LIVING in these pandemic-governed times has exemplified two extremes of the human paradox: the need for privacy, and the need to be part of something bigger (let’s call this our community).
Writing as I am from Victoria’s sixth lockdown, we are all too familiar with the craving for socialising, and to escape the confines of the house for a healthy dose of the outdoors. Cabin fever has set in but, exacerbated by the overdrive we find ourselves faced with in the ‘home’ environment: working simultaneously across multiple communication streams and platforms (mobiles, texts, emails, social media, Zoom, Teams, etc), children and home-schooling, isolation and constant adaptation to uncontrollable circumstances. The mental health impacts are widely discussed.
A house can often be like a wedding dress; an homage to a different time and place, a romantic idea that projects our own fantastical identity and desires. I would argue there is nothing wrong with nostalgia now and then; however, if we base our houses on a nostalgic historical model – which in Australia, as in most colonised countries, is a transplanted model from the ‘home country’ that is poorly adapted to the new climate and rejects indigenous knowledge – we will not have the resilience or ability to adapt to the current let alone future climate that is just around the corner. We can trick up our nostalgic house, add bells and whistles, solar panels and batteries – but perhaps first we should take a look at what our house is all about.
In 2017, Australia had the largest homes out of the countries surveyed. Australian homes measured, on average, 619 square metres, and were closely followed by US homes at 579 square metres. At the same time, households are getting smaller. In Australia in 1911, the average number of people per household was 4.5. By 2016, that number had fallen to 2.6. So we’re now living in larger houses, with more internal space, and fewer humans.
Why does the thermal performance of our houses matter though? Consider this: we are living in bigger houses, with fewer people. These houses are leaky. And yet we still need a comfortable human environment inside. So we either wear jumpers and scarves (in winter) or nothing at all (in summer) to stay comfortable; or alternatively, put on the heater or air conditioning. And we are having to heat more and more internal space, which equates to more and more energy use, and more cost to the householder in bills; and essentially, an inefficient, costly and wasteful cycle.
In 2020, with my architect’s hat on, ZGA Studio became a signatory to the aims of Australian Architects Declare a Climate and Biodiversity Emergency: “meeting the needs of our society without breaching the earth’s ecological boundaries will demand a paradigm shift in our behaviour. Together with our clients, we will need to commission and design buildings, cities and infrastructures as indivisible components of a larger, constantly regenerating and self-sustaining system”.
With eyes wide open, in 2020 my architectural practice, ZGA Studio, became carbon neutral, and I also became a certified passive house designer. What is Passive House? Insulated, efficient, comfortable, ventilated buildings. Passive House buildings allow for energy savings of up to 90 per cent compared with typical existing buildings and over 75 per cent compared with average new best-practice constructions. Passive House buildings, when certified, are tested and measured after construction to get an actual performance ‘leak’ figure. This is a measure in Air Changes per Hour (ACH) – or how many times per hour the entire ‘inside air’ of the house leaks out (or vice versa). The maximum ‘leakage’ allowed by the Passive House Standard is 0.6 ACH. So each hour, the entire ‘inside air’ leaks out (or vice versa) less than once. In 2016 the CSIRO measured the Australian average ‘leakage’ of new houses as 15.4 ACH; so each hour, the entire ‘inside air’ leaks out (or vice versa) just over 15 times. Think of this as a nice warm comfortable inside air temperature having to be completely reheated every four minutes to stay constant. That’s a very inefficient use of energy.
In September 2019 Bass Coast Shire declared a climate emergency. The Bass Coast Climate Change Action Plan 2020-2030 was adopted this year with the target of zero emissions by 2030. The greenhouse gas emissions in the Bass Coast equate to an average of 18.6 tonnes of CO2-e per person, every year. Stationary energy, which includes electricity, LPG bottled gas, mains gas and firewood, accounts for 39.8 per cent of that. This is one cost of our big, inefficient buildings.
As I see it, there are many steps we can take. Do we all need to live in tiny houses? Not necessarily – although it could be a great option for single-person households, or assisted living, or the ageing population, or those with less income. Could we live in smaller houses? Most definitely, yes. Could we live in more efficient houses? Absolutely essential. Could we live in innovative housing models, that are not only net zero carbon in use, but produce food, have next to no operational costs, and are healthy and connected to community? Yes please.
Zoe Geyer is a resident of Cape Woolamai, director of ZGA Studio, and co-ordinator of Totally Renewable Phillip Island.