In September 2009, bright-eyed, I gave up a Sunday of mine to be a volunteer at a ‘sustainable’ house in Balgowah Heights for Sustainable House Day, near Manly New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia. I got a ride up from Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs with a former mining engineer-turned-solar photovoltaics enthusaist/academic who let me know what his view of sustainability was–medium-density housing with high levels of localised energy production. We also chatted about BIPV (building-integrated photovoltaics), about which topic I was at the time undertaking a rather challenging engineering course.
The house I volunteered at was quite interesting. The the owner had had the house that had previously stood on the lot demolished, and a goodly proportion of the new building was actually constructed using pieces from the remains of the original, including a westerly slatted wall made from old timbers that filtered out the late-afternoon sun. Other features included a heated kitchen floor, double-glazed windows, a greywater treatment system (the wife lacked the necessary willingness to install a blackwater treatment system), rain water tanks, a garden using native plants ,and concrete walls with enough thermal mass to greatly reduce the HVAC needs of the building, both in summer and in winter. The most-used rooms of the building also faced north, in contrast to the previous building, which faced south- and street-wards–a typical building design convention that actually makes little sense, energy use and efficiency-wise.
It was a good day out and I learned a lot, but couldn’t help but feel that the sort of features that made the house stand out were the sort of thing that would only be easily achievable for those who have the money to implement them. Simpler and more easily attainable solutions that can be ramped up gradually can be seen in what Sydney’s Michael Mobbs has done with his home. If you don’t know about him, look him up! Most of the modifications to his home are retrofitted and have been undertaken in a permaculture vein, and require relatively little initial investment.
—-James is the webmaster and writer for Sydney-based Solar Energy brokerage firm Solar Choice. Solar Choice provides free and impartial comparisons of solar quotes from installers Australia-wide.