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A green extension / renovation

My partner, Katrina, and I have slowly been moving towards leading
sustainable lives.  This has been a conscious effort but not a fast one
to say the least. We started with small actions – buying products with
less packaging, buying products of companies that we respect (voting
with our dollar- it was particularly difficult for Katrina to give up
her Coca-Cola habit), and limiting our car usage.

So, when we decided
to renovate our home in Melbourne, Australia, we decided to try and do
it as green as possible (not to mention that I have been focusing my career in green

What we hope to achieve:

Our goal is to partly demolish, alter, and extend our existing house in order to produce not only a beautiful and inviting home but also an energy-efficient, healthy and low embodied energy home (With all my recent free time, I have been reading a bit about embodied energy – the energy consumed by all of the processes associated with the production of a building, from the acquisition of natural resources to product delivery. 

This includes the mining and manufacturing of materials and equipment, the transport of the materials and the administrative functions. It has really changed the way that I view materials and their sustainability).

Why we want to build green:

  • As a still relatively young green builder, I am happy to utilize most of my free time to research sustainable materials, designs, and building principles.
  • Our house provides us with a great opportunity to design a passive solar home.
  • We have great solar access (nothing obstructs our access to the sun’s rays) and the house is oriented with the backyard facing North, which would be equivalent of facing South in the Northern Hemisphere.  Thus, we receive oodles of winter sun.
  • Katrina’s father is a carpenter and builder with a wealth of experience.
  • He will be able to provide great advice during the planning stage; however, I will have to seek advice elsewhere for green building ideas and practices.
  • Additionally, Katrina’s father and I will try to do as much of the building work ourselves.

Why building green makes us a bit nervous:

  • I am not an established green builder and Katrina is a teacher so we don’t have unlimited funds and we will have to watch our budget closely.
    • With a limited budget, some upfront planning techniques, like a charrette (a very intensive, highly integrative, transdisciplinary, roundtable workshop that bring together stakeholder and experts at the very outset of a design or problem solving process), would be too expensive.
    • I will have to conduct most of my own research and search for as much free advice as possible.
  • Since Australia is a massive continent with only 20 million citizens, there is not quite the economies of scale that exist elsewhere in the world and materials and labor often cost more than other developed countries – i.e. USA, Europe, etc.

The Next Step: Researching

Katrina and I are very excited about attempting to build green but we are concerned about the possible extra costs. 

All too often I read that the up-front costs of green building are too large.  Yet, green advocates state that these up-front costs are easier to justify if you look at the life-cycle cost of the project – the cost of the home spread over its entire life.  For example, green design and products often save money year after year as energy, water, heating and cooling, maintenance, and, even, medical bills are lower than the corresponding bills of a conventional home. 

Though for those of us on a tight budget it is hard to wait for something, like a more expensive green renovation, when one can have a cheaper, conventional renovation immediately.  Additionally, who lives in a house for long enough to see a lot of those returns?  Last year, the average home loan in the Australia was something like three and half years – an indication that we all are moving around a lot more now. 

Building a healthy home

Nevertheless, Katrina and I would entertain the idea of paying a little more for particular green products or design. We will specifically look for green products with quick a quick return on our money of 1-5 years, or products and design ideas that add warmth and character to the home and/or improve the health of the home. 

A healthy home is a home that is void of harmful pollutants – mostly Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) – found in a lot of glues, finishes, and other construction materials.   Who wants to build a home that makes them sick all the time?

A whole systems approach

Other green advocates state that integration is the key to achieving the environmental and energy goals that we desire while not raising costs.  Builders, architects, and designers too often don’t look at the whole picture and define goals and problems too narrowly, without identifying their connections, causes or purposes. 

One must look at each piece of a house and see how they all fit together to make one whole integrated system.  For example, a Heating, Cooling, and Ventilation (HCAV) system helps makes a home comfortable but it does not accomplish this alone. If you upgraded the envelope of your home, you could reduce the size of your HCAV, setting off the extra costs for the improved envelope. 

Amory Lovins, the CEO of Rocky Mountain Institute, says, “people don’t want heating fuel or coolant; people want cold beer and hot showers.”  Similarly, people don’t want cold or hot air, they want a comfortable home.  However, while integration and system thinking can keep construction costs down, it requires more time to be spent in the up-front design and planning.

I guess that I better stop blabbing and start hitting the books. I have a lot to learn. We will not be able to carry out decent upfront planning without having all the options on the table.