In my architectural day job I work on large projects, mostly University buildings. It might seem like a far cry from designing homes, but I realised recently that a lot of the issues that come up in my work are also relevant to how people might address their housing needs in a more sustainable way- using their (undoubtedly) limited resources in the most effective way to meet their needs. In Australia continually rising housing prices have led many people (ourselves included) to rethink how they use their existing home, instead of buying a different larger one.
Making the best possible use of existing physical resources and materials (Reusing and Recycling) is often better environmentally (and in other ways too) than building new, even if the new building incorporates the latest ‘environmentally friendly’ materials, technology and ‘green building’ design research. I find many of the homes I’ve seen on World’s Greenest Homes appalling, with regards to their consumption of resources and pursuit of brand spanking new, cavernous, luxury, even if they are using some environmentally good materials in a clever way.
I’d like to highlight 5 green building design principles about making the most of what you have already have, and explain how we have been applying them over the last couple of years, as we’ve been renovating and expanding our own home and garden. I'm not claiming that our home is one of the world's greenest, but it is certainly greener than many alternatives.
1. Think long term. Our needs always change over time, but it doesn’t make sense to address short term needs in a way that compromises long term needs, or creates a whole lot of wastage or redundant renovations.Think about the big picture master plan, not just the problem that is bugging you today. You may have a toddler now, but will you still be living in this home when they are 10? 20? 30?? (Hmmmm, scary thought...)
With a child entering into our life, we realized we needed a new craft/study room, more living space, and a dining space that could seat more than two people without rearranging the furniture. Fortunately, we had an outside space that was completely underutilized, where we could build two new rooms.
2. How else can you use it? Flexible and adaptable spaces are more useful in the long term than highly specialised spaces. Some rooms have to be single function- the kitchen and bathroom aren’t going make very good bedrooms- but can other rooms be changed around (bed/craft/lounge/dining room) as needs change? Perhaps small changes, like changing doors or windows, removing a wall, adding power points, removing fixed storage, or changing lighting will change how you can use the spaces you already have.
Our rooms aren’t big, but they’re generous enough, with doors in sensible locations, so that they can be used in different ways, with different furniture layouts. We can use our new craft/study room as a bedroom if we need to, as can a future owner.
3. Inside and Outside. Depending on your climate, at different times of the year the spaces outside your home can really expand your living space, and the kinds of things you do. Are you invited out by being able to see and hear what’s happening outside? Is the door in the right spot? Is the space outside at the same level as inside? Is it shady or sunny, sheltered from wind or rain, appropriately paved or decked?
We hardly used our back garden because you had to go through the laundry (which included a toilet) to get there, and immediately down a couple of ugly concrete steps. Not ideal, especially when you have visitors. By building a deck area and installing a new (fully glazed) back door into our kitchen, we now have much more light in our kitchen, can see how lovely the garden is, and spend a lot more time in out there.
4. Collecting water. Where we live, the price of tap water is cheap, so until the government brought in restrictions on how we use it, investing in large rainwater tanks didn’t seem worthwhile. However it’s now our legal option for watering the garden, washing the car or letting our toddler play under the sprinkler. You can also collect rainwater for toilet flushing or laundry, depending on how you set the system up. Rain and grey water collection options vary, depending on local regulations, budget, space and water needs.
We now have two water tanks- one in the front yard and one in the back, to help our efforts to set up a food producing garden and shade trees. We also have a basic grey water system set up so that we can collect bathwater to hand water our small lawn when it needs it.
5. Sun and Shade. The key to keeping a building warm (or cool), without spending money on energy, is letting the sun in (or keeping it out), along with insulating the walls, floors and roof. The potential benefits vary depending on your climate and time of year. There is also energy saving benefit if the daylight means you don’t need to turn the lights on all the time. The location and size of windows, type of glass, and any fixed, movable or growing shade (inside or outside) will all make a difference.
We packed our extension with insulation (the existing house has virtually none, so we do rely on air conditioning to keep us cool upstairs in summer) and installed large windows with special coated glass on the sunny side of the house. A sheer blind reduces glare on sunny winter days. In hotter months, we have a removable fabric sunshade that shades the window and the outside deck. All our shade trees are fast growing and deciduous (sadly not native) which means the garden gets sun in winter, but our lawn is beautifully shaded and cool in summer.
I’ve tried to keep this as a simple outline- something to perhaps get you thinking, and inspire you to investigate further. There are many resources out there for more detailed information on green building design and many of the things I’ve mentioned- too many to pick just a few. I encourage you to Google, or if you’re in Australia on 12th September, it happens to be Sustainable House Day, with many homes, all over the country, open to visitors and all their questions.