How green are renovations?
in Greener Homes on 26 August 2012
It’s hard for extensions to buck the consumption trend.
RENOVATING is stressful. Typically, you’ve got to make a boxful of decisions you’ve never made before and hand over fistfuls of cash you don’t really have.
And if you want to reduce your environmental footprint while you’re at it, the process becomes even more complex.
With that in mind, how many “green renovations” end up very green?
The participants had one thing in common: by and large, their houses got bigger. Usually, the renovators chose to expand living areas and kitchens, revamp existing bathrooms and add new bathrooms. Some added a second floor.
“People were deeply concerned about the environment and really wanted to improve their house’s performance, but at the same time, they weren’t always cognisant of the fact they were expanding the size of their home,” she says.
The researchers don’t have stats to compare water and energy use before and after the renovations, but Dr Maller says popular design features, such as open plan and indoor-outdoor living areas, can make it hard to consume less. Larger spaces usually require more heating than smaller ones, even if the heating is efficient. More bathrooms can mean more showers, or longer ones.
Dr Maller, who leads the Place and Health research area, says the renovators were well informed and genuinely dedicated to efficiency and sustainability. One couple went to great lengths to salvage all the timber for their wood-panelled walls.
But on deeper questioning, the researchers discovered other reasons too. People wanted to make their home brighter, more comfortable, and larger, to accommodate growing families.
Overall, retrofitted homes are subject to escalating patterns of consumption reflected in society at large – such as expectations of greater convenience and privacy, extra space for more appliances and possessions, and a narrow indoor temperature range all year round.
In new housing estates, in particular, Dr Maller says, bathrooms and kitchens are multiplying. “There’s often a second kitchen outside that replicates many of the same appliances and even has heating.”
Those trends are hard to resist, especially when people worry about resale value. “One thing we noticed is that people really love that intersection between indoors and outdoors. There’s a point where fashion often wins out over sustainability,” she says.
She says that the narrative around green housing must emphasise restraint and thriftiness, rather than bigger and brighter technological solutions alone. It must also incorporate the notion of resource stewardship and recognise households as producers as well as consumers.
“We need to look beyond technology, to other things that people do in their home to save resources, such as sharing and swapping things with neighbours rather than everybody buying their own. Quite often people do it without thinking, like passing on children’s clothes.”
Dr Maller said that the most successful green renovations could include features designed to “buck the trend”. In her study, one of the interviewees chose not to install a bath in her redesigned, smaller, bathroom.
“Despite cajoling from friends, who even invited her over to have a bath at their place, she designed it out of her house, because she was adamant that water was such a precious commodity,” she says.
Are extensions always about more? Is it possible to renovate your home in a way that helps you consume less – or is ‘retrofitting’ a better word for doing that?
Despite the absence of hard numbers, I’m persuaded by the academics’ findings. If you've renovated, what were the results: more stuff, or less? Big debt, or simplicity?
Dr Maller focuses on the consumptive impact of our social practices – including patterns of cleaning, washing and convenience. I’d particularly like to hear about any examples of renovations or design features that re-shaped those practices.