go down the drain. “Up to 70 per cent of energy savings come from plumbing-related activities,” says Garry Workman, GM of the MPMSAA, which has trained more than 7300 Australian plumbers since its Green Plumbing program began in Melbourne in 2000. After working in the industry for more than 35 years, 2008 Green Plumber of the Year, Warren Perrett from Melbourne’s Aquablock Plumbing, is the first to admit he wasn’t always eco minded. Initially, he felt that greening up Aquablock was simply smart business. “When I first started this I wasn’t a total greenie,” he says. “I just had a gut feeling this would become very important down the track. I began to really see that water would be an issue for us all, so about seven years ago I began to train up in all facets of green plumbing and training our staff. Now I’m starting to take pleasure in helping a client save the garden they’ve built up over the years. I feel we’re really beginning to achieve something.” Most home owners’ first contact with their green plumber should be via an audit, a task for which most water boards offer rebates. Plumbers will look at water saving, irrigation storage, solar possibilities and heat savings and advise on what is possible.
For conscious ownerbuilders, their green plumber can even liaise with other professionals about where savings can be made. “We may advise your builder about what can be achieved,” Warren says. He adds that new technologies are making a real difference to practice such as grey-water reuse, which now goes well beyond sticking a hose out the window to divert washing machine water on to a garden bed. “New treatment systems allow all grey water from showers, basins, baths [and] laundry [to be] treated, sent to a storage tank and then returned to the toilet and washing machines,” he explains. “They are very complex, computerised systems that can easily cut water use by 40 per cent.” Despite the cost of such a system (around $20,000), Warren says his Melbourne business is installing about one a week. They are also doing an ever-increasing trade in installation of solar hot-water systems, as well as slimline and underground tanks, in what he says is a growing market. “There’s definitely room for more green plumbers in other states outside Victoria,” he adds. “It’s a great way for a business to go.” For Warren’s 20-strong staff, customers’ enthusiasm about the results of their work offers positive feedback that goes beyond a typical job. Although the feedback comes in surprising forms, it’s a result they take pleasure in. “The parishioners at St George Church in Ivanhoe are saving 70,000 litres of water and they’re ecstatic about what they’ve achieved, so we will read about it in their church newsletter,” he says.