On Sustainable House Day, Sunday September 13, eco-conscious stickybeaks can learn from the people who know best. Visit two Melbourne homes open for inspection.
Lorraine Hughes has shown over 1300 people through her two-bedroom sustainable home in Knoxfield. “I’m into education,” she explains. “I just invite people, left, right and centre.”
She’s got it down to a well-practiced art, complete with information boards and pamphlets. The diminutive and dedicated 73-year-old begins her tour across the road, looking back at her home. “The house says ‘Solar, solar, solar, solar’, right?”
Right. The cream-coloured house has a long north-facing aspect, and it’s sprouting solar power. There are thickets of photovoltaic panels on the roof – some gathered towards the back and others standing proudly at the front like sails in the wind. There’s also a solar hot water system and two solar ventilation units.
“I’ve got a 4.5 kilowatt (solar PV) system and it will be providing clean green energy long after I’m dead and buried,” Ms Hughes says.
She built the house – designed by Andreas Sederof from Sunpower Design – for her retirement in 2001. “I wanted to downsize, stay local and build a house in suburbia,” she says. “My aim was to be as sustainable as possible on a small block that looked the same as everybody else’s.”
The home is self-sufficient in water and, over the course of a year, produces electricity well in excess of its needs. The building materials and finishes were chosen for their low embodied energy, wherever possible.
After discussing the technical details of solar power, Ms Hughes heads back over the road, around the front fence – made from radial cut timber, to minimise waste – and through her gate to the waterworks.
She has an enormous 27,240-litre rainwater tank, which captures the runoff from all her gutters. Further around the back, past the citrus trees, her greywater treatment system collects wastewater from the washing machine, showers and bathroom basins. The peat-treated outflow is used in the garden and toilets.
Ms Hughes’s interest in sustainable living began in her childhood – her parents planted veggie patches and fruit trees and kept farmyard animals wherever they lived. “I travelled in my youth too,” she says. “I worked in third world countries, so I’ve seen life from a different perspective. There’s nothing new about living sustainably.”
She also has a full grasp of the latest technology. After years of going to talks and short courses, she studied energy auditing and sustainable building design for a year at Swinburne TAFE. “I enjoyed it up to the hilt. I hadn’t been back to school for over 50 years,” she says.
Inside her home, there are all kinds of details to take in, from the smart solar passive design, cross-ventilation, double glazed windows, clever blinds, and eco-friendly fittings and finishes.
Ms Hughes has spent years attending to every detail, but she wants to illuminate, not intimidate, her visitors. “You don’t have to do what I’ve done. I always tell people: if you’ve got an existing house, concentrate on one room at a time. Do the things that you can – insulate, seal your gaps,” she says. “And the most important part of all is the person living in the house.”
A tour of Cameron and Karin Munro’s house in Malvern begins in the small front yard. Mr Monro scratches at a patch of red stones to reveal a shiny metal plate. “The downpipes all feed into a stormwater exit that just runs underneath our feet,” he says.
From there, the water is diverted and pumped to a tank at the back of the house, which feeds the laundry and toilets. The saving has helped the Monros cut their consumption down to just 45 litres each per day, less than a third of the state government target.
The couple bought their neat, late 19th century weatherboard cottage in 2007, after moving to Australia from Europe. Ms Monro, from Sweden, had shivery memories of accommodation down under. “I spent a year in South Australia as an exchange student,” she says. “Temperature-wise, the winter was nowhere near northern Europe, but I’ve never been as cold as I was then, because there was no heating except a wood stove at one end of the house.”
Mr Monro, an Australian engineer and transport planner, had also become accustomed to smarter housing design. “Sweden has an extreme climate and they’ve built houses to match it,” he says. “The Australian climate is also extreme, but I think we’ve lost our way in building for it.”
So the couple decided to blanket their house in insulation – they doubled the batts in the roof and injected expanding foam in their walls. The tour’s next stop, at the weatherboard side wall, provides the evidence. It’s dotted with patched-up holes where the foam was squirted in between studs.
It’s slightly spotty inside too, on the ceiling, where the Monros have removed 21 power-hungry halogen downlights. In their lounge area alone, their lighting energy use has tumbled from 250 to 15 watts.
The extra efficiency has helped them to consume only about as much electricity as they generate with their 1 kilowatt solar photovoltaic system. “I think solar PV is brilliant,” Mr Monro says. “You just get it installed and do nothing – that can’t be beat. There’s no greasing, noise or any ongoing maintenance costs. It just sits there and ticks away.”
Double-glazing proved the biggest expense. They replaced nearly all the window units in the house. “The new windows are incredibly expensive but incredibly good,” he says. “They cut down the noise as well as improve the thermal performance. You feel it walking around the house.”
All up, Mr Monro estimates they’ve spent between $35,000 and $40,000, of which the windows took up about two-thirds. “It’s not a financial thing because the economics currently just don’t stack up,” Mr Monro says. “It’s really an ethical thing about our futures and that of our baby, Sophia.”
“And also about the quality of living and comfort,” Ms Monro adds. “The house is so much nicer now.”
She’s got a cosy message for people who visit their home. “It is possible to retrofit an existing house. You don’t have to buy a new house or demolish and build again. You can reduce what you’ve got and make a big difference.”
Sustainable House Day will be held on September 13, 2009, from 10am to 4pm. Across the country, 170 homeowners are participating. In Victoria, there will be 45 homes open to visitors, all for free.