Once upon a time, there was a person just like you. This person lived in a country threatened by climate change, with a growing population and rising energy costs. The person needed a home, but what kind of home? Sustainable, cheap to run and comfortable? Or expensive, uncomfortable and inefficient?
Heard it before? Chances are, we’ll all be hearing a lot more of this story. That’s because Australia needs more sustainable homes. Up to 197,000 will need to be built every year to accommodate the projected 31 million people who will call our country home by 2030. If these homes incorporate sustainable design features, they will be more comfortable, cheaper to run and produce fewer emissions, making life better for all of us.
The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) has been advocating measures like improvements to the energy efficiency standards in the National Construction Code which governs all new building in Australia. Governments are pushing sustainable housing too – the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Energy Council produced the Trajectory For Low Energy Buildings and is working on a plan for existing homes later this year.
So if all’s well in the policy world, why aren’t consumers demanding sustainable housing?
Growing the Market for Sustainable Homes, a new report from ASBEC and the Centre for Low Carbon Living, shows that Australian house buyers do want sustainable features like natural light and comfortable temperatures. Trouble is, they don’t have the vocabulary to describe it. Crucially, it’s not just about energy savings or reducing carbon.
The benefits of living in a high performance home are also all the things that good design brings: comfort, light, ventilation. But, as the report explains, consumers struggle to connect dry facts and figures about kilowatt hours or emissions to their lived experience.
Builders also perceive that cost sensitivity is high among buyers, and sustainable features like high performance glazing are seen as optional extras – the first things to get the chop when budgets are tight.
The pilot episode of a new TV show, Renovate or Rebuild, produced with the latest research by the Centre for Low Carbon Living, shows a different way to communicate about sustainability with homebuyers and renovators. We know the format: a young family live in a desirable beachside suburb 12km from Sydney’s CBD.
Their place was affordable, but it’s small, damp and suffering from cracking. Their two kids share a room – but soon they’ll outgrow this and want their own space. There’s an element of competition, with two pairs of renovators, familiar from The Block, competing over whether the house should be renovated or knocked down and rebuilt. There is some serious house eye-candy for viewers, with Grand Designs-style walk through simulations of the two design options.
All through this familiar format, along with concerns about the views and the budget, we’re learning about sustainable design features. The competing designs sport rooftop solar panels, natural cross breezes, and recycled materials. But instead of the information overload of factsheets and statistics, there are bite sized-nuggets of fact. Presenters casually mention the proportion of household energy bills spent on heating and cooling (it’s 43 percent).
Learning about what sustainability features mean for lifestyle means the viewer can more easily picture their own family living in the space and getting the benefit of the sunlight, airflow and comfort sustainable design creates. Anyone who wants more information can follow up on the Renovate or Rebuild website, where instead of the usual downloadable factsheets, graphs and numbers, they will find a forum full of supportive peers and useful items like downloadable plans and lists of builders.
This kind of lifestyle content gives us the tools to put ourselves centre stage, making a sustainable home part of our story. But it’s not the whole story. Renovate or Rebuild is situated within a broader consumer reality that is moving towards a supply chain that favours sustainable homes.
Lenders are starting to create mortgage and loan products around sustainability. ANZ, for example, has just launched a ‘Healthy Homes’ product in New Zealand which might find its way here before long. The Green Building Council of Australia is preparing a standard for ‘Future Homes’, which will help to define a clear, unified vision for housing for the future.
If consumers know what they want, understand how to judge it, have the language to ask for it and can access ‘green loan’ funding, we’re a lot further along the road to a sustainable residential sector.
Governments are also supporting this – for example Sustainability Victoria’s pilot of the Zero Carbon Homes initiative aims to support builders to market sustainable new homes. All these changes incentivise builders to not only incorporate sustainability features in their products, but to use them as a selling point to clued up homebuyers.
If we are to move the story of Australia’s housing stock towards a sustainable happy ending, we need to do it via stories. If we can do that, we’ll soon get from ‘once upon a time’ to ‘happily ever after’.