Greener apartment blocks
YOU’D think apartments would have smaller eco-footprints than houses – after all, they’re usually smaller and stacked up, not sprawling. But are high-rise inhabitants really justified in looking down upon energy-guzzling suburbanites?
In 2005 Paul Myors, from EnergyAustralia, investigated the carbon emissions of different kinds of housing for the NSW Department of PlanningPDF. Surprisingly, he found that apartment-dwellers account for more greenhouse gas emissions than residents in detached housing (not including transportation).
Myors laid the blame at the energy consumption of common areas, together with lower occupancy rates in apartments.
Michael Buxton, professor of environment and planning at RMIT, confirms that high-rise residential buildings – above about nine storeys – tend to be very poor performers. “That’s partly because they often use a lot of glass in construction,” he says. “But they also have lifts, big foyers and lots of large spaces that have to be heated, as well as other facilities like gyms and pools.”
“The best energy performance comes from attached buildings such as townhouses and villas – your classic medium density,” Buxton says. According to Myors’ research, a typical townhouse produces about half the carbon emissions of a high-rise apartment.
So what can eco-minded apartment dwellers do to lift their game?
This article explores the ways you can go green in common. I'll bypass the standard steps individuals can take within their own walls, and focus on the measures that transform the building as a whole.
If retrofitting your own home looks confusing, the added challenge of common property can be mind-boggling. “With collective decision-making and volunteer committees, there’s a whole layer of complexity that gets in the way of change,” says Christine Byrne, founder of eco-website Green Strata.
As a first step, she suggests green-minded strata-title owners join the management committee of their building. “If you’re on the committee, it’s easier to get access to information and put items on agendas,” she says. (The task is harder for renters; unfortunately, you’ll have to convince owners to take up the case for you.)
Once you’re there, Byrne suggests getting a picture of exactly what you’re all consuming. The best way to do that is by commissioning an environmental audit of the building. At the least, make sure you’re actually seeing your bills, not just paying them automatically.
“Start to make a list of what’s happening in your building and work through the options,” she says. “The bigger your building, the more you can do, because the greater your water and energy consumption. With smaller buildings the options might be things like double-glazing, waste and composting.”
As in any existing home or office, improving lighting efficiency is the easiest step – and some changes will cost nothing at all.
In a case study detailed on Green Strata, Nexus apartments in St Leonards, Sydney, found the fluorescent globes in its car park were illuminating the space well beyond what was necessary. So the building manager simply removed almost half the tubes.
“Walk around your building and look at every light,” suggests Byrne. “Can outdoor lights be solar lights? Consider timers, motion sensors and LEDs – for every space there’s a different solution. De-lamping is an easy step, but you have to make sure the level of lighting still complies with Australian Standards.”
Nexus also installed day/night detectors for the compact fluorescent globes under its awnings, as well as motion sensors in the plant and utility rooms. Both measures meant that the lights no longer ran 24-hours a day. The cost is expected to be recouped in savings within 12 months.
In buildings taller than three storeys, water consumption packs a double-whammy. Each drop has an associated energy cost for pumping (as well as the energy cost for heating it). And if that’s not concern enough, in most apartments, residents don’t have separate water meters.
“People aren’t paying for water based on their own consumption,” says Byrne. “The water use of some of these big buildings is quite horrific and it can be very poor in the older ones as well.”
While this is a problem, it’s also an opportunity for serious savings. Miramar Apartments, a 38-storey building in the Sydney CBD, undertook an audit by Sydney Water. The assessment identified major leaks and found that most tap fittings and showerheads were inefficient. Each apartment was retrofitted by the utility under its WaterFix program (which costs as little as $22 per dwelling).
For measures that totalled about $7000, the building cut its water use by one-fifth. It saves about $64,000 each year on water and energy bills combined.
“We’re starting to see owners corporations agreeing to pay for the WaterFix,” Byrne says. “You have to do annual fire inspections, so at the same time, why not do an annual water inspection?”
If you have to wait a long time for hot water, it’s likely there’s something amiss in the pipes. Many large buildings have centralised hot water that uses a ring main system – a pipe that loops from the boiler, past all levels and back again.
In this kind of system, broken valves, cross-connections and lack of insulation on pipes can cause a lot waste.
The Sustainable Living in the City trial, run by the Melbourne City Council in 2008, found that some residents in high-rise apartment buildings were waiting up to ten minutes for their hot water to flow.
Dorothy LeClaire oversees the owners corporation department at from Melbourne in the City Management, which manages three of the buildings that took part in the trial. One of the key recommendations was that plumbers assess the ring main system. And for some residents there was an instant benefit: immediate hot water.
“When you do ring main balancing, the hot water comes a lot quicker,” she says. “It saves water, obviously – there’s less cold water going down the drain. But it also saves energy because you have to heat less water.
When Melbourne City Councillor Cathy Oke moved into her CBD apartment, she found there was no recycling collection at all. “Residential recycling rates in the city are terrible,” she says.
But it’s not just city apartments that don’t get it right. In most multi-dwelling blocks, recycling is less convenient than in stand-alone dwellings. Without dedicated areas and separate chute systems, bins usually become a jumble of rubbish and recyclables.
In Oke’s building, recycling bins have been moved off each floor and she uses a special container, supplied by the council, to sort and transport her recyclables.
“It’s like a funky yellow shopping basket that’s easily tip-able. It fits neatly in my small kitchen,” she says. “If you move the recycle bins to reduce contamination, you have to make it easy to go to those locations.”
The best method will vary from building to building, depending on the space: the key is to make the chore as convenient as possible. Good signage, with colour coding and clear instructions can help focus the most absent-minded residents, so try asking your local council for education material.
Composting is always tricky in apartments, but to encourage residents, owners corporations can organise bulk purchase of worm farms or Bokashi Buckets, together with a workshop to get people started. In some buildings, enthusiastic residents have established communal composting on shared garden space.
Case study: Signature Apartments
At the suggestion of a resident, Signature Apartments turned to technology to create a sense of community. The building, in Redfern, Sydney, has created its own Facebook page.
Robert Goodall, an apartment owner and the chairperson of Signature’s management committee, is one of two people who moderate the page.
“There are 100 units in our building. A lot of us felt that within apartment buildings nobody ever knows their neighbours,” he says.
“We thought Facebook would be a way to get feedback on how the building was going. And for greening the apartments, we could post ideas and get comments. We were looking at installing a communal compost bin to reduce our waste and when posted that we got lots of positive responses.”
For now, about fifty people ‘like’ the page, and Goodall says many more visit it regularly. Among other things, residents have used it to borrow and lend things, and to recycle unwanted furniture.
He has also used Facebook to promote the building’s bike room. Low-impact transportation is one clear advantage apartment-dwellers have over suburban householders – they’re usually much closer to shops, workplaces and public transport. But when it comes to bike-friendly infrastructure, most buildings still don’t provide the goods.
A bike room had been planned for Signature Apartments, but when residents moved in, it hadn’t been fitted out. The committee conducted research on racks, layouts and costs.
“There are a lot of options out there. The internet is a good place to do a general browse and see what you can find,” Goodall says.
“Having the room is good because it takes the bikes out of all the common areas where people were locking them. And for riders, it gives us a safe place to store our bikes.”
This article was published by Sanctuary Magazine