Power prices are to rocket and new houses are breaking barriers in a quest for efficiency.
Last month, the federal government predicted an energy price hike. The Minister for Climate Change and Water, Penny Wong, forecast that electricity prices could rise by 16% and gas prices by 9% when the government’s carbon trading scheme comes into force.
Surging power bills will have a big impact where the heart is: one third of the state’s energy is used in the home. With so much at stake, how will our new houses trim their expanding wastes?
In 2004, Victoria led the other states by phasing in 5 Star efficiency regulations for new homes. In May this year, the 5 Star rules were extended to cover renovations and alterations.
Yet even with the 5 Star regulations, residential power use is growing. Last year, consultants George Wilkenfeld and Associates concluded that the energy-related emissions from new Victorian houses were about 6% higher than in existing ones.
The Wilkenfeld Report blamed the extra emissions on our appetite for super-sized abodes. It estimated that 5 Star dwellings were almost one third larger than homes built before the regulations came into effect. A bigger house needs more lighting, heating and cooling, no matter how well insulated it is.
State building commissioner Tony Arnel agrees that hulking houses are still a major problem. “You have to insulate more and do things to deliver better thermal efficiency… but house sizes have actually grown substantially and household occupancy has fallen. It’s rather ironical,” he says.
Although McMansions normally take the blame, architect-designed houses are also at fault. Architect and sustainability consultant Chris Barnett, from Third Skin, says that they are often the biggest and most power-hungry of all. “As an individual design, they will only be better if you put it in your brief and you pay for it.”
Mr Arnel, who also chairs the Green Building Council, thinks that change is on the way. “Electricity prices have increased over the last couple of years and that is driving demand for energy efficiency in housing.” He predicts that further rates rises will fuel a downsizing trend. “I would expect a market correction as developers start to offer more energy-efficient and appropriately designed houses,” he says.
VicUrban, the state sustainable urban development agency, is heading the market correction. The agency is a commercial operation, albeit one that aims to be an eco-leader in residential construction. David Young, general manager of project planning and design at VicUrban, thinks that sustainability will soon be front-of-mind, via the hip pocket, as energy bills absorb more of people’s disposable income.
That’s where low-energy housing comes in. Aurora, VicUrban’s eco-development in Epping North, boasts only six-star homes. “At the moment, we estimate that six star can save residents up to $1700 a year compared to the standard 5 Star on the market,” Mr Young says.
As well as better insulation and passive solar design [see box], houses at Aurora are fitted with only high-efficiency appliances and lighting. According to Mr Young, they are also slightly smaller than average developments.
VicUrban is not the only developer building houses greener than the government demands. Every design in Henley Homes’ new range meets the six-star level. Managing Director Peter Hayes says Henley, Melbourne’s biggest builder, is working on making all its designs more efficient than 5 Star. “We expect the energy rate to keep on ratcheting up. We think that it’s quite reasonable for six stars to become standard.”
Mr Hayes says that the efficiency extras add about 1% to building costs for their smallest designs and up to 2.5% for double-storey homes. But he expects the benefits will extend to resale value. “A house that costs less to run is going to be worth more.”
Burbank also has a range of six star homes. Associate Director Paul Puhar estimates that about one in every three clients now chooses the more efficient design. “It’s an emerging sector for us and it’s a fast growing one.” He believes that while environmental awareness is improving, many people still don’t consider sustainability when they buy their house.
Mr Puhar supports education more than regulation to cut household resource use. “We build five-star homes, but the one-star family can annihilate that if their attitude and behaviour is not right. Culture-shifting is absolutely imperative.”
Internationally, governments are opting for more stringent regulations. In Britain, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has committed all new homes to be carbon neutral by 2016. Many other European countries also impose standards beyond ours, as do some US states, including California.
Victoria’s 5 Star regulations relate only to the building materials. They don’t demand low-energy lighting, heating, cooling or appliances. According to eco-consultant Mr Barnett, that’s like asking ‘how good is the eski?’
“Energy ratings only consider the thickness of the foam in your eski walls and the size of the glass holes punched through them. We need to look at the whole issue. What’s the overall resource use and environmental impact of the home? What services are going into it?” he asks.
Mr Barnett believes the state government should introduce a more comprehensive building sustainability index like BASIX, used in NSW, or STEPS, used by some Victorian councils. Both tools assess the eco-impact of dwellings based on information like site location and fittings, as well as building materials.
A spokesperson for the Victorian Government says it is “committed to improving the environmental efficiency of new homes”, but would not comment on the prospect of stricter regulations. Mr Arnel, the state building commissioner, believes tighter rules are inevitable. The timing is uncertain, he says, “but the high jump bar will rise, there’s no doubt about that.”
How to manage the meter
From next year, electricity companies will begin to install smart meters in Victorian homes and businesses. The meters, which will be fully rolled out within five years, allow energy retail suppliers to read your meter remotely and vary prices during the day. But that’s not all.
According to Peter Clements, from the state Department of Primary Industries, smart meters will tell us a lot more about our power consumption. If you choose, an in-home screen will show your real-time electricity costs. Knowing your budget bottom-line is a big incentive to switch off the air conditioning – energy use has fallen by up to 4% in other places with similar technology.
“It turns the world of energy usage on its head,” Mr Clements says. “It’s a tool that helps you better manage the inevitable energy cost increases due to climate change.”
Powering down: golden rules
The smaller the better
Big houses use more of everything, including electricity.
Plan living areas for the north side of the house, to make the most of winter sun.
Reflect on your windows
Go for double-glazing to cut down heat loss. North-facing windows are best, but you should shade them in summer with wide eaves and deciduous trees. Keep east- and west-facing windows small—the lower sun is tricky to shade. Minimise windows on the sunless south.
Good insulation can cut heat loss by up to 70%. Put it in ceilings, walls and floors. Internal and external blinds act as extra insulation for your windows.
Cross-ventilation is power-free cooling for summer nights. Open windows and let fresh breeze blow in from the south and out from the north. Fans are also a cheap way to chill.
Heavy building materials like concrete, brick and stone absorb and store heat, curbing the extremes of winter and summer. A concrete slab floor is a good way to go.
Close the gaps
Be sure to seal all external doors, windows and exhausts.
Use efficient appliances and lights
Choosing one extra star rating on appliances and fittings can mean savings of 10–30% on running costs. Buy low-energy globes and avoid power-hungry halogens.