The builders of an award-winning home made from hemp hope to inspire a shift towards making it a mainstream construction material.
Balanced Earth recently won the Master Builders New South Wales Energy Efficient Building award for a home in the Byron Bay hinterland, in northern New South Wales.
Architect Michael Leung said while industrial hemp was popular in textiles, there was a growing interest in using the cannabis sativa plant in buildings.
“I think we’ve just hit the hemp industry at the right time, and in Byron Bay there’s a real consciousness and responsibility to the environment so it’s just seamlessly flowed together,” he said.
Builder Luke Wrencher said hemp’s most positive attribute was its sustainability.
“When you grow the hemp it takes the carbon out of the atmosphere and it stores the carbon in that fibre and you process it and lock the carbon up into the building, so at that point it becomes carbon negative,” he said.
“To have a building material that is carbon negative is almost revolutionary.”
To use hemp in construction, the builders take the chopped hurd, that is the inner woody core, and mix it with lime and sand to create a substance they have dubbed “hempcrete”.
In the award-winning Byron hinterland home, the builders constructed frames from recycled timber to hold the hempcrete walls.
“The actual packing of the hemp is very easy to do, kids, children, wives, husbands, anyone can do it,” Mr Wrencher said.
“The hardest thing is you need a carpenter for your formwork, but then it can definitely be a community thing to do, pack the hemp into the formed up walls.”
The set walls have a texture similar to rendered concrete.
Mr Leung said he began looking into hemp after his wife’s father died from mesothelioma, an asbestos-related illness.
“We moved to Byron and wanted to build our dream home and my wife was adamant we weren’t going to use any toxic materials,” he said.
“Then we met Luke, who had been working with hemp, and it went from there.”
Mr Leung said hemp had proven to have outstanding thermal and acoustic properties.
“It’s not just an insulator, it buffers temperature and humidity and prevents damp and mould growth,” he said.
“It makes the building a healthy environment.”
Making hemp mainstream
Mr Leung said the company’s goal was to make hemp commonplace in the Australian construction industry.
He said the cost was comparable to conventional building products and could potentially be lowered if greater quantities of industrial hemp were grown commercially.
“Our vision is to really get hemp into mainstream construction and design,” he said.
“We’re leading the way in terms of design and builds in this country in hemp and we’ve only done eight builds and a number of feature walls.
“We’d really like all builders to be using it and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.”
Some buildings are so ugly, the only thing that could possibly improve them is a wrecking ball. It’s even worse when the structures are high-profile and expensive, making you wonder how many people who had to sign off at each stage of planning and construction actually thought to themselves, “Yes, this looks good.” Here are 15 examples of astonishingly ugly architecture that only a mother (or rather, the designers responsible) could love.
Perhaps this addition to the Wellington International Airport by Warren and Mahoney was designed to resemble a robotic cockroach in order to remind us of what will rise up and take our places on earth once we’ve succeeded in making ourselves extinct.
Beijing’s ‘penis building’ aka the headquarters of the communist People’s Daily newspaper has drawn wonder and incredulity from local residents, as well as worldwide notoriety. But the building will soon be sheathed, as the architect decided to give it a makeover after all the backlash. There’s probably a joke about state-sponsored journalism in there somewhere.
“The building so ugly, it has to wear a paper bag” is Frank Gehry’s first project in Australia, inspired by a mashup of Sydney architecture and a treehouse. The curving structure was created using 320,000 custom-designed bricks.
Famed artist Anish Kapoor teamed up with engineer Cecil Balmond to create a sky-high tower in London that looks like a tangle of junk you pulled out of a drawer in your garage. The ArcelorMittal Orbit is a 376-foot-tall sculptural observation point overlooking the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
Shaped like Thailand’s national animal, the Elephant Building in Bangkok is a 32-story mixed-use complex housing condos, offices and a language school.
Known for its imaginative innovation, architecture firm MVRDVhas always been divisive, but the Mirador Building is a miss simply because it’s got virtually no aesthetic value. The jumble of window shapes and colors and utter lack of symmetry make this building seem as if it was constructed out of leftover parts from other projects.
The coin-shaped Fang Yuan Building in Shenyang was meant to be a landmark, and that it is, but mostly because its clunkiness stands out so starkly among the rest of the buildings in the area.
Kosovo’s national library stands as proof that when you put a bunch of attractive elements together into one package, you don’t always get an attractive finished project. The architect blended Byzantine and Islamic architectural forms with a modern sensibility for an overall effect that’s simply weird.
Inspired by an iconic painting by Henry Raeburn called ‘The Skating Minister,’ the distinctive windows on the Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh are unique, to say the least, but these unnecessary decorative flourishes are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the building’s problems. Since it was built in 2004, Scottish taxpayers have spent over $16 million to maintain and repair it, as pieces keep falling off inside and out.
A big white pixelated box rises on colorful pillars to form a canopy among the traditional buildings at the Ontario College of Art and Design. Meant to emphasize the mix of Victorian and modern architectural elements in the area, the contrast is ultimately cartoonish, demonstrating a complete lack of subtlety and nuance.
It’s hard to tell what’s even going on here, and that seems to have been architectural firm Makoto’s intention. Echoing the sprawling disorganization of metropolitan Tokyo, this building at Aoyama Technical College is uncomfortably disorderly. Says the architect, “It is not my aim either to transplant to Japan the classic Western patterns of building cities or to put up with the chaos of Tokyo as it is, but to grope for the way we want the new city to be.”
What is even happening here? Are those eyes? Mouths? The Epi Apartments in the Fremont district of Seattle are really something. Adding some misshapen metal to a boring building doesn’t make it more beautiful, but hey, here we are talking about it, so perhaps the architects achieved their goal after all.
The colorful facade wrapping around the Pixel Building in Melbourne is, in the words of architects studio505, “a system comprising of Living Edge perimeter planters, fixed shading louvers, double glazed window walls and solar panel shading.” It’s meant to be harmonious, but in the end, it’s like wrapping an ugly gift in colorful paper.
Looking like an oversized vertical shanty town, this disorganized stack of volumes in South Mumbai is actually the world’s most expensive private residence. Antilia is owned by billionaire Mukesh Ambani and has a staff of 600 just to maintain it. Designed by Chicago-based architects Perkisn and Will, the 560-foot-tall structure cost an unbelievable $1 billion to build.
Ryugyong Hotel, Pyongyang, North Korea
Part of the reason the so-called ‘Hotel of Doom’ has been disparaged for its looks for so long is that it sat partially completed and neglected between 1987 and 2008, a villainous concrete peak rising from the capital of North Korea. By the time it was finished in 2011, it was at least fully dressed in its windows and fittings, but it’s still not an attractive structure by any stretch, and it’s still not even open for business.
Rock and stone make up some of the most ancient, intriguing and attractive buildings anywhere. Either rough or hewn, stone is returning to the material armoury of more architects.
Robust, substantial stone work is certainly a big relief after decades of painted render slapped on blueboard that cracks and stains.
Melbourne’s b.e architecture has been making some sensational stone houses since it specified a tiled-form Toorak house in bluestone in 2005.
Architect Andrew Piva says local stone from a massive lava plain was used for its colour and because with a house of such potentially powerful street presence, “rendered surfaces were going to be too simplistic. It just wouldn’t have looked right,” Piva says. Instead, in varied, sawn bluestone, he describes the work as making “a bluestone object”.
Stone work is not the cheapest of material options. “Stone masons are dearer than bricklayers,” Piva says. And, although on some of the practice’s later projects some of the rock work looks to have been raised up as rubble stone, there is nothing random about the way the stone is laid. “In all the buildings every course is drawn in,” Piva says.
“Nothing is done randomly because we’re trying to look rational. On the Toorak project, the rock work was painstakingly done.”
In Malvern in 2013, the practice made a new house out of stacked South Australian limestone that resulted in a quiet formality in a simple, square form.
Piva explains: “We’d originally been looking at using brick. But then we came across this limestone that was a reasonable cost and with colouring that was perfect. We sanded back the entire face of the stone so that it was dead flush.”
Teamed with dark metallic surfaces, it is a polished structure.
For Piva, the honesty of rock addresses some of the fundamentals of making architecture that lasts. “How do we build structures of permanence? How do you do strong buildings that can still be quiet, and protective and encompassing,” he says.
“We looked at older houses and civic buildings as a reference and they are made of solid material – solid, strong and there for ever.”
Two recent stone houses off the drawing boards are a Toorak house with facades of rough and stacked lava stone that suggest natural rock stratification and, in Armadale, a three-level building with cantilevers.
Although it is made of 260 tonnes of granite, its impact is crisp and refined because there is no flashing or capping visible on the roofline.
Piva believes the granite house shows not only how finely you can detail rock, but how to use beautiful timber work to “temper and balance” the strength of the rock.
“We don’t want to make stone houses that are mausoleums.”
Stone houses in the city are a standout. In the country they are very much at home and the practice has some interesting uses of stone in rustic situations.
In one wooden Flinders house, where a five-metre-deep cut was needed in the land, what appears to be the huge remnant wall of an old ruin was raised “as a highly textured, oversized landscape feature”.
In another Flinders property an exceptionally engaging stone fireplace is used as a feature wall.
“Made of local Dromana granite, it is a big fireplace with a hefty hearth stone,” Piva says. “We wanted some oversized stones in it. But it wasn’t done randomly. We built sample walls and drew in every course.”
The practice uses stone only when it is appropriate. “We don’t just use it for the sake of it. We use it purposefully. But it’s got that natural quality that we love.”
Roxanne Wilson, Lifestyle reporter, The Advertiser June 27, 2017 8:30pm
FROM concrete jungles to giant brown boxes, there are more than a few contenders up for the title of Adelaide’s ugliest building.
The questionable design of a 16-storey student accommodation under construction on Waymouth St, reported in yesterday’s The Advertiser, has got readers fired up about other ugly buildings across town.
They include numerous hospitals, the ABC building and even the Adelaide Festival Centre, which featured in UK newspaper The Telegraph’s list of the world’s ugliest earlier this month.
But an industry professional suggests we shouldn’t be too quick to judge a book by its cover.
Mario Dreosti, the president of the SA Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects, said while aesthetics are subjective, “good design is completely able to be quantified and assessed”.
“I’d always think of a building far beyond its aesthetic facade,” he said.
“A building you may not personally relate to aesthetically may actually work really well and might give people great housing choices and great working environments — we should remember that as we assess and comment on architecture.”
Mr Dreosti said he didn’t find the The Advertiser’s ugly building list surprising, “in terms of the way I anticipate some people might view those buildings”.
“There’s a few buildings in there that are early modern architecture and have some brutalist components that I actually think has some elegance,” he said.
Brutalist architecture often has an exposed concrete exterior and is modular in style.
Mr Dreosti said recent success stories — including the striking South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute building on North Terrace and Adelaide Oval redevelopment — demonstrated building design and architectural outcomes in Adelaide was “in a very positive situation”.
“We’ve seen some really quite significant demonstrations of good architecture, particularly on North Tce and around our oval precinct, and I think the community is starting to understand that architecture is not simply about aesthetic presentation but really importantly about the way buildings function and operate,” he said.
A leading Australian fire safety engineer has compared the task of removing flammable aluminium cladding from high-rise buildings to ridding the country of asbestos, saying it could affect tens of thousands of buildings.
Bricks traditional dominance in the residential housing market has been suffering over the last couple of decades. The pressure to put more house on less land has led builders to look at tilt up concrete panels, Hebel and Blueboard like products.
The current trend for rendering the exterior of houses has gone hand in hand with other cladding materials. But what happens when the trend ends? The use of stone and tile being mechanically fixed to the facade of commercial buildings, has already taken off in residential – could this reduce the popularity of rendered finishes?
Brick trumps other building materials when it comes to outlasting the ‘trend’ by being a solid material that can be used with a range of different facade treatments, or left as is with a huge variety of new colours and textures available. Architecture & Design Magazine have more information about the Melbourne extension on their website, click HERE to read all about it.
Construction of the first hemp house in WA has just been completed, sparking calls to build a local processing plant so local farmers can supply the building industry.
The hemp plant’s woody stem is shredded, mixed with a lime render and tampered into place inside a timber frame.
Builder Gary Rogers said hemp is a high thermal insulator.
“The hemp is basically encased around your timber frame home so in a nutshell it’s your cladding, it’s your insulation, and it’s all your gyprock and basically all your painting, all done in one, in a monolithic wall,” Mr Rogers said.
The hemp walls are also termite resistant, fireproof, breathable, prevent mould, store carbon and reduce the need for heating and cooling.
And with the plant reaching maturity for hemp fibre requirements in just 14 weeks, it has been touted as an environmentally friendly answer to the building industry.
Mr Rogers used some locally grown and milled hemp to build the Margaret River home but he could not source enough product for a house.
At the moment, processed hemp needs to be imported from the east coast and Europe.
“We can import building materials to try and get it going and that’s what we’re doing at the moment, working with a couple of builders to import it so we can actually build interest in the industry,” Colin Steddy, director of the The Hemp Corporation, said.
Hemp growers face uphill battle
But local hemp growers said they could grow hemp plants but just needed a processing plant in WA because their product was going to waste.
Gail Stubber, a South West hemp grower, said regulations prevented her from selling the seed as a food product.
“I can grow this crop but I can’t do anything with it,” Ms Stubber said.
“The only thing I can do with the seed is either replant it next year if it doesn’t go high THC or I can have it pressed down into an oil, which is not really the way I want to go.”
There were strict regulations ensuring the amount of THC in the plant was low, but Ms Stubber said that was not the biggest hurdle.
“I’d like the seed to be used for food because that immediately makes my crop more valuable,” she said.
“I would like them to give us some sort of ruling on if the THC is slightly high, whether we can use the bi-products that are not involved in the high THC, so the herd, the inside part which is the housing thing.
“And I’d like the government to give us a hand, be it with a grant or something, to actually get a processing mill here in the South West.
“It’s closed a lot mills, a lot of paper and pulp mills, but maybe we can turn one of those mills, whether it be at Kirup or Nannup or something into a hemp mill and produce herd for housing.”
Colin Steddy said he planned to privately fund a processing plant in the South West which he said would open the door to huge farming and textile industry opportunities.
Mr Rogers said he already had several more clients lined up to build their homes from hemp.
All-timber apartments assembled like flat-packed furniture
A material used in construction for centuries is making a comeback, as developers and builders take timber to new heights. Its worth noting that building with this material has been happening for much of the last decade around the world, including Canada and parts of Europe, but until recently wasn’t approved to be used for commercial sites in the Building Code of Australia.
On a site in Campbelltown, where four apartment towers are being built, almost the only noise you can hear is from another construction site nearby.
A panel thuds into place. A drill whirs. A radio sings out over workers’ voices. Then, the screech of machinery from the other site.
Over the road, a conventional build is underway — mostly steel and concrete.
But this one is an all-timber project — 101 residential units in towers up to eight storeys high, made completely from pine.
“It’s the perfect product for us to take our projects taller,” StrongBuild managing director Adam Strong says.
They are not using conventional wood, but manufactured, engineered materials collectively known as mass timber.
Among them is cross-laminated timber (CLT) — layers of wood, glued together under high pressure with the grain of each perpendicular to the one before.
The end product is surprisingly strong and rigid, unlike raw timber, which will warp and weave over time.
“CLT, just by the very nature it’s assembled, means it’s quite dimensionally stable,” Arup engineer Craig Gibbons said.
That stability means mass timber components can be manufactured to the precise dimensions required by a project, and delivered to sites with a high degree of confidence they will assemble as planned.
Offsite construction means less risks for builders
It all works a bit like flat-packed furniture.
The digital plans are sent to the manufacturer, where computer-controlled machines produce the timber elements to the exact dimensions required, right down where electrical wires will be chased down to light switches.
The panels are then put into shipping containers and delivered to the construction site, where builders slot them into place.
With so much of the construction process taking place in an offsite factory, builders are less exposed to onsite risks such as accidents or weather delays — which helps make projects faster, cheaper and more predictable.
“There’s a big drive and push to any modular form of construction, any form of construction that can bring the advantages of offsite manufacturing,” Mr Strong says.
There is another major difference between a conventional building site and one where they are working in timber — far fewer workers.
Just four workmen are assembling the top floor of one of the Macarthur Gardens towers, with a few more working on lower floors.
All these cost-saving advantages make a difference to developer BlueCHP Ltd, which specialises in affordable housing and plans to provide most of the apartments in this complex at 80 per cent of market rent.
“The more modular your design is, the quicker the guys can build it, the quicker we can house people,” BlueCHP’s Marcelo Staimbeisser said.
The company had not envisaged the development as an all-timber construction, but when they saw the proposal, Mr Staimbeisser said there was such a difference in construction price, and significant time savings, that they took a punt on a building material they had not worked with before.
Now, Mr Staimbeisser said he hoped more developers would use it.
“The more timber projects out there, the cheaper it’s going to get in the long run,” Mr Staimbeisser said.
Timber an environmentally-friendly option: advocates
CLT is not a new building material — its growing popularity in Australia is the result of recent changes to building regulations, which are in turn the result of lengthy performance testing and industry consultation.
In May last year, Australia’s National Construction Code was changed so timber products could be used in buildings up to 25 metres high, without developers having to go through costly additional processes such as getting fire engineering approval each time.
Now, mid-rise buildings can be made of timber products, as long as sprinklers are installed in buildings over three storeys, and fire-resistant plasterboard covers all exposed wood.
Another driving force behind timber is the growing interest in environmentally-friendly and sustainable products.
Advocates of mass timber are quick to point to the material’s green credentials, arguing it is a good insulator, which keeps down heating and cooling costs, and it is a store of carbon — unlike concrete and steel, which emit carbon during their production.
“One cubic metre of mass timber locks in about a tonne of carbon,” Mr Gibbon said.
But those representing conventional materials say they are not worried by the challenge posed by timber, and tout concrete as a natural product as well.
“It’s made out of certainly all natural resources — sand, stone, water and cement, which is manufactured from limestone, a very abundant product,” Cement, Concrete and Aggregates Australia CEO Ken Slattery says.
He conceded the production of cement emits carbon, but said the industry has worked to lower that by almost 30 per cent over the past few decades and he believed it will come down further in the future.
As for insulation, Mr Slattery says well-designed concrete buildings can be highly energy-efficient, cutting down the amount of energy a building consumes over its entire life.
But timber and conventional materials need not be at odds.
Mr Gibbon is working on a 20-storey wooden building in Amsterdam, and thinks that is about the limit for an all-timber structure.
Beyond that, he said timber will have to work together with concrete in what he calls a “happy hybrid”, where reinforced concrete and steel are used for the core, and timber for the walls and perimeter structure.
As demand increases for inner-city dwellings, he says he thinks more developers will turn to timber, for a quicker, less-disruptive option for high-rise structures.
Australia’s most expensive building, and the third most costly in the world, is a step closer to finally being opened after the South Australian government and a building consortium reached an out-of-court agreement.
The new $2.3 billion Royal Adelaide Hospital was supposed to open in April last year but has become mired in a bitter and complex legal dispute over alleged defects. It is $640 million over budget, and has been bogged down in Supreme Court hearings.
Premier Jay Weatherill today announced the government and construction consortium SA Health Partnerships had last Thursday signed a deed of agreement “to pave the way for the delivery of the new Royal Adelaide Hospital”.
“The deed provides for SAHP to withdraw all of their court action and the technical completion is estimated to be reached in just a couple of weeks,” Mr Weatherill said.
However, there is still no firm opening date, although the technical completion milestone triggers a 90-day handover period.
Health Minister Jack Snelling today said he hoped a move could be made before the winter flu season.
“There’s no reason why we couldn’t be in before flu season hits in 2017,” he said.
Mr Snelling warned moving from the current city hospital to the new one was a major logistical undertaking, involving more than 5000 staff, volunteers and medical students and hundreds of thousands of items of equipment, along with patients.
Mr Snelling said there were several alleged defects still in dispute and independent consultants had started examining the issues.
“The government and SAHP have both agreed we will abide by the recommendations of those independent experts,” Mr Snelling said.
The parties also had agreed to an independent arbitration process to resolve compensation.
“Where the government believes that the state is entitled to compensation, we’ll have those issues resolved with an independent arbitrator. That work has already started and we expect it to be done by the end of the year,” Mr Snelling said.
“Importantly, those issues will not prevent us from moving into the hospital.”
SAHP’s Mark Balnaves, asked whether the consortium had suffered reputational damage given the toxic nature of the public dispute with the government, said the finished product “speaks for itself”. Mr Balnaves denied knowledge of any problems with the “footings” of the new hospital.
The state’s Labor government and SAHP have been at loggerheads for months with high-powered legal teams facing off in the Supreme Court. The new RAH’s technical completion was supposed to have occurred on January 19 last year.
Mr Weatherill stepped in over Christmas in a bid to reach a breakthrough after the government, which last year rejected a consortium “cure plan” to finish the build, threatened imminent plans to terminate the new RAH build contract completely. Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis had dared the consortium to “bring it on” and sue the government.
This would have triggered costly and lengthy legal action in the courts as SAHP sought up to $5bn from the state over allegations the government had not acted in good faith and deliberately delayed the project because it was not ready to move in.
It is understood the government was seeking a payment of $600m and Crown law had advised the state had broad powers under which it could terminate the contract.
The new futuristic 800-bed hospital, on a 10-hectare site, will use robots to deliver food and equipment. It will have single rooms only and replace an ageing facility at the eastern end of North Terrace in Adelaide’s CBD.
According to architectural data company Emporis, the new Royal Adelaide Hospital is Australia’s most expensive building and the third most expensive in the world.
In September 2015 the government agreed to pay an extra $34.3m to settle a dispute with the builders over the cost of remediating the site. It has set a target of 50 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to other hospitals.
A private consortium is constructing the building to ultimately be owned by the South Australian government. Once opened the consortium will maintain the hospital while SA Health provides clinical services, staff, training and research. It is expected the government will not own the building outright until at least 2046.
The government plans to redevelop the old hospital site with more than 1000 apartments and a five-star hotel. Five heritage buildings will be retained with one third of the site becoming part of the neighbouring botanic gardens.
The Australian, MICHAEL OWEN
Australia’s homes are notoriously “leaky” — allowing the uncontrolled flow of heat into and out of the building. Our answer has been to put in more and more pumps, in the form of air conditioning. This is often promoted as a feature, rather than an indication of a poor-quality building!
This creates problems for everyone.
We all know that some houses are hotter than others in heatwaves, and that well insulated and designed homes cost a lot less to operate throughout the year because they don’t rely heavily on air conditioners or heaters to provide comfort.
But did you know that relying on air conditioners to stay cool on hot summer days affects the price of electricity for everyone, all year round?
Pumping heat from one place to another takes a lot of energy, which makes air conditioners particularly power-hungry appliances. The more leaky the house, the more heat needs to be pumped out. On hot days, when lots of air conditioning units are operating at the same time, this creates a challenge for the electricity infrastructure.
It costs money to build an electricity network that can handle these peaks in demand. This cost is recovered through the electricity unit cost (cents per kilowatt hour).
We all pay this cost, in every electricity bill we get; in fact the cost of meeting summer peak demand accounts for about 25 per cent of retail electricity costs.
This is more than twice the combined effect of solar feed-in tariffs, the Renewable Energy Target and the erstwhile carbon tax.
This means that people living in houses that are built to handle their local climate are effectively subsiding those who live in poorer-quality buildings and relying solely on the air conditioning to stay cool.
Perhaps even less fairly, those who struggle to afford air conditioning and have to cope with overheating are also paying this subsidy via the electricity they do use. All this is because many people still live in leaky, poor-quality buildings.
Does this mean that air conditioners are evil and should never be used? Of course not — there is a role for very efficient air conditioners (heat pumps) in extreme weather events. But it does raise some interesting questions.
Can we design and build homes that are great to live in and don’t cost the Earth to run? And, if so, why aren’t these homes the norm, rather than the exception?
You get what you ask for
The good news is that comfortable, quality homes that put minimal strain on the electricity grid are certainly possible. What’s needed is a combination of design that takes account of the local climate, appropriate building materials and quality construction practices.
Some homes consume less than a quarter of the energy of their contemporaries in the same climate — it’s just frustrating that they aren’t more common.
In the past, the housing industry would say that it’s simply building the homes that people want — that Australians are mainly interested in size and location, not energy performance.
Recent research, however, seems to indicate that the perspectives of real estate agents and other property practitioners could be limiting how, or if, they promote energy efficiency and other sustainability features to potential clients.
Are Australians still mesmerised by the surface bling of granite benchtops, a theatre room, or automatic gadgets? Are we starting to consider weightier issues such as operation costs, resilience and comfort?
Or are we waiting until the first heatwave or the first electricity bill to realise just how good or poor our purchase decision was?
Some savvy buyers — before they sign a contract — are starting to ask about insulation, but not the more fundamental questions, like “how hot does this room get?” or “can I afford to run this house?”.
The housing sector seems to assume that if you don’t explicitly ask for something, it is not important to you.
They also seem to assume that the building regulations set the standard — despite the fact the building regulations are minimum requirements, not best practice for comfort and value.
Some also actively lobby for lower standards, arguing that energy efficiency has “questionable benefits” and that requiring information to be passed on to consumers is an “unnecessary burden”.
Buyer beware — you’re on your own
What does this mean? When buying a used car or a new phone, it’s relatively easy to get the information you need — and there are quite a few consumer protection laws in place.
But when we inspect a home for sale or rent, we can see the number of rooms, test the taps and light switches, and measure how far it is to the shops or school or work, but there is a huge amount we can’t see and are not told.
A real estate agent is not acting in the prospective buyer’s interest (or even necessarily in the seller’s).
The seller wants the highest price in the shortest time, and the agent wants the biggest commission for the least effort.
And contrary to practices in the European Union, no one is obliged (in most parts of Australia) to tell prospective buyers or renters about the home’s running costs.
There have been successes and failures in state government attempts to ensure that home buyers and renters have access to information about comfort and running costs at the time of purchasing or renting.
Queensland’s Sustainability Declaration, introduced in 2010, was very short-lived, with an incoming government declaring it “useless red tape”.
In contrast, the ACT government has required an Energy Efficiency Rating for the sale or rent of residential properties since 1999, with multiple reports showing the benefits to property value and to reduced running costs.
New South Wales plans to introduce a voluntary disclosure scheme in 2018, and to make it mandatory in 2020.
These schemes not only make it easier to identify homes that cost less to run, but can also drive demand for energy-efficient renovations and put downward pressure on electricity prices.
The distribution of information about housing in Australia is flawed.
Real estate agents, valuers, financiers and electricity industry operators are making decisions based on very little or no information about how the quality of houses impacts on their clients, their business processes and electricity infrastructure investment.
Most importantly, owners and renters are not being informed about the quality of the houses they are buying or renting, and the impacts that particular dwellings will have on their health, comfort and wallets.
What can you do?
So is the housing sector right? Do you care about the quality of the building you live in? What is a sensibly designed and well-constructed house worth to you? What dollar value do you put on your health, safety and comfort?
What value is there for your family to able to cope with heatwaves, or to pay off the mortgage sooner because of the money you save on power bills?
You don’t need to wait for government to act.
If you are looking at buying or renting a new home or apartment, ask to see the energy certificate for the dwelling.
Such a certificate would have been created as part of the building approval process.
It could also be useful to ask for a thermal imaging report and air leakage report.
These are tests the builder can have done to prove his quality of construction.
For existing homes, you can ask the seller for a Universal Certificate, or a copy of their energy bills, or evidence of features they have installed to enhance the comfort of the house (such as receipts for insulation or window tinting).
And next time you’re visiting a friend or neighbour with heat radiating from the walls, windows and roof, and the aircon cranked at full blast, enjoy the nice cool air — because you’re helping them pay for it.
This story was originally published in The Conversation, by Wendy Miller who is a Senior Research Fellow at Queensland University of Technology.