The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed

Drawing of new housing

WGV by LandCorp. Image by Last Pixel.

Yes, it was a big call but at the breakfast on 20 April in Sydney  Josh, Caroline and Scott delivered a very impressive vision of the future of Australian House Design. Thanks team, the world owes you a fine wine.

Josh Byrne laid out the blueprint, literally, for Josh’s house. In summary

  • Use intelligent design, respect the place you are in, align your house to sun and seasons and use local resources such as timber, stone or aquifers
  • Use local Water. Start with rainwater and water efficient appliances, it is more efficient to fall back on mains water in the dry season than to plan an enormous tank. Josh’s House uses Perth rainfall for nine months of the year and mains water in late summer when the tank runs dry. Use greywater in summer when it will be used by the garden and bore water from the superficial aquifer for the garden, replenished by infiltration over winter from the garden. Josh’s house uses 92% less mains water than the Perth average.
Graph of rainwater use

Annual use of rainwater and potable water

  • Use local Energy, solar panels and battery and energy efficient appliances. Josh’s house only has a 3Kw system and even that generates more power than the house uses over the year, the battery is for nights and cloudy days. I had to read the charts twice to work out grid electricity use – there isn’t any. Just exporting surplus. The house does use a bit of gas to boost the solar hot water system and for cooking. This house does not use mechanical heating or cooling. This is what a ten star Nathers rating looks like.
  • Living and garden spaces, these are beautiful, green, shady and productive. All surfaces except the roof are permeable, recharging the aquifer, the garden provides fruit, vegetables and eggs.

Josh is extraordinary. Josh delivers what he believes in and shares his IP with the world. Josh shows you the floorplans, landscape plans, transparent performance monitoring and how to build the greywater system.  Josh’s house is also extraordinary, but the technology and the design are both accessible and achievable for our general community. None of the technology requires exclusive skills, great expense or ground breaking innovation. All of this is available now, but put together with skill and understanding.

Caroline Pidcock took architectural sustainability to a good place. Imagine if our houses weren’t just efficient but reflected the values we need to make the world a better place? Can we use houses to establish beauty, inspiration, respect for place, equity and justice?  The Living Building Challenge does that and I want to know a lot more about it.

Photo of house interior

Living Building Challenge – Beauty

The Living Building Challenge is based on the metaphor of a flower which is rooted in place and yet harvests all its energy and water, is adapted to climate, is pollution free, is comprised of integrated systems and is beautiful.  The seven performance areas are Place, Water, Energy, Health & Happiness, Materials, Equity and Beauty. I have two examples to give you a flavour of the Challenge, one philosophical and one practical. In the Health & Happiness area, the biophilia criteria requires the design to include elements that nurture the innate human attraction to natural systems and processes. In the Materials Performance area the challenge provides a ‘Red List’ of toxic or harmful materials you don’t want to live with. I had a quick look and immediately found a listed carcinogenic chemical in a very common building material. That is not good news but it shows how powerful these concepts can be.

Finally Scott updated us on the BASIX system, the most successful sustainability initiative in the country, an ecologically sustainable online assessment tool that integrates water management, energy management and the land use planning and development process. Scot talked about the strengths of water utilities and small scale operators and proposed that access to cheap, high level computing power would be a major factor in helping people to understand, monitor and optimise housing performance in future.

Column graph showing proportions of different tank sizes

BASIX rainwater tank sizes

Scott’s presentation gave rise to the key question for the workshop, how does government encourage or require better house design? Essentially governments respond to communities and it appears our communities are not calling for much progress in this area.

As a commentator I think many people in our community assume there are existing good standards and regulations for house design and performance. When governments talk about 6 star housing and building controls, most people assume that the important things are being addressed. Unfortunately this is largely not the case, Nathers only really considers energy and the energy it considers is about the performance of the building, not the appliances we put in them. Only BASIX considers water and energy and puts real, measurable targets in place but still, important considerations like stormwater and green infrastructure are not included.

Why is this important? Why don’t we just let people design and build their own houses? The issue is the billions of dollar our government spends annually on water, energy and stormwater. The community health benefits of green shady trees are also measured in the billions. We as a community could be richer, happier and healthier through strategic regulation.

I asked the speakers if they could identify three things we need to do to make this design inspiration become a widespread reality.

Josh Byrne

  • As consumers we should expect more from our buildings and see high performance and cost effective operation as the norm.
  • Introduce mandatory disclosure of building performance at point of sale and lease. This will lead to greater performance literacy and a market driven ‘raising of the bar’ across industry.
  • Expand BASIX nationally as a minimum regulatory step towards better mandated performance requirements.

Caroline Pidcock

  • Lead by creating an inspiring and desirable future that people want to live in
  • Be really ambitious in what you want to create – this will shift your mindset and help achieve much more than small incremental change
  • Understand and work with the systems you are designing within so you can capture and optimise synergies

Scott Wilson

  • From my perspective, a key action for the industry would be to engage proactively with the executive and political arms of government regarding the debate on best practice water management and water security.  By the nature of their size and financial resources, governments often hear from ‘the big end of town’, be that the establish water utilities or the large companies that provide water supply services.  The views of disparate small contractors and individual can often get lost in that process.  This is of course where an organisation such as RHAA has a vital role to play.
  • The RHAA should also consider the strengths and weaknesses of key stakeholders, what do the water utilities do well and what to small scale operators do well?

Lets talk about it!

The quote about the future, which is our title, is from William Gibson, Science Fiction writer and is also being used by the excellent 20th Sydney Biennale.

Copies of the presentations are available from the website at rainwater harvesting