Changing the perception of sustainability

THE evolutionary process towards sustainable housing is still a pitifully slow-moving beast, hobbled by the familiar tug-of-war between money and the environment.

The powerful property industry plays a vital role in the economy, however it still spells budget with a big B and environment with a very little e.

Despite Australia’s harsh climate, and larger global environmental issues such as global warming, the bulk of property developers and builders continue to crow that sustainable housing is a luxury afforded only to the “lunching classes”.

There are some exceptions, among them Perth’s QV1 building at the top of St Georges Terrace, which is an impressive example of how simple shading devices and clever design can significantly reduce air conditioning costs.

Proponents of sustainable design agree that part of the problem is the poor level of awareness in the general community regarding the simple principles of sustainable design.

The Australian Greenhouse Office and the Australian Building Energy Council are launching a series of seminars throughout the country this week to further the understanding of sustainable design.

Any real change in the way we build houses and design commercial spaces will have to be driven by the market, however.

At this stage there is little demand for environmentally sensitive design out in the suburbs, according to Master Builders Association director for housing Gavin Forster.

“At the lower end of the market, where the majority of the work is, there’s always a trade off with cost,” Mr Forster said.

“It’s only when you get to the architecturally designed houses, where people have got the luxury of incorporating these features.”

Developers also play an important role in respect to the way parcels of land are divided into residential or commercial lots.

To gain the maximum warmth from the sun in winter and protection from heat and glare in summer, buildings in Perth need to face north with the major axis running east west.

The orientation of a building on a lot is one of the essential features of what’s termed passive solar design.

“Sometimes the estates are not configured in that way so you can’t put the house on sideways,” Mr Forster said.

“The builders cater for the market and the market is not demanding these things at the moment.”

There are initiatives in place to encourage understanding of the value of energy efficiency in the residential market.

A Commonwealth initiative called the House Energy Rating Scheme, or HERS, assigns a star rating to new houses based on their energy efficiency.

However, without any associated Government subsidies, the star rating system is little more than lip service to the ideals of sustainable development.

And it’s not just the lower end of the market that’s proving hard to budge. Mr Forster claims it would be “madness” to try and convince premium property owners with million dollar views to forgo all that glass for a more energy efficient design.

Government-funded bodies such as the Sustainable Energy Development Office are working hard to get the message out that sustainable design is based on some very simple principles.

Kingsley Hearne is an acoustic and building environment consultant at Gabriels Environmental Design, a local consultancy group that works on building projects alongside architects and designers.

Mr Hearne claims there is a range of simple issue that have a profound effect on a building’s energy consumption.

“Builders don’t put insulation in unless it’s specified and budget is the biggest issue, so if it’s not specified and not a commercial standard, it won’t go in,” he said. “In some States it’s compulsory to have an energy rating on a home before you sell it or build.”

Building companies and developers are beginning to show a modest level of interest in sustainable housing.

Some industry players can see that energy efficiency offers a marketing advantage for their product in the market.

Russel Perry is the general manager of the Ellenbrook Project, which includes the Coolamon Solar Village.

The village was designed so that 70 per cent of the blocks are on north-south streets with lots running east-west.

Local architect Peter Jones is passionately committed to sustainable design.

He has designed a house near Balingup, in the South West of the State, incorporating a number of eco-friendly elements.

“I think it’s a process of educating clients and continuing professional development for architects,” Mr Jones said.

The house at Balingup utilises passive solar design and rammed earth, which delivers thermal mass, and rainwater tanks for drinking and washing water on the site.

It also incorporates more sophisticated elements, including a composting toilet and grey water recycling capacity.

“There’s all sorts of technologies emerging that will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and there will be a whole new industry and all this will affect the building industry,” Mr Jones said. “And the councils should be initiating policies on how new developments are undertaken.”

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