A carbon neutral home isn’t science fiction. It’s coming to Melbourne, and it will be on sale from next year.
Here’s the plan for a new house in our outer suburbs: an open plan living area, with four bedrooms and two bathrooms, plus a theatre, an outdoor patio and a double garage. It’ll have a contemporary look, with a wood-panelled exterior and a flat roof.
Sounds unremarkable, right?
Actually, that’s the sketch of Australia’s first commercially designed carbon neutral house. With a combination of smart planning, passive solar design and whiz bang machinery it will generate at least as much energy as it uses.
The plan for the Zero Emission House was launched in late September at the World Sustainable Building Conference, held in Melbourne. The ground-breaking eco home is a joint venture between CSIRO, Delfin Lend Lease and Henley Property Group, with more partners yet to come.
The project’s foundations were laid over a year ago, when CSIRO began a study into low emissions housing around the world. Dr Greg Foliente, Principal Research Scientist in CSIRO’s Sustainable Ecosystems team, visited overseas prototypes, including some in the UK, where all new housing is planned to be carbon neutral by 2016.
His team also analysed efficient designs across Australia’s different weather zones, from tropical Far North Queensland to four-seasons Melbourne. “We looked at what we can do with the best knowledge we have, if we just change the way we build and put in appliances,” Dr Foliente says. “We found out that we can reduce the footprint by between 60 and 80 per cent. Right now.”
Next, the task is to bring the blueprint to the suburbs. Dr Foliente’s study tour taught him that most eco display homes look odd and don’t appeal to the mass market. Determined not to build a house “like a space ship”, CSIRO chose to involve a commercial developer and builder to tell them what buyers want.
At first, with those “weird looking” concept houses in mind, Peter Hayes, Managing Director of Henley Property Group, felt nervous about the project. “I thought it would be terrifying for a volume builder to try to do.”
Happily, it hasn’t turned out that way. “This is actually a regular house. It’s contemporary because we are doing a very contemporary range,” Mr Hayes says. “When you drive down the street you won’t know the difference.”
The design process wasn’t overly difficult. “Technically, we don’t see it as a very hard thing to do,” says Mr Hayes. The trick was to pay close attention the home’s orientation and use CSIRO’s expertise to fine-tune the details [see box].
Construction will begin early in 2009 and be finished before the end of the year. Then, to test the house’s performance in practice, a family of willing renters will move in. CSIRO will monitor their energy usage patterns over a full 12 months.
The home will be open for display before the tenants move in and Henley plans to sell the design immediately. “We’ll be offering the home to the public with or without the [solar] cells, as a regular Henley home,” Mr Hayes says. “We hope to extend our product range to include more of them.”
The only catch for the enthusiastic buyer is, unsurprisingly, a higher price tag than that of a standard new home. Similarly sized Henley homes sell for between $150 000 and $200 000, and while the costs haven’t yet been finalised, Mr Hayes expects that the extra expense will be “in the tens of thousands of dollars”. His estimate doesn’t count the solar panels, which could add the same again.
Delfin Lend Lease acknowledges that higher costs are a concern for some people. “Our research indicates that the marketplace wants a more sustainable housing option,” says Bryce Moore, Chief Operating Officer. “But their preparedness to pay for it is another matter.”
He says that while the Zero Emission House project will mean some extra dollars, it’s a design that will become much more affordable over time. The home, to be built on Delfin’s Laurimar site, fits perfectly with the company’s goals for its new developments. “For the next generation of Delfin communities, we have an aspiration to achieve zero carbon [emissions]. This house is one aspect of that,” Mr Moore says.
Also, the big upside for buyers will be dramatically lower running costs and better long-term value, as Mr Hayes makes clear. “Energy is going to get more expensive. The resale value of these of these homes is obviously going to be greater than the resale value of a home that’s got five stars or no stars on it.”
With his plan about to come to fruition, CSIRO’s Dr Foliente hopes the design will catch on all over the country. “We hope to target the mass housing market immediately, not five or ten years from now.”
CSIRO’s goal is to significantly reduce domestic carbon footprints. “That’s our contribution to the global warming challenge,” he says. “Every household can potentially have a contribution. Hopefully it’s the start of a social transformation across Australia.”
Living clean, green and cheap
Although plans are not yet set in stone, the 25-square Zero Emission House will be at least an 8-star rating under the current system. It will use about 70 per cent less power than a 5-star equivalent.
It will run entirely on renewable electricity – no gas – generated from solar panels and possibly, mini wind turbines. The home will be connected to the grid but also have some battery storage. Over the year, it will produce at least as much energy as it uses.
Henley and CSIRO have designed the home especially for the block chosen on Delfin Lend Lease’s Laurimar site in Doreen, 30 kilometres north of Melbourne.
With precise local modelling, CSIRO has perfected the amount of insulation for the floor, ceiling and walls. They’ve balanced the insulation against the ‘thermal mass’ of the building materials (like the concrete slab, which helps even out day and night temperature changes) to make the home as comfortable as possible.
The designers have also attended to passive solar principles, like positioning living areas to soak up the northern sun, while calculating eaves to let in winter rays and shade the summer heat.
The house will be stocked with the most efficient off-the-shelf fittings and appliances available. Reverse-cycle air-conditioning will do the heating and cooling. A smart electricity meter and feedback system will tell the residents exactly how much energy they’re guzzling and where it’s going. The report cards can even be sent to the tenants’ mobile phones.
Out of the lab
The Zero Emission House isn’t the only eco building project under way at CSIRO. The nation’s top research scientists are working on a street of innovations that will change our real estate. Here’s a sample:
The Residential Desiccant Cooling (RedeCOOL) project is a solar powered air-conditioner especially for the home. It’s in development at CSIRO’s Newcastle climate test facility, where the scientists can mimic different weather conditions to test their product.
RedeCOOL is a particularly nifty idea because we use our air conditioners when the sun is most ferocious, but it could be a few years before it’s publicly available.
RedeCOOL’s cousin, OptiCOOL, automatically controls the heating, cooling and ventilation systems in commercial buildings. These systems normally gobble about 60 per cent of a building’s energy.
OptiCOOL uses smart software to sense and respond to different temperatures and occupancy throughout a building. By starting and shutting down according to need, it chops energy use without compromising comfort. It’s already running in a number of commercial buildings.
CSIRO’s Dr Swee Mak and his team were inspired by the structure of bone, which has a strong casing around a porous interior. Their product, HySSIL, weighs half as much as normal concrete, but is just as strong. And what’s more, their panels offer five times the thermal insulation of the standard grey stuff.
With far less embodied energy than brick, the efficient production process could help to demolish greenhouse gas emissions. It’s moving to the commercial stage, and the first HySSIL home is already under construction.
How do planners, developers, architects and builders find out the facts on sustainability? CSIRO’s researchers have launched a website, to help make sure our design and construction professionals are in the eco-know.
It’s got dozens of fact sheets, from wastewater planning to walkable neighbourhoods, as well as case studies of some the best developments in Australia and abroad.