Solar initiatives in built-up areas may be left struggling to see the light of day
THE eco-friendly Australian cities of the future will combine dense housing with savvy, energy-smart design. Or will they? Is there a conflict looming between the twin green goals of urban densification and widespread harvesting of the sun’s rays?
More and more people are installing solar panels and solar hot water systems, growing their own vegies and adapting their houses for passive solar gain. But as they do so, they may find their desire for direct sunlight overshadowed by bigger buildings next door.
Professor Kim Dovey, chair of architecture and urban design at the University of Melbourne, says the right to sunlight is a growing issue.
“Since the 1990s, there’s been a strong push for higher densities, often based on green arguments, such as getting more people living closer to train stations and so on. But at the same time, the solar access issue has been forgotten,” he says.
He says planning rules treat sunlight as a matter of amenity, not sustainability.
“To me, the deeper issue is that the ownership of a block of land seems to imply some kind of right to access the solar energy that comes with it,” Professor Dovey says. “And we also have a public imperative for distributed energy systems – the idea that we should generate electricity everywhere, not only in one place.”
Currently, although every level of government offers subsidies or incentives for solar panels and hot water units, there’s been no equivalent attempt to safeguard those investments against overshadowing.
Similarly, the Victorian planning controls don’t shield householders’ access to direct sunlight in the winter, the time of year when it’s needed most for passive heating.
Despite this criticism, the Victorian Department of Planning and Community Development maintains that its regulations adequately protect existing north-facing windows and backyards.
Under the rules, shadow diagrams are drawn at the spring equinox, not the winter solstice – which means they don’t take account of the six months when the sun is lowest in the sky.
Seamus Haugh, a spokesperson for the department, says the current practice represents “a sensible balance”.
“In Melbourne, [using] the winter solstice would unreasonably restrict redevelopment opportunities and would significantly impact on homeowner rights to modernise existing housing,” he says.
A review of the state planning scheme is underway, and is scheduled to report its preliminary findings to the minister at the end of November.
Angela Meinke, manager of planning and building at the City of Melbourne, acknowledges that sustainability isn’t a key consideration under the rules, as they stand. “The planning scheme doesn’t address the impact you could have on green initiatives on neighbouring properties,” she says.
“The challenge we have in planning is to weigh up the rights of property owners to develop and the rights of neighbours not to be affected by development. We try to strike a balance.”
But as the risks of climate change and energy scarcity grow more pressing, it is becoming increasingly apparent that householders everywhere must adopt low-consumption, low-impact lifestyles. The notion of “balance” may need to favour sunlight over development – especially where the plans in question are only for larger houses, not more dwellings.
Professor Dovey contends that the government must “take some responsibility for a sustainable future” by planning actively, rather than prolonging the market-led approach of recent decades.
“In the middle of winter it’s very hard to avoid the blocking of sun, so there have to be compromises. I think that will mean that in any given area, the height limits ought to be reasonably flat,” he says.
“You could have a law that says properties cannot differ by more than a couple of storeys from one property to another. And that would improve the city, because it won’t be pockmarked with large towers.”
In the case of solar photovoltaic panels, Stephen Ingrouille, from Going Solar, believes overshadowing concerns can usually be solved by careful planning or by negotiation between landowners.
“You could get people to set back a little, or bevel the corners of buildings,” he suggests. “Potentially you can move solar panels to another spot, but who pays for that? What is reasonable?”
He notes that in the UK, residents have defended their solar access under the common law doctrine of Ancient lights, which gives owners of long-standing buildings a right to maintain their established level of illumination. In Australia, the courts have heard very few cases about solar access for sustainability.
As a general rule, Mr Ingrouille advises would-be customers to consider the likelihood of “overdevelopment” on the property immediately to their north. “Be mindful that might happen and try to plan for it,” he says.
There goes the sun
IN the mid-1990s, the Walsh family extended their Kensington home. With the help of their next door neighbour at the time – an architect – they designed a living area with glass doors and high windows to capture the sun.
“In winter time, it’s like a sun room in here,” says Wally Walsh. “We’ve got a grape vine to provide shade in summer, but in winter it loses all its leaves, the sun streams in and you don’t need to heat the room.”
The architect has since moved on, and the family’s new neighbours have extended twice. The most recent addition was a second storey, erected earlier this year.
The length of the block runs east to west, so the home’s northern windows look out onto the house next door. But where once they saw sky, the family now see rows of cream weatherboards.
“I came home one evening and the frame was up and I thought: ‘My God’,” Mr Walsh says. “I contacted the Melbourne City Council immediately, who told me that we had no grounds to appeal other than on the basis of heritage.”
Angela Meinke, the council’s planning and building manager, confirmed that in this case, heritage concerns were the only matter the council could consider in determining its planning permit.
The building surveyor, however, was required to assess the shadows cast on their existing north-facing windows. Unfortunately for the Walsh family, the demands of the regulations aren’t stringent enough to safeguard their winter sun.
By Mr Walsh’s reckoning, the rules favour development over energy-efficient design. “It’s going to be colder and darker in here. We’ll need to have the heating and lights on more often,” he says.
“They’re doing what they’re entitled to do, apparently. But it’s sad. You’re supposed to design your house so you get sunshine in winter and shade in the summer, aren’t you? For us, ultimately, it was a waste of time.”