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The Housing Industry Need To Change Direction Towards Sustainable Design


The recent Solar House Day (11 Sept. 2005, organised by the ANZ Solar Energy Society) has, once again aroused a lot of public interest. As on previous occasions many comments were received which indicated a need for the housing industry to take a good hard look at itself and raise itself into the 21st century.

This craft-based industry continues to hide its head in the sand; ignores research on how to give better value for money to house buyers; continues to believe it knows best what the customer wants; has failed to demonstrate how to produce sustainable houses which will benefit the environment and is very glib at stretching the truth about its ‘Green’ buildings.

If we built cars like we build houses we would still be riding around in horse drawn sulkies. The car industry has successfully invested billions into research to make cars better, but all the evidence from houses on sale today shows an unwillingness to address the reality of climate change and concern for a degrading environment. Maximising short term profit appears to be the paramount driver.

Commonly asked questions during Solar House Day were :

“Why aren’t builders putting up houses that are better designed for this climate?”,
“Why don’t builders utilise free solar energy? and “Why doesn’t the industry ask us what we (the house buyers) want?

Those in the solar energy /design industry have their own questions :

Why is it that many new houses are badly designed and oriented, having frigid and unusable rooms in winter and unbearably hot rooms in summer, when the science of how to avoid these problems has been known for many decades?

Why is it that many new houses have roofs which are so broken up with hips and valleys that they can’t even be retrofitted with photovoltaic panels of any useful size?

Why is it that solar water heaters are not even included on new roofs? (Australia led the way with solar water heater research and development in the 1950s, yet today only about 5% of Australian houses take advantage of this very efficient sustainable device). To give due credit there was ONE solar water heater which recently appeared on a new house on the new housing development at Elmslea, near Bungendore – let us hope it is the first of many.

The housing industry has left a potentially devastating legacy to the Australian community of such poor house design that we are now witnessing a rush to install air conditioners (which will almost inevitably cause many electricity blackouts in summer when the electricity system becomes overloaded and the hot air output of the air conditioners will elevate urban ambient temperatures even higher.)

It is almost certain that when fossil fuelled house heating (including electric heating), becomes expensive a high percentage of our population will freeze in winter and the old and the infirm will be the first group to suffer – possibly with an increase in reported deaths and hypothermia admissions to hospitals. The indications are also clear that the opposite will undoubtedly occur in summer during a run of hot days.

Such design inadequacies in the common knowledge of climate change borders on collective and culpable incompetence in the housing industry. The magnitude of its consequences on our discomforts and on the environment would, in any other industry, call for a product recall or a public enquiry. Why are such design inadequacies approved by our planning authorities when our governments claim they are committed to world class sustainable development?

To some extent some of this is understandable in that we have all been seduced by the conveniences that technology has produced in the last century. We seem to be inherent seekers of novelty to the extent that living simply has become a thing of the past.

Society has been led up the path of unsustainability and has ignored the consequences of living beyond its means. It was almost inevitable that questions would be raised about the limit of affordability having been reached in the housing market.

A major underlying problem has been that the housing industry, fragmented as it is into so many separate trades and by its competitive nature, believes that attracting sales by more impressive “mine is bigger than yours” features are better (for the builder) than achieving more comfort and sustainability (for the buyer and society). The industry’s sense of values has become so distorted as to believe that wants are more important than needs.

The Housing Industries Association has tried various promotions to interest its members in more effective design, but judging by the continuing plethora of ill-considered brick boxes, the message is not being put into action. If the message is understood then the results are nothing short of culpable negligence and corrective measures must be taken.

These criticisms should not be borne by the housing industry alone. Architects and house designers must carry some of the blame for past design inadequacies. They have, or should have, the research findings for better solar utilisation, but for some reason have not realised or been able to convince their clients of the need. Emphasis, particularly in the glossy architectural magazines, aided by the real estate industry, has always been placed on the glamorous side of housing at the expense of the good, practical and comfortable which are not so sexy. This is one of the root problems that face society today and climate change is bringing it out into the open.

The common cry is that ‘all this solar technology’ costs money! Of course it does, but so do ostentatious porticos and balustrades, excessively big houses, spa baths, multiple bathrooms glitzy kitchens and full area heating systems. Exchange these wants with needs and the integration of natural energy systems and you have a win/win/win/win situation for builder, buyer, society and the environment. In addition, advice from a leading real estate firm has been to the effect that for every dollar spent on domestic, sustainable technology, two dollars can be added onto the asking price.

Another common question is “How long does it take to recoup the cost?” Why don’t they ask how long it takes a swimming pool, or a new car to pay for itself and indeed, how can you calculate it? Swimming pools and cars start to depreciate and cost money in maintenance the moment you buy them, but photovoltaics and solar hot water heaters begin to save money from the first day of installation. It says a lot for our sense of values that such a question is even asked. It isn’t the ‘right’ question in our current situation.

The now prominent global warming situation literally brings home to us what has been described by others as “the greatest weapon of mass destruction ever facing mankind.”

There is now incontrovertible evidence that our love affair with the domestic conveniences made possible by fossil fuels has now to be paid for by remedial action. The emphasis is on the “now” because if we delay, then the bill will have to be paid for by our children and grandchildren. The issue has also become a moral one, creating a dilemma for those of us who have lived through the extravagant and seductive years fuelled by coal and oil and are now concerned for the future of our children.

We have a child-like faith that technology will rescue us; that just around the corner there is a silver bullet that will provide us with unlimited, clean and cheap power – nuclear fusion, hydrogen, biofuels, conveniently ignoring the many negatives such as sweeping the CO2 emissions from the continuing burning of coal under the carpet of sequestration.

We are grasping at tempting straws in our moment of uncertainty, when a realistic look at the situation can only conclude that at this point in history we should really be looking critically at our lifestyle and its effects on housing design. This is something we can do now to reduce the problem for our children and buy them the time for technology to provide better answers.

We need to recognise that our lifestyle has made Australians (per capita) the greatest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world and that about half of these emissions come by way of our houses and consumptive lifestyle, largely from our consumption of electricity.

The housing industry and its products are, at the moment, only a manifestation of society’s cumulative lifestyle values, encouraged by the competitive nature of the industry – and herein lies the germ of a wonderful opportunity for the housing industry which doesn’t seem to realise that it has a very profitable future in sustainable housing – the market is demanding it, the science and technology is now well developed and the global need is being overwhelmingly demonstrated by recent climatic events.

The government regulators, however, need to catch up with society and, where necessary, bend with the wind with controlled experimentation and encouragement. Mistakes will no doubt be made, but we are all on a very steep learning curve and tolerance is called for if we are to survive.

There are many new ideas coming forward – enabling us to live healthier lives with less fossil fuel energy; ways of reducing our water consumption; reducing / re-using our wastes and the housing industry has a pivotal role to play in achieving this better future.

The lending institutions are key players in this evolution back to sanity. Some have already recognised the way the wind is blowing toward sustainability, but more imaginative products are needed to educate and encourage house buyers to invest in the future.

The real estate industry also needs to recognise its role in this era of change. Its current emphasis on the promotion of glitzy, hedonistic ‘features’ should put more emphasis on the needs of society by a joint change of direction toward sustainable aspects.

The underlying answer, however, is that we all need a change of mindset – we need to realise that our current lifestyle cannot continue on such a finite planet. It is the right thing to do to rein in the horses and change direction.

Derek Wrigley, OAM is a retired Canberra architect who self-published his book “Making Your Home Sustainable” last year. His retrofitted house was open on Solar House Day, attracting 233 visitors.

“Save water, save energy, save money, and save the environment.”