As the five-star energy ratings take root, how will residents of exiting apartment blocks negotiate green changes?
Chris Palethorpe looks on with satisfaction as his new external blind hums downward over the balcony, slowly sheltering all his west-facing windows.
Last year, the 30-year-old photographer and his fiancé, Emma Fulu, moved into a fourth-floor apartment in Footscray. They delight in the view across the western suburbs, but during summer their floor-to-ceiling windows had a stifling drawback. “It was probably 10 degrees hotter in here than it was outside, even on a 40 degree day,” Mr Palethorpe says.
The couple have just invested about $8000 on internal and external blinds to improve the flat’s natural heating and cooling. Now, in mid-winter, they rarely need heating. “It wasn’t cheap, but we did it to be more comfortable here,” Mr Palethorpe says.
Efficient housing makeovers like this have become standard dinner party talk. Yet even though one-in-ten Melbourne households lives in a flat, unit or apartment, high-density dwellings are often left out of the debate. Strata title ownership, complicated by common spaces and facilities, can leave wannabe-green residents confused about what changes they are allowed to make.
Recent changes to state legislation mean that a building’s body corporate is now known as its ‘owners corporation’. Unfortunately, the name change hasn’t made group decision-making any easier. “You can count on one hand the number of properties that have ever achieved a unanimous resolution,” laughs Julie McLean, from Owners Corporations Victoria (OCV, formerly Institute of Body Corporate Managers Victoria). OCV represents owners corporation managers, the businesses that implement residents’ instructions.
According to Ms McLean, retrofitting residential apartment blocks to make them more sustainable “is the next big thing to tackle. The reason why it wasn’t tackled is because it’s been too hard.”
Any change to the outward appearance of an apartment building needs the approval of the owners corporation, but that’s not the only complication. Exactly who owns the water collected from a common roof? To get the solar panel rebate, how do you means test an owners corporation?
Despite the difficulties, Ms McLean says that apartment owners want to make their properties more efficient. “People are starting to say to me, ‘What can we do?’” She argues that like everyone else, high-rise residents need information and incentives to invest in sustainable retrofitting. She would like government departments to develop an information kit setting out the do’s and don’ts, including the likely costs and savings and the resolutions needed for specific changes.
Roger Kluske, Manager of Built Environments at Sustainability Victoria, agrees that strata title often clouds residents’ motivation to make sustainable changes. But he also sees owners corporation meetings as a possible driver for change. “I think body corporates need to get together and talk about these issues.”
“People who live in apartments just tend to take one bag of rubbish downstairs and chuck it in any bin that’s empty,” Mr Kluske says. Owners corporations could help solve this problem by educating residents. “Maybe the body corporate needs to have some sort of sustainability commitment, or people could sign agreements to do the right thing?”
He says an agreement could help with simple changes like sorting rubbish, allowing washing to dry on balconies (instead of using the dryer), or putting efficient lighting in public areas.
Four city apartment blocks have already begun to change their habits. The Melbourne City Council has just finished its Sustainable Living in the City (SLIC) program, which aimed to cut waste, water and energy use at Madison Apartments, Southbank Towers, Spring Street Towers and The Sovereign, in Southbank.
First, each building was audited, including interviews with residents, to work out how best to cut its carbon footprint. People then fitted efficient showerheads and light globes and some also added energy-smart gadgets like remote-controlled switches (to cut stand-by power use) and ‘Cent-a-meters’ (to show residents the cost of their electricity use at any time).
In common spaces, each building reduced lighting energy by swapping to lower wattage globes, removing unnecessary lights and installing timers where possible. They also put in rainwater tanks to care for shared gardens.
In the buildings with centralised hot water systems, plumbers added insulation and rebalanced the pressure system in the pipes – to dramatic effect. In some cases, householders had been waiting as long as ten minutes for hot water, all the while wasting cold water down the drain. After the maintenance, their hot water arrived almost instantaneously, leading to significant water and gas savings.
Dorothy LeClaire, manager of the owners corporation department at MCIM Property, says that while the full results of the trial haven’t yet come out, she expects big efficiency gains. MCIM manages three of the four buildings in the council trial.
In relation to lighting changes alone, “according to what the electricians say, it should eventually mean savings of anywhere to 30 per cent,” she says. At the Spring Street Towers, lighting savings are expected to save up to $13 000 per year, and retrofitting costs will be paid back in less than 14 months.
Lord Mayor John So is pleased with results of the SLIC program and hopes that it will continue under the new council to be elected in November. “We know that it was quite successful. The four buildings that were involved in this program reported significant decreases in energy and water consumption,” he says. “There is a lot of interest and support at the moment for rolling these programs further.”
The scheme has already rolled into other MCIM buildings, according to Ms LeClaire. Last year, the company held an energy forum for its properties based on the SLIC trial and is promoting audits for each block. “I would say all of our buildings are now participating in some way with sustainability,” she says.
But despite enthusiasm at council and management level, a sustainable retrofit hasn’t yet translated to higher property values. Dannie Corr, director of St Kilda real estate agents Whiting and Co, says that when it comes to old apartment buildings, buyers don’t ask about sustainability. “It doesn’t seem to be top of mind at all.”
Matthew Morley, Sales Manager at Morleys Real Estate in Elwood, agrees that eco-features are not yet impacting on sale prices. But he does believe that they attract buyer interest. When a flat comes with green benefits “people get pretty excited, which is a good sign that people do want those things,” he says. “I think that right through the bayside area it will become a very important factor when selling.”
In his Footscray flat, Mr Palethorpe wasn’t motivated by the prospect of better real estate returns. As well as expensive purchases like their indoor and outdoor blinds, the couple have spruced up their apartment with an assortment of simple eco-friendly measures. They’ve put in a water-saving showerhead, compact fluorescent globes and a Bokashi Bucket composting system.
Every six weeks or so, Mr Palethorpe takes his compost to a community garden in Braybrook and a local gardener has begun rewarding his effort. “The guy now gives us food in return for our waste; he gives us cauliflower or whatever he’s got.”
“It’s up to the individual to put some time and effort into it,” he says. “Maybe these things are saving us money down the track, I don’t know. But it’s helping the environment.”
Five easy ways to green up your apartment and save energy and money
Change to low-flow showerheads and tap fittings, dual-flush toilets and low-energy lighting. If you have halogen downlights, you can switch from 50-watt to 20-watt globes.
If your fridge, dishwasher or washing machine dies, choose high-efficiency replacements. Dry your clothes on your balcony, if you have one.
Be wise about waste
Remember to recycle, even if the bins are far away in the basement. Flat-friendly compost systems, like the Bokashi Bucket, are also available.
Add external blinds to block the hot summer sun on west-facing windows, and internal blinds to trap heat inside during winter. If you renovate, put in double-glazed windows and extra insulation.
Why not use your owners corporation to make an eco-agreement with your neighbours? A building audit can help you cut your carbon footprint. You can make common light fittings more efficient. If you have centralised hot water (ring mains), get a plumber to make sure the system is balanced – it could save water and gas.
Always remember that any changes to the common space or external appearance of your building need owners corporation (body corporate) approval. Ask your owners corporation manager if you aren’t sure about something.