Thermal mass in living room heated by sunlight
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ARENA video showcases our home

Imagine our surprise when David mentioned someone from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) wanted to make a video about our homes.  Check out the movie and then read what happened.

How did a Federal Government agency come to hear about our sustainable housing project?  How could we possibly help them? What would they do with the information?

We jumped at the chance and immediately accepted the offer to participate.  One of our project objectives is to educate others about sustainable houses. Making a video provides a way to reach more people.

Who is ARENA?

ARENA logo

The Agency is a major player in supporting Australia’s transition to renewable energy sources.   They’re putting nearly 1.5 billion of our hard-earned tax dollars to work by supporting projects (eg WA gold mine micro-grid). Lessons learned are shared to help others working in the field.

Windfarms are an example of the renewable energy transition underway in Australia

What I didn’t know was that ARENA is watching what’s happening with renewable energy in the ‘burbs.

Earlier this year, ARENA partnered with Mirvac in the Net Zero Energy Homes project. The aim is to highlight the benefits of building sustainable homes.  Australia needs approximately 160,000 new houses every year. If current house designs are wasting energy, that’s a major opportunity for improvement.

Mirvac net zero energy homes at The Fabric
The Fabric by Mirvac – an entire development based on sustainability principles

The Agency encourages “the uptake of energy efficient and sustainable design features” to minimise energy consumption and reduce power demand on the electricity grid.  It’s interesting to see “improved thermal comfort levels” as another need met by sustainably designed houses.

Why did we appear on their radar?

An ARENA person, probably working on renewables in buildings, saw our Green Home Build information in the Sustainable House Day website.

They obviously liked what they saw and tracked David down to ask if we’d be the subjects of a video about solar power and sustainable homes.  I think David’s innovation in using solar energy to build the homes was icing on the cake for them.

Finished landscaping of Unit 1 front garden

Video appears in ARENA blog post.

Seeing, and hearing, yourself on film is a strange experience.  However, the editors did a fine job of extracting the key points and linking them to terrific images.  We are pleased with the finished product. Hopefully it helps others understand the benefits of sustainable house design.

The interviews and filming were surprisingly painless.  After all, our interviewer was asking questions about our passion project. It didn’t take long for Libby and I to forget about the camera as we talked.   Luckily, the weather was perfect for drone footage and still photos of the site.

Our YouTube debut is embedded in the ARENAWIRE blog under the title “Hi-tech home provides a glimpse of the future“.

ARENAWIRE is the official blog site for ARENA

Financial benefits for sustainable houses.

The blog post theme suggests it’s time to move low energy homes out of the niche market and into mainstream housing developments.

There are environmental and financial advantages for designs that aim for the 7.5 to 8 Star NatHERS “sweet spot”, rather than the mandatory 6 Star minimum.  Achieving the higher rating does add some upfront costs (eg better insulation). But, on the other hand, passive solar design features (eg using sunlight for heating) shouldn’t increase the build cost.

In a recent Houzz discussion, Undercover Architect ponders reasons why developers stick with the minimum. Are they worried about lower profit margins?  Have consumers become accustomed to lower cost, poorly performing houses as the norm. Undercover Architect thinks American architect Steve Baczek is correct when he said, “It’s not that High-Performance Houses cost too much. It’s that our idea of a fairly priced home is based on a history of building houses to meet embarrassingly low performance benchmarks. Clients don’t realise the difference between built to code vs built to last”.

The good news is modelling predicts the extra upfront costs for an 8 Star home are paid back within 12 to 14 years through lower energy bills.

House energy scorecard is useful for comparing ongoing costs for each house
Energy cost savings due to sustainable design features

Of course, financial analyses can’t take intangible benefits into account.  For example, knowing the house is built to last is reassuring. Assigning a dollar value to living in a home with comfortable, light-filled, airy rooms is difficult.

Educating house buyers is essential.

The ARENA article highlights another obstacle stifling demand for sustainable housing.  Developers say they’re offering homes which the buyers want. Existing designs are meeting consumers’ needs so nothing should change.

Unfortunately, many consumers are unaware they could have something better.  I don’t recall Steve Jobs grudgingly producing the iPhone in response to consumers who were unhappy with their push button mobile phones.  Once the first smartphones appeared, the limitations of the old phones suddenly became apparent and the rest, as they say, is history.

Change comes from showing people a better way
Build sustainable houses to demonstrate the advantages.

Developments like Mirvac’s Net Zero Energy Homes are the iPhone equivalent in the housing industry.  The limitations of current housing stock are obvious when buyers experience a better alternative. Visiting a sustainable home is a memorable experience. That experience is more effective than arguing the merits of different house plans. After all, why do housing estates have display homes?

I’m optimistic that developers who take the plunge and put sustainable homes into the marketplace will see a positive response from buyers and reap the rewards.

Consumer education is beginning.

Uninformed house buyers will be a thing of the past if Environment Victoria has their way.  The “shine a light on inefficient homes” is a campaign to educate buyers at a critical point in their house buying journey – the open for inspection.  The idea is to engage people in discussions about the importance of energy costs.  The real cost of a house might be significantly higher than the purchase price if energy bills are taken into account.

Checking all the boxes including energy efficiency when buying a house
Add energy consumption to the checklist before buying a house

Considering energy costs when comparing the features of different homes helps buyers make more informed decisions.  All other factors being equal, who isn’t going to choose a home with lower operating costs?

Hopefully this campaign will start influencing the marketplace.  As more people ask questions about energy efficiency, real estate agents will see an advantage in proactively providing this data to attract buyers.  As energy consumption guides become the norm for property listings, developers may respond to the increased demand for low energy (sustainable) housing.

Looking to the future.

Before we know it, nobody will talk about sustainable homes because that’s just how houses are built.  Why would anyone build anything less?

OK, that might be a dream and take a while to achieve. Still, the Environment Victoria campaign is an excellent example of an organisation taking action and pushing for positive change.  Hopefully, they won’t be the only ones.

We want to help so Libby signed up as a volunteer starting in February. I suspect she’ll be going to a few open for inspections and doing her bit to educate house buyers (as well as having a good sticky-beak).

Season’s greetings.

Merry Aussie Christmas
A very merry Aussie Christmas

The building team is taking a well-earned break over the festive season.  We’re looking forward to some family time, as well as doing a few jobs while the site is quiet.  Those window frames are not going to oil themselves!

Libby and I wish you and your family a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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