People are usually highly aware of the expensive, high-tech or complicated sustainability features in buildings, but don’t remember the simple, cheap or reliable features that ‘get the job done’.

The World Green Building Council has found that people over-estimate the ‘green premium’ on a building – how much more they think the sustainability attributes might cost – by as much as 29 per cent. Why? Because they fail to account for price decreases as green technologies are rolled out, because trades tend to charge less the more something becomes familiar, and because they are blinded by the ‘green bling’ in some showcase buildings.

It’s true that demonstration projects are usually heralded by the industry, and get the most attention. It’s also true that the most expensive building projects tend to feature highly visible green technologies that may reinforce a green brand, but sometimes come at a price.

But there are many ‘unsung heroes’ in the sustainability movement – design ideas and innovations, products and philosophies that are super-simple and in many cases cost neutral.

Look no further than the stock on the shelves of every hardware store in the land. Products that were once expensive and hard to source are now affordable and accessible. Water-efficient fittings, LED lights and compact fluorescents, paints low in volatile organic compounds from GBCA members such as Wattyl and Dulux – the list is endless.

Resene Zylone Sheen VOC Free is a low odour product with no unwanted VOCs. It was used in a GHD office fitout on the Newcastle waterfront

David Waldren, National Design Manager at Grocon, believes low-VOC paint is one of the ‘unsung sustainability heroes’ that deserves more attention. “Low-VOC paint is simple, effective and doesn’t add cost to a project,” he says.

“We used a low-VOC paint called Ecolour for all internal paint requirements at our 161 Castlereagh Street commercial development in Sydney and have since used it on a number of projects in Victoria. Low VOC paints are being used successfully in schools, hospitals, resorts, aged care and residential projects, and the long-term financial benefits on large-scale projects are now being recognised – including a safer, more efficient worksite and ongoing health benefits for building occupants.”

With their ability to ‘scrub’ the air of nasties, plants – which are cheap, easy to source and just as easy to retrofit into buildings – are another unsung hero. The work of Professor Margaret Burchett at the University of Technology Sydney has found that indoor potted plants such as Zanzibar (Zamioculcas), Peace Lilies (Spathiphyllum), Mother-in-law’s Tongue (Sansevieria) or Parlour Palm (Rhapis) clean the air we breathe and decrease carbon dioxide levels, boosting oxygen levels and adding to the sense of tranquility with their greenery.

700 Bourke Street, Melbourne, by Woods Bagot features plants throughout the office. Image: Trevor Mein

Another unsung hero is plasterboard. GBCA member company CSR recently gained GECA certification for the majority of its Gyprock plasterboard range. “Our EC08™ product was Australia’s first plasterboard to be accredited to the Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) Panel Boards standard,” explains CSR Gyprock’s Renee McGinty. “This year, we gained GECA accreditation for all Gyprock plasterboards in the Standard and Specialty ranges, as well as re-accreditation of the Environmental range, which means the industry has 16 Gyprock plasterboard variants to choose from – and each of them is environmentally-sustainable.”

Other green features, once considered on the bleeding edge, are now almost business-as-usual. Phillip Cook, sustainability project engineer with Wood & Grieve Engineers, points to the rapid price reduction in photovoltaic panels over the last five years. “A commercial system can now be installed for less than $2.50 per watt. Combined with ever-rising electricity prices, the drop in the capital cost for a photovoltaic system has meant that these systems have payback periods of less than 10 years, with ongoing cost savings long after that.”

Australand’s Paolo Bevilacqua agrees that solar panels are an unsung hero. “We installed a solar system on an industrial facility about a year ago which has generated more than $30,000 of electricity savings to the customer in the first 12 months. The system was funded by the tenant through a slight increase in the rent and the savings have exceeded this increase, so the move has been cashflow positive from the first year.

LED lighting is another often undervalued initiative that delivers a big dividend. “The efficiency and quality of LED lighting is now so good that significant energy savings can be achieved when compared to the BCA standards,” says WGE’s Philip Cook. “The cost has reduced to the point that installing LED lighting can have a cost payback of less than a year.”

David Clark, Partner at Cundall, nominates openable windows as a sustainable design initiative that is rarely celebrated. “Too many buildings are full-height glass boxes with no shading and no ability to open the windows and let fresh air in and heat out,” he laments.

“Passive design is often an unsung hero of green buildings,” says Richard Palmer, Associate Director of WSP Built Ecology. Richard also applauds the simple measures, such as opening a window, shading a fa├žade, maintaining a clear air-path or exposing thermal mass.

“Many modern designers forget that functional, affordable buildings were built long before computers and the internet, before the invention of air-conditioning, before the light bulb; there are lessons through history for passive buildings, we only need to look.”

Berlin House by Blomquist and Wark Architects lets the daylight via its Velux skylights

Finally, while it might appear almost too simple to warrant a mention, daylight is a real unsung hero. Those of us that have plenty of daylight in our workplaces, homes and ‘third places’ take it for granted, but remembering the bad old days of ‘cubicle farms’ with stale air and dim lighting, it’s clear that a view and access to daylight can make a massive difference. And that’s before we’ve even started harnessing that daylight as a power source.

What are your unsung sustainability heroes?