7 Practical Tips for Creating a Sustainable Home

Sustainable Home Renovations

Making your home more environmentally friendly is not only a good idea for the planet, in the long run it can save you money as well.

Whilst you can decrease the environmental footprint of your home at any time, carrying out a renovation, addition or extension is often the perfect opportunity to include features that make your home more sustainable.

In 1998, the HIA (Australia’s Housing Industry Association) put in place their GreenSmart program to offer up-to-date information on practical, affordable and lasting environmental solutions for residential design and construction, and provide accredited training for builders and designers.

As an accredited GreenSmart Professional, Addbuild contacted the HIA and spoke with their Executive Director of Planning and Development, Michael Roberts, to find out the latest thinking and most practical measures a homeowner can consider when carrying out home improvements.

1. Stop heat getting into your home in summer

Preventing the sun heating your home in the first place is the top priority for Michael who highlights two key areas – your roof and your windows – to focus your efforts on:

“Good insulation in your roof is the number one thing to consider. For those homeowners building an additional floor, it’s very likely that they will be replacing most if not all of their roof, so this really is a no brainer for them.”

“Everything between the tiles or metal roof and the ceiling can be measured for how much insulation it provides: the sarking directly under the outer roof structure, the air in the roof cavity, the insulation batts above the ceiling. They’re all opportunities to prevent heat entering your home.”

“The sarking comes in different grades of quality and reflective value, the best being sarking that is backed with a blanket of insulation material.”

“Whirlybirds are effective in ventilating the roof cavity to allow hot air to escape and prevent damp. The wind powered varieties are fine, but electric powered versions are more effective and there is a increasing range of solar-powered whirlybirds that are worth looking at.”

In terms of your windows, you have a number of potential solutions, some by design, some via the materials you choose:

“Your first consideration should be keeping the sun off your windows by using shading hoods, screens or shutters on the outside of your home.”

“Then there the glass itself. Using tinting to reduce heat from the sun and double glazing for better insulation are established options, but we are now seeing the use of more expensive solutions like ‘smart glass’ that adapts to the conditions inside and outside of the home and can be used to heat the interior as well as keep it cool.”

“Moving inside, your final barrier is to use heavy curtains.”

“And the good news is that all the insulation I’ve mentioned will help keep your home warmer on a cold Sydney winter night.”

2. Passive design principles

Michael is a fan of using smart design to keep your home cool:

“If you can incorporate it in the design of your new layout or addition, you should consider the benefits of cross ventilation. As a rule of thumb, if you stand with your back to a window, you should be able to see another window in front of you.”

“Also, a second floor addition gives you the opportunity to create a ‘thermal chimney’. This draws air through from lower floor to the upper floor via a stairwell or void, and then out of the house via open windows.”

3. Use sun tubes to light your home

Michael notes that “ideally, you should be able to read a book in any room in your home during daylight hours without having to turn on a light, but some rooms don’t have many or any windows.”

“Sun tubes are an alternative source of light and have taken over from skylights as they are more practical and cheaper to install.”

“Sun tubes are also now pretty sophisticated at reducing the heat whilst letting in light. They are designed to reflect some of the light away from the house during middle of the day, but let more light in when sun is low.”

“Some models also come with dimmer switches so you won’t be woken up in summer when the sun rises in the early hours.”

4. Lighting

Michael explains that as well as reducing your reliance on electric lighting where possible, your renovation is also an opportunity for installing new lighting like LED lights which use far less power than conventional lighting.

“At the beginning, LED lights were underwhelming, a bit of a gimmick, but they are now becoming a legitimate option for lighting your home and draw a fraction of the power”.

5. Water

Even though we aren’t currently experiencing a drought in Sydney, Michael reminded us that this won’t always be the case, so reducing the amount of water your house uses is still important:

“Regulations in NSW have really improved the new fixtures and fittings installed in homes: taps, showers and toilets are all of a much higher standard in terms of water efficiency and this has done most of the heavy lifting to improve water consumption in recent years.”

“Some solutions that had a lot of focus like water tanks and grey water systems haven’t taken off as many thought they would. Water tanks have issues in terms of space and the need for regular maintenance, whilst grey water systems have proved too complicated for many to install.”

6. Solar Panels and Batteries

There was a time when rebates and feed-in tariffs were the deciding factor for the uptake of solar panels in NSW. Now the lowering cost of panels and the rapid technological improvements in battery technology are making the combination of solar panels (which are only effective during the day) and batteries (for the storage of the energy generated for use at night) viable:

“Once you have done everything you can to design your home to keep it cool in summer or warm in winter, solar panels and batteries are beginning to look like no brainers for offsetting the cost of cooling or heating your home.”

“The technology is moving at such a pace that within two years, batteries may be a legitimate option for every home given the reduction in their size and cost, coupled with the increase in their storage capacity.”

7. Home Appliances

Like solar panels and batteries, appliances can be replaced whether you are completing a home renovation or not, but, as Michael notes, often a renovation is a time when several key appliances may be replaced:

“For example, people tend to replace their fridge when renovating a kitchen, and may invest in air conditioners when adding new rooms or a second storey.”

“The advice with air conditioning is to buy the most energy efficient unit you can afford, and pay close attention to matching the capacity of the unit to the size of space it is operating in. You should try to place an air conditioner in rooms that are the best sealed and insulated.”

“Buying a cheap, inefficient unit that struggles to cool its surrounding area is a quick way of receiving a very large energy bill.”

“Also note that in NSW you can now get rebates for replacing your old heater with an energy efficient air conditioner.”

Next thing to look at is your hot water system. Again, Michael advises you to purchase the most energy efficient system you can afford:

“Solar, heat pumps and efficient gas units are the environmentally friendly options, and natural gas is cheaper than bottled gas. Whilst electric hot water is cost effective if operating off-peak, it’s not necessarily good for greenhouse gas emissions.”

Turning our attention to white goods, Michael also has a hierarchy of importance in mind:

“The next big energy guzzler is the refrigerator. Once again I advise people to buy most energy efficient fridge they can afford.”

“Crucially, when buying a new fridge, don’t put the old fridge in the garage as back up, switched on with a few cans of soft drink inside! That really defeats the purpose of buying a new energy efficient fridge, but you’d be surprised how many homes do this.”

“When renovating a kitchen, often people build an open cupboard to house the fridge. It’s really important to make sure that there is plenty of room to the sides and behind the fridge to allow for air flow around it. This ensures the fridge can operate as efficiently as possible.”

“Next in line is your washing machine: buy the most water efficient one that you can afford. After that, the dishwasher. This doesn’t use as much water as you washing machine, so once again look for the most energy efficient unit, but also keep one eye on its water efficiency.

For this article, we asked Michael to focus on his most practical advice, but the GreenSmart program has a more comprehensive range of information for anyone wanting to delve deeper into all their options.

A good starting place is the GreenSmart website where you’ll find the “Guidance Notes for Designing and Building New Homes and Renovation Projects” as well as other resources.

As I think you’ll agree, Michael’s advice is something many homes can follow whether carrying out renovations or just wanting to improve their environmental footprint and save money on their recurring bills.

Whilst some of the options do incur an investment, it was also clear that other ideas are simple and easy to carry out, especially if they can be discussed and planned at the design stage of a renovation project.

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