Sustainability is more than just the latest buzzword. It is an essential consideration in the way we live our lives and conduct our businesses to ensure we leave the planet and its natural resources in a fit state for future generations to enjoy and cherish.
Manufacturing, logistics, energy production, energy usage and over-population are among the key sustainability challenges that we face. And one specific area in which all these intersect is in the homes we live in.
For most homeowners, putting sustainability to the top of the agenda is more than just a choice, it is a moral responsibility. Developers and architects need to approach it with the same attitude. Here, we will take a closer look at the rise of sustainable building materials and what today’s eco-conscious buyers need to think about when choosing their new home.
For generations, homes in Australia have typically been made of brick or timber. This varies somewhat between states. Anyone who has looked at purchasing a property in Queensland will be familiar with the traditional timber frames and tin roofs, which are still plentiful in Brisbane suburbs like Shorncliffe and Brighton. You’ll see similar designs in South Australia, too.
In New South Wales, designs tend to be along more traditional European lines and if you are completing a purchase in Sydney, it is more likely to be on a brick-built house with tiled roof. Today, however, there are more sustainable options and house builders are looking to a blend of new technology and centuries old tradition. Let’s run through some of the most sustainable building materials that are becoming increasingly common among house builders who are prepared to think outside the box.
1) Timber - traditional, strong and attractive
Did Queenslanders have it right all along? Well, partially. The truth is that past generations cared little about where their timber came from as long as the price was right. Irresponsible logging can cause untold damage and can literally destroy entire ecosystems. However, sustainably grown timber is one of the most environmentally friendly choices available.
Sustainably grown means it comes from a forest where replanting is ongoing so there is no net loss and the environment and wildlife are unaffected. An even better strategy is to use recycled timber. This is not always practical for entire builds, but it’s definitely worth looking at when creating outhouses or even garden features.
2) Straw - little pigs need not apply
If the idea of a house of straw conjures up nightmare images of a big, bad, wolf, it’s time to adjust your preconceptions. Straw bale is actually surprisingly robust. The sort used for building is typically made from rice straw, so it has the added benefits of being cheap and plentiful.
The main downside is that it can be tempting to mice and other rodents - you could find your affection for nature challenged when said nature starts eating your house. However, used correctly, meaning properly treated with a natural render and used in conjunction with a timber frame, it will provide an attractive and incredibly well insulated home.
3) Rammed earth is worth the investment in low rainfall areas
If you are a fan of property shows on TV, you’ve probably heard of rammed earth. From a sustainability perspective, it is top-notch, being made from a mixture of gravel, sand and cement. It is also fireproof and a wonderful insulator against extreme temperature and noise. You’ll also know from those TV shows that it has a beautiful finish that looks natural but not the least rustic, so it’s ideal for a modern design.
It sound’s perfect for a trendy millennial couple settling down in fashionable Melbourne, so what’s the catch? There are a few potential issues. The first is that while it sounds like what’s left on the shovel when you sweep the path, rammed earth is actually very specifically formulated so it can be expensive. Secondly, it takes expertise that is not always easy to find. Do your research carefully and seek recommendations or you could end up kissing a few frogs before you find the prince of rammed earth. Finally, it is not ideal in areas of high rainfall. Unless you live somewhere like Adelaide or Ceduna, it will need to be capped and properly maintained to withstand the elements.
4) Stone has eco-credentials under the right circumstances
People have been using stone to create shelters since the earliest civilisations. It is incredibly robust, it will withstand any weather conditions and it will probably outlive multiple generations of occupants.
It is also incredibly heavy, so unless it is sourced locally, it quickly loses some of its eco-credentials when you start lugging it across the country on the back of a truck. Also, keep in mind that it is not a renewable material, so that is another point to consider when checking where and how it is sourced.
5) Glorious mud is not as messy as it sounds
Mud bricks are known as cobs in the UK, which immediately gets rid of much of the prejudice - perhaps the name should be adopted worldwide. Whatever you choose to call it, this is one of those materials that was used for centuries, was mostly superseded and has now been rediscovered as if it is the greatest innovation of our age.
The bricks are made from earth, water and straw. They are cheap, natural, fire resistant and effective insulators. Unlike rammed earth, they are easy to work with, and plenty of amateurs have used them in the construction of DIY projects.
Better still, they won’t wash away - in fact, a little water is an effective sealant after construction. It’s hard to find a downside, other than the obvious fact that whatever you choose to call it, a house made out of mud is always going to look like a house made out of mud. It could be that not every district of Melbourne or Sydney is quite ready for it yet.
6) There’s still a place for concrete on the eco-agenda
You might have thought concrete would be the last material anyone would consider as eco-friendly. To get the objections out of the way first, it’s true that it is man-made, so there is the impact of the manufacturing process to consider, and also it needs to be chemically sealed or it will soak up any and every stain that comes anywhere near it.
Having said that, it is strong, long-lasting and aesthetically, it improves with age. That can make reclaimed concrete a compelling choice for certain building projects, as it brings all the positives without the negatives. Like reclaimed timber, you wouldn’t necessarily build an entire house out of it, but it works well for smaller projects and landscaping.
7) Living walls and roofs take green to the next level
A green roof uses a base of gravel, steel and geo-cloth with grass or other living plants on top. It looks amazing, is a perfect insulator and is not too costly to install. It does, however, take expertise and will also need constant care, and most likely occasional replanting. If that doesn’t deter you, however, it’s a compelling option, and it certainly makes a statement about your commitment to sustainability.
This is most common on a roof, but it is possible to create green walls by planting vertically, too.
Using sustainable materials is fundamental to maximising a property’s sustainability credentials. But as an eco-conscious homeowner, understanding the materials used during construction is only the first of a whole list of considerations.
As we have already seen with some of the materials discussed earlier, it is often more than a question of “what.” Where and how are also relevant when looking, for example at timber or stone used during construction.
Here are some other important points to consider:
The Sydney Morning Herald ran an article a few months ago that discussed how temperatures fluctuate in Australian homes. In particular, it noted that temperatures drop much lower in some Queensland houses than they do in Sweden, where the average winter temperature is about 20 degrees colder! The reason is, of course, that European houses in general are insulated to the nth degree, helping them stay cool in summer and warm in winter while minimising the necessity for using energy on heating or cooling. The article commented that this conceptually goes against the grain for Australians who naturally embrace fresh air and a healthy breeze. That breeze is becoming a wind of change, however, and after several false starts over the past 30 years, insulation is something that everyone is going to start having to take seriously.
Australia gets plenty of sunshine compared to many places in the world, and today’s solar panels are far more effective than past generations. With the various government initiatives to help with cost, it would be madness not to install them wherever possible, especially on new builds. One thing is certain, it will be high on the priority list of any eco-conscious buyer.
LEDs have entirely transformed home lighting. 20 years ago, rooms commonly had a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling, and maybe a couple of table or floor lamps. They sapped energy, gave out as much heat energy as light and were apt to blow and demand replacement if you so much as looked at them the wrong way. LEDs can be installed anywhere, from ceiling spotlights to mood lighting at floor level. They last for years, they don’t get hot and, most relevant of all to today’s discussion, they use a fraction of the energy of alternatives. Sure, the bulbs themselves are more expensive, but they pay for themselves so quickly and so many times over, that to choose anything else would suggest such short-sightedness that you should surrender your driver’s license forthwith.
For years, Australians have wrestled with how best to make it through the brief, but sometimes quite harsh, Australian winters. Ducted heating systems are the most common, but ask anyone about their energy efficiency, and even the most dedicated advocate will resort to linguistic trickery and say they are “highly efficient” before moving the conversation on. Cooler parts of the world such as Western Europe and North America have embraced underfloor heating as a more energy-efficient option. Australia is lagging behind by a decade or two, but the revolution is coming. Installation can be pricey and awkward, so retrofitting on older properties is less common. For new builds, however, it is well worth considering, especially in Tasmania, New South Wales and Victoria, where the winter temperatures are coolest.
Water conservation is one of the most important sustainability issues for Australian homeowners. It is not enough to dismiss this as the responsibility of the individual, as consumption can be drastically affected by systems within the home. Examples include low flow taps and showers, high pressure showerheads, WELS-approved toilet cisterns and five or six star integrated appliances such as washing machines and dishwashers where fitted.
We live in a watershed era where we have come to understand the damage done by industrialisation, over-population and irresponsible consumption over the past century. Adopting sustainable practices is a responsibility that is shared equally between us all.
It affects every facet of life. But the idea that it begins at home - or more accurately, in the home, is a compelling one. We have the materials available to create more sustainable homes for future generations. And today’s homeowners have the buying power to make sure it happens.