What does it mean?
Sustainable housing is housing that incorporates elements of sustainability – often including waste reduction, energy use reduction, product recycling and overall environmental impact reduction in the home.
Ideally, sustainable housing helps inhabitants keep their carbon footprint low by eliminating the need for fossil fuel energy. Some of the core principles of sustainable home design include built-in renewable energy, battery power storage, water-saving and water-recycling systems, low ‘embodied carbon’, good access to public transport and a whole lot of green space.
Looking at sustainable ways of building new homes and commercial properties in an urban setting is an opportunity to explore key questions around how we might integrate whole-of-life-cycle design into urban planning policies.
What are the challenges for WA?
There are many great things happening around WA right now to increase the sustainability of our housing stock. However, as it stands sustainable housing is more expensive than standard options, so eco-homes are more of a luxury than a norm. We could make sustainable housing cheaper, but that would involve a policy change.
To wrap your head around the policy change, you need to understand the sustainable building rating tools we use in WA. There are two main tools in use for residential buildings.
Home energy efficiency is measured using a 1–10-star rating on the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERS). This measurement is built into the National Construction Code (NCC). It only looks at heating and cooling energy use. In Western Australia, homes must meet a 6-star minimum NatHERS rating to comply with the NCC.
The second tool for measuring housing sustainability is Green Star. Green Star is a 1-6-star system, but a home can only achieve Green Star certification status if it rates at 4 stars or higher. Green Star certified homes are usually:
- Powered by renewable energy
- Built with water management systems (e.g. greywater)
- High thermal performance
- Well ventilated
- Built from low-tox materials
A Green Star rating is wholly voluntary. There are no obligations in WA to build a sustainable home beyond the basic 6-star NatHERS rating, and even that requirement has been often neglected until recently. According to The Fifth Estate, “the problem stems from WA’s home building market that is dominated by just a few highly influential building companies that would prefer to continue delivering cavity brick houses with minimal insulation even if it leads to higher energy bills for their customers.”
Why is it important we take action now?
On a big-picture level, the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency observes Australia as one of the highest contributors per capita for greenhouse gas emissions. Australia’s built environment contributes 25 per cent of the country’s total annual carbon emissions. Improving the way in which homes, communities and cities are designed and constructed will accelerate the transition to net-zero emissions by 2050.
There are even more reasons to take action now at the local level – the most unsustainable and energy inefficient homes are often the only financially accessible ones for young people and people on low incomes. These homes are also contributing to our urban sprawl in Perth and to the urban heat island effect. The average Australian home is rated 1.8 stars, which means they are closer to a tent than a modern eco-house! These homes of course require more heating, which means higher energy bills and more carbon emissions.
So what action is being taken?
We discussed this recently in our Future Homes roundtable:
“The WA Housing Strategy aims to ‘catalyse 40 per cent of new homes built to liveable design standards by 2030.’ (p 32) Getting there is the challenge. There are no obligations in WA to build a sustainable home beyond the basic 6-star NatHERS rating, and even that requirement has been often neglected until recently. At the national level there is talk of increasing the minimum thermal performance level in the National Construction Code (NCC) from 6-star to 7-star – but these changes are yet to materialise.”
A good example of sustainable housing is the White Gum Valley One Planet Community and the East Village Knutsford developments. The projects both demonstrate how the housing sector can achieve net zero utilising urban design, water capture and storage, low energy appliances and solar energy capture and usage.
What action needs to be taken?
Our Future Homes Roundtable participants found that WA needs:
- To eliminate the requirement for a gas connection in all new homes
- To retrofit energy efficiency into older and existing homes, especially in social housing
- Better subsidies to support Western Australians to install solar panels, home batteries, electric cooktops, insulation and more
- Better synchronicity between local, state and federal government on sustainable housing policy
- Better accountability from project home developers on inefficient, cheap and unsustainable design
- Better planning for circular housing economies
- Stronger policy requirements on the protection and retention of urban trees
- A mandatory energy efficiency rating and mandatory disclosure system for rental properties under the Residential Tenancy Act
- Tax incentives and/or requirements for landlords to improve the energy efficiency of their properties
There are so many opportunities – it’s time to get to work!