Better planning controls can add to household sustainability.
From next May, new houses and renovations must reach six stars. Even so, our building standards will still be full of gaps, according to Alan March, senior lecturer from the Melbourne School of Design at University of Melbourne.
“The current star rating system measures the performance of buildings. That’s good – it means they don’t let heat pass through windows or walls as badly as in the past. But there’s a whole range of opportunities to make them perform even better,” he says.
In a forthcoming research paper, co-authored with Christina Collia, Dr March found that the building code skips over bigger picture concerns, including the location and materials used in the home, as well as waste production and links with public transport and bicycle paths.
Even simple things, such as clotheslines, are left out in the cold. “If people want to dry clothes outside, it’s no good if the backyard or the balcony never gets sunlight. They’ll buy an electric dryer instead, and all the building technology goes out the window very quickly when you start using electricity from Hazelwood Power Station,” Dr March says.
He believes it would be simple to peg extra features onto existing planning controls. Those guidelines could encompass native habitat, rainwater tanks, fixed heating and cooling systems, lighting and daylighting, and even food growing and composting areas.
“We could go beyond a technological view of individual houses and start to create whole communities,” he says.
The Moreland City Council is already hoisting homes above the average with STEPS, a web-based tool that assesses residential sustainability. It covers five areas: greenhouse emissions from operating energy, peak energy use, water use, stormwater and building materials. The program also considers bike storage and space for waste and recycling.
Shannon Best, from Moreland City Council, says STEPS predicts household energy use more accurately than the star ratings. “If you install a lot of lights or an inefficient hot water service and air conditioner in a five-star house, you can end up with a much worse result than an existing home. It’s important to look at the whole product, not just the thermal efficiency.”
A group of 14 Victorian councils – the Council Alliance for a Sustainable Built Environment – is now promoting STEPS as a voluntary measure for residents submitting planning applications.
Mr Best says the tool’s key benefit is to begin conversations about sustainable design. “If you’re going to build a house, ask your architect or designer to put it through STEPS to see how it performs,” he says.
“Last year alone, we calculated that the savings were equivalent to one-third of council’s greenhouse emissions and water use. That comes from getting people to talk about sustainability initiatives in their buildings – people can and do learn.”
Dr March says that while STEPS opens up a path to greener homes, a more comprehensive, compulsory scheme would be easier for local governments to enforce. “It’s a simpler and better outcome if the process is standardised across Victoria,” he says.
“Whether it’s sooner or later, we will do these things – and we as a community will be better off. People will be happy not to have to switch on their lights. Developers will enjoy the certainty that it provides, and they’ll have a better product to sell.”