Brendan Condon, developer of The Cape estate, frowns as he surveys the view of empty paddock and ocean from the first-floor window of The Cape House, the first house to be built on a estate and a poster home for sustainable design and construction.
Back in the day, housing estates were orderly arrangements of quarter-acre blocks defined by long straight roads. Closeness to the workplace or public transport was paramount and the car was king. The biggest decision was whether to go brick or weatherboard and how many bedrooms could be afforded.
These days, we have more options. Pre-owned or new, house and land package, or buy a block and build your own dream house. Small, medium, large, upscale, down-sized, traditional, modern, eco? Recycled? Where to garage that Tesla? If you work from home you can live anywhere within the realm of connectivity.
Brendan leans on a dining table covered in neatly stacked sales brochures. He’s running me through a formula for economic happiness as we watch a visitor park outside. He pauses to emphasise the lack of intrusive noise. The car is quite close to the front of the house but we hear nothing as the motor stops and the car doors open and close.
“Rammed earth construction and double glazing. Sound deadening as well as energy efficient. We made the bricks on site." Brendan says with quiet pride.
The people about to enter have recently bought a block of land at The Cape. It’s been a decade-long effort to get to this point. Amid the marketing paraphernalia of The Cape House, Brendan steps away from the role of property developer, eco-champion and salesperson to talk about himself.
Raised in Warragul, he and his siblings explored the beaches of Cape Paterson as teenagers. He fell in love with the area. A trained criminologist, in Melbourne he runs a business with over 70 employees rehabilitating landscapes and creating new wetlands. In 2010 they planted their 25 millionth plant.
He also helped design and build some of the largest stormwater-harvesting systems that now drought-proof some of the largest parks in the City of Melbourne. He wants to turn cities back into food-producing areas, and has designed a water-efficient vertical food garden for city rooftops and laneways. The little recreational time he has is spent paddling outrigger canoes, a hobby that has taken him all over Australia. He’s been part of a team that crossed Bass Strait, raising funds for cancer research.
The conversation returns to the development. This house, the exhibition home at The Cape, produces more power than it uses, has an 8.2 star energy rating (six stars is typical for new homes) and is about 85 per cent cheaper to run than an average house, according to a report by the Alternative Technology Association. Of the $500 a year running costs, $400 is the cost of connection to the grid itself, although the house has the potential to run completely off grid.
The most common question asked by first-time visitors is whether the heating or cooling is on. The answer, because of remarkably thick insulation, is almost always no. Solar powered and built with carbon-neutral materials, the fittings include LED lighting, induction cooking, and 10,000 litres of rainwater storage. Rainwater overflow from each house will be collected for watering a community garden.
The Cape development, on the site of an old farm, uses modern technology to achieve sustainability but in some ways it is reminiscent of older country villages. Once more of the 220 home sites have been sold, work will start on the sports fields, community garden and conference centre. These will form a social hub that people can access through a network of bike paths, walk ways and short streets. There are plans for a dog-off-lead exercise area. More than half the site is set aside as open space, parks and habitat restoration. Brendan has provided access to these features for the established Cape Paterson community.
There was an uphill battle to convince the people of Cape Paterson of the merits of this subdivision. Local builder Tony O’Connell, of TS Constructions, who built the award-winning home, was sceptical when he went to Mr Condon’s first community consultation. “To be honest, I went along there ready to lynch him,” he says. “I didn’t want to see another developer in my town.” He eventually became so enamored of the project that he signed on as one of the partners.
A legacy of the convoluted development process is that final approval for houses in this ecovillage rests with a three-person committee, empowered by the State Government rather than Bass Coast Shire Council. Mr Condon is one of the triumvirate and he plans to live at The Cape. He smiles. “So we’d better do a good job of this ...” He and his wife have a spot marked out on the edge of the beach.
Buyers can currently select from 10 house designs, all featuring 7.5 star energy efficiency ratings. While some might class the 200-square-metre Cape House as a McMansion, albeit a more sustainable one, there are also smaller and more modest designs. Custom homes can be approved as long as they fit environmental guidelines. Clever building techniques and careful attention to detail reduce construction costs. Combined with savings from reduced operating costs, owners could pay off their mortgage many years earlier than purchasers of less efficient houses.
The Cape is also planning for widespread uptake of electric vehicles with household charge points and community EV infrastructure. Brendan says the appeal of electric vehicles will increase once range anxiety is overcome. The possibility of free, home-made electricity adds incentive.
Last year he drove an all-electric Tesla from a central Melbourne showroom to Cape Paterson. This car can travel up to 400 kilometres on one charge, has no exhaust emission and performs more than adequately. On arrival he plugged it into the EV charge points in his solar-powered house before driving back to Melbourne.
He says the economics of sustainable cars and houses are now compelling. "Ten years ago, sustainability systems needed a subsidy to get them over the line. Electricity has doubled in cost, gas went up 50 per cent; on the other side of the ledger, solar panel prices dropped by 80-90 per cent over the same period.”
The Cape House was one of a handful of Victorian houses in last year’s Sustainable House open day. Brendan anticipates that in the near future there will be a Sustainable Street open day at The Cape.
He hopes The Cape will become a drawcard for the region as the first climate-adapted greenfield housing estate in Australia, with a corresponding hub of sustainable design and construction capacity.