Finance Property Good design doesn’t have to cost the earth: The rise of energy-efficient homes Updated:

Good design doesn’t have to cost the earth: The rise of energy-efficient homes

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We tend to assume that building a sustainable, healthy, and energy efficient home costs a small fortune, putting it beyond the reach of most homebuyers.

But one Australian building designer is changing that paradigm, with a track record that shows high-performance homes can be “done dirt cheap” – for less than $250,000, in fact.

F2 Design’s Tim Adams has been building energy-efficient, healthy, sustainable homes for more than 35 years, and has for many years pursued an interest in zero-energy design.

High-performance homes – those designed to be sustainable and energy efficient – make financial and environmental sense, as well as being more healthy and comfortable, Mr Adams says.

He also dispels the idea that high-performance homes have to come with a high price tag.

“It’s design that makes a difference not money,” he says.

In 2012, Mr Adams designed a basic energy-efficient two-storey house to show that it was possible to have a high-performance home for less than $250,000.

“This design shows that high-performance can be achieved at affordable levels,” he said.

What is passive-house design

The concept of passive houses was first conceived in 1988, when a Swedish engineer and German physicist set out to revolutionise the way we build houses.

The pair envisaged a comfortable and affordable home that, thanks to proper insulation and ventilation, would have an even temperature all year round without needing expensive, environmentally unfriendly heating and cooling.

Their vision was later distilled into five simple design principles that form the basis for Passive House – an international design standard for sustainable, healthy and energy-efficient buildings.

The standards require: high levels of insulation, air-tight, high-performance windows, mechanical ventilation, and thermal bridge-free construction (that is, designs that minimise heat loss).

A passive house must adhere to five basic design principles. Source: Passive House Institute

The system has caught on, and there are now thought to be 40,000 houses, schools and offices built to passive-house standards around the world. Many thousands more buildings incorporate some elements of the design principles.

Australia has lagged behind, but there is a growing push for change.

Tim Adams’ Melbourne practice incorporates passive-house principles, which he has adapted to suit the Australian climate.

According to Mr Adams, many of his buildings operate with zero energy costs, with the focus now shifting towards creating carbon-positive buildings that have a positive environmental impact and give energy back to the grid.

Passive house design
This home in ACT’s Yarralumla operates between 9.5 and 10 Stars. Photo: F2 Design

At present, the majority of interest is high-performance housing is coming from older Australians heading into retirement and looking to make their final home a comfortable, healthy, and energy efficient one, he says.

“They want to live in houses that are comfortable and healthy, and achieve a level of certainty about the amount of energy they’re going to use.”

Exorbitant energy costs are driving growing public interest in rooftop solar and high-performance home design features, many of which can be retrofitted in to existing homes.

Last year was a record year for rooftop solar power installations. The Clean Energy Council says 20,789 new rooftop solar units were installed across the country, creating 1.1 gigawatts of new generating capacity – more than three times the 6750 installed in 2016.

In February, Climate Works Australia and the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council released a report detailing the household impacts of delaying improved energy requirements in Australia’s national building code.

“Improved building energy efficiency presents a win-win-win solution, reducing stress on the electricity network and supporting a least-cost pathway to decarbonisation while also delivering cost savings and improved comfort to households and businesses,” the report states.

It says delaying improved energy-efficiency requirements will cost the community.

“Just three years delay could lock in an estimated $1.1 billion in unnecessary energy bills for the projected half a million homes that will be built in the meantime, and three million tonnes of additional emissions to 2050.”