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Sustainable home design

Sustainable home design: The 3 biggest mistakes in today’s homes

Planning a new home or renovation can be an all-consuming and stressful task. For those people who want to take it to the next level and design a sustainable and efficient home, the task becomes even more complex again. However, there are a number of specific mistakes made by many people that not only make it harder than it has to be, but also have a huge effect on the performance of the home when completed.

Confusing efficiency with sacrifice

The only way to save energy, water, or cash is to use less, right? And, if that’s the case, then from time to time we’ll just have to go without, yes? This is the most common thinking around efficiency – using less. However, the real meaning of efficiency is to get the most out what you’ve got.

It’s actually very easy to create a more efficient home without any changes to your lifestyle at all, particularly when the changes are simply product-based, such as highly efficient LED lighting or a solar hot water service, just to name a couple.

Obviously, if you want to create the MOST efficient home possible there will be some further changes required, such as the way certain items or appliances are controlled (sensors, timers etc.), or perhaps even how the occupants behave in the home (shorter showers, closing doors/windows, etc.), but this will be personal choice based on the sustainability/lifestyle balance. And funnily enough, no two people are the same …

Attempting to use simplistic products to solve complex problems

There is no question that there are some fantastic products on the market these days. From smart thermostats to wifi-controlled appliances to triple- glazed windows – there appears to be a solution for all our problems. But most commonly we don’t identify the real problem, and because of this we buy individual products that only partially fix our real problems.

To put this in perspective, consider this: You are soon renovating your home and know from living there over the last five years that the main living areas simply get too hot over the summer months. Having an environmental conscience, you set yourself a mission to find the most efficient air conditioner on the market and are happy to pay a small premium for it. In most cases though, this is a bad decision …

The real problem was you needed a way to cool your home and do it efficiently. The automatic thinking was to find an air conditioner, but a better plan would have been to look into the thermal qualities in the home, such as insulation, glazing, draught-sealing, shading, and even the control of and access to natural ventilation. This is no more complicated than the retrofit of a cooling unit into a home. The thermal option may cost more to install, it might actually cost less, but one thing is for sure – it is a far more sustainable solution with near zero running costs, and the added benefits of better air quality, lower carbon emissions … and the list goes on.

The house can become hard work

Sustainable design is worthwhile. In fact, the importance of sustainable design cannot be questioned, because while many people perhaps don’t have the desire to create a home with less impact on our environment, in 99 percent of these homes the running costs will be far lower, saving us that very tangible item called money. I personally don’t know many people who don’t want to save cash. Unfortunately though, in many sustainable designs, the home can require almost micro-management to ensure high performance …

A home designed with great passive qualities will have a number of key elements it needs to tick off. The first set of them will be determined at a very early stage in the home design: location, orientation and the building layout. The second set will be more focused on the functionality of the home, and will need to be considered before any construction gets underway: window placement (for solar access), thermal mass (building materials), use of shading, and natural ventilation.

So if we again focus on how a home can most efficiently regulate the indoor climate (temperature, humidity, air quality, etc.), this would mean the optimised use of the solar radiation from the sun, the outside air temperature, the prevailing winds, and perhaps the use of an active source of heating and/or cooling such as air-conditioners, evaporative coolers, radiant heaters, or more alternate technology such as geothermal or solar-boosted systems.

This is where it can become hard work. If a hot day (+30°C) was forecast, trying to coordinate all these factors might mean closing blinds in the morning, opening high-level windows to expel hot air, opening low-level windows on the shady side for cool air intake, extending external awnings to north windows and turning on ceiling fans for circulation. Then, if the day screamed up past 40°C, you may need to close all the windows and turn the air conditioner on instead.

And guess what happens if a cool change comes through in the afternoon? You do it all over again, but in reverse! I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Luckily, it is the twenty-first century and there are a number of solutions. There are now reasonably affordable and easy-to-use automated systems that monitor temperature, wind, rain, energy, and many more factors, and, based on your preferred settings, control the environment perfectly and efficiently. In the better systems you can achieve simple one-touch control via your smart phone, or even fully automated control where it just does it all for you.

The emphasis on a great design should not be understated. Many people believe that it is just a plan and it can be easily altered, tweaked, and changed throughout the project. Beware! This is unfortunately a very common reason for jobs not being done right and for unwanted extra costs. Spend time getting your design right, and do it in conjunction with a functional designer, architect or quality builder.

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