High five: why the new renovation rating is all about smart design
Meeting the state’s new five-star energy rating costs renovators very little but saves the environment heaps.
Owning an old house is no longer an excuse for inefficient design. Extensions, like new houses, must now comply with the 5 Star energy standard.
The new regulations, introduced by the state government on 1 May this year, bring Victoria into line with the national standard in the Building Code of Australia. With about 40 000 Victorian homes done up every year, the changes could make a big difference to our greenhouse gas emissions.
Research by the state building regulator, the Building Commission, shows that in new homes the efficiency requirements already in place cut heating and cooling energy bills in half. “That’s likely to be achieved as well, in relation to alterations and additions,” says Victoria’s Building Commissioner, Tony Arnel.
He says that meeting the efficiency standard is mainly about smart design. “It is really careful use of materials and making sure that you get good orientation. People can actually achieve the 5 Star standard without any significant increase in cost.” In any case, he believes that reduced bills will quickly outweigh any higher outlays.
The 5 Star regulations apply only to work that requires a building permit and they vary depending on the size of your extension. For larger additions the whole house must comply, while for smaller changes only the new construction must adhere to the rules [see box]. Arnel doesn’t believe the requirements are onerous. “It’s a minimum standard… people can go a long way further if they want to,” he says.
The Building Commission, in conjunction with a number of state departments, has just launched the ‘Make Your Home Green’ website. It gives information on how to increase energy efficiency at home in every way, including detailed explanations of the new renovation rules. The site is proving very popular: in its first month, it received over 400 000 hits. “People want to do the right thing by the environment. They want to get the answers,” Arnel says.
On building sites though, not everything is running smoothly. Robert Ring, owner of Melbourne Extensions and Designs, agrees that the new regulations will be successful in the long run. For now though, his business is battling complications brought on by the rules. “We are trying to come to grips with the [software] package that’s been put out to calculate the ratings,” he says. “At the present it’s probably taking three or four hours to work out the figures.”
Ring has found that for his clients living in older, solid brick homes around Camberwell and Glen Iris, it can be hard to meet the energy standard. “You’ve got to design with the existing house in mind so it’s not as easy to get your ratings as people think,” he says. Under the regulations, building surveyors have discretion to allow only partial compliance if it would be too costly or technically difficult to reach the stars. With the rules just in, Ring isn’t sure how often these exemptions will be granted.
He estimates that on average, the regulations will only increase costs by about 1%. Often though, he finds that clients decide to spend even more and green up their home beyond the requirements by putting double-glazed windows throughout their house.
According to Enzo Raimondo, CEO of the Real Estate Institute of Victoria (REIV), the extra outlay is not only worthy, but also financially worthwhile. “It’s going to cost a little more to begin with but if the cost of energy and water keeps going up, then a 5 Star energy rating is going to be a wise investment,” he says.
In a survey conducted by REIV last year, 93% of people said that water and energy efficiency were important for them when buying a home. Raimondo believes that investing in a 5 Star renovation will add value to a property and appeal for potential buyers. “Economically it makes sense and for resale it makes sense.”
So what is the best way to bring home the stars and boost your property value? Mark Sanders, Director of Geelong firm Third Ecology Architects, says that passive solar design is the key. “If people are thinking about doing a renovation, they should try to make sure their living area is facing north and allow the sun to come in during winter and exclude it in summer.” Cross ventilation and thermal mass, like concrete floors, also help even out the temperature in hot and cold weather.
Sanders recommends you find out how your home performs as it stands. “People will need to do an energy rating of their existing home before the renovation.”
In the old part of your house, he says insulating walls and ceilings is the best way to improve efficiency. “In my own home, we had to replace some plasterboard… so that gave us the opportunity to insulate. Likewise, if you had to replace weatherboards you could insulate the external walls.”
Adding carpet or insulation under floors also cuts heat loss, as does sealing draughts under doors, windows, chimneys and exhaust fans. “Most front doors in older houses tend to have big gaps under the front of them,” he says. “So put in simple draught excluders.”
Simple steps to harness the elements
Barbara and Graeme Davidson are sitting in the new, bright back room of their 1930s Surrey Hills home. It is a cold, grey day but the room is light and comfortable, without artificial lighting or heating. They are thrilled with the environmental performance of their north-facing extension. “I just find every morning I come in here and it’s a delight. It’s airy, it’s spacious,” Graeme says, leaning back on the couch in satisfaction.
The Davidsons finished their revamp almost two years ago. Now, renovations like theirs are set to become the norm. On 1 May, the state government introduced new regulations forcing additions and alterations, like new homes, to comply with the 5 Star energy standard.
The couple’s contemporary-styled extension added both a study and a large open room, with a kitchen, lounge and informal dining space. They also installed solar hot water and a rainwater tank that collects from the roof of their new garage.
Andrew Wilson, the architect on the Surrey Hills home, is pleased with the results. He called his clients during a long summer hot spell and found, to his satisfaction, that they had barely used their air-conditioner.
According to Wilson, environmental efficiency is just about good design. “This is not rocket science, at all,” he says, leaning forward keenly. “The sun is higher in summer and lower in winter. It’s as basic as that.”
In the hotter months, wide eaves shade the large north-facing windows. Between each pane of glass, thick supports jut out to protect against the westerly afternoon sun. “In mid-summer you get no direct light into the building,” Graeme confirms. But in mid-winter, he says, the sun stretches right across the room.
Other eco-touches in the renovation include insulation beyond the 5 Star requirements and effective cross ventilation – airflow through the house to help natural cooling. Equally, in winter, the warm lounge room can be shut off from the rest of the home to keep the heat in. The garden too, has a role to play. The Davidsons planted deciduous trees that will offer summer shade and allow winter sun.
The renovation may be finished, but Barbara’s plans continue. Keen to make the house even more efficient, she wants to put in a grey water system and solar panels. “I just feel we come from the generation that have used the resources, and I include myself in that,” she says. “I’ve got grandchildren and I’m worried about what sort of world I’m going to leave them.”
The new rules at a glance
The 5 Star energy rating now applies to home additions, alterations and relocations, as well as new homes. The rules are flexible, depending on the size of the job.
If your renovation is more than 50% of your house’s original volume, the whole building should be converted to 5 Star.
If your extension is between 25 and 50% of your floor area, the only the new space must stick to the eco-standard.
If your alteration is less than 25% of your floor area, the new space should meet the rules but in some cases, your building surveyor can ok only partial compliance. According to Building Commissioner Tony Arnel, this applies “in the very few instances where it’s not feasible to get to 5 Star.”