Our current home renovation/extension project involves several environmental measures I thought I’d list here for prosperity’s sake. Perhaps others will find illumination here; others will perhaps illuminate us.
Before starting with the list, I think it is important to consider why we took these measures in the first place. We didn’t go through the lengths we went through just because of our altruistic greenish natures; a lot of it was pure selfishness. A problem we noticed with virtually every two story house we’ve been to in Australia is that the lower floor is freezing during winter and the upper floor is boiling in summer. A lot of our green efforts were made specifically in order to mitigate the phenomenon. Some of the rest were made in order to reduce running costs, while others were made in order to have a nicer, healthier, environment to live in.
With that in mind, here is a brief overview of some of the things we’ve done:
- Insulation: We went above the building requirements for a 6 star home to have ourselves thicker external walls (and thus slightly smaller living areas). The insulation should not only help with temperature regulation but also with blocking noise, albeit to a limited degree. In other words, mass counts when it comes to insulation, but mass comes at a cost.
- Formaldehyde avoidance / low VOC (volatile organic compounds) preference: In order to create a healthier environment, we aspired to use building materials with fewer amounts of poison in them. Primarily, we aspired to build without MDF. That aspiration materialized through the choice of wood for the house’s foundations, doors, vanity units, shelves and other building materials. This particular aspiration of ours was probably the hardest to implement: while Europeans standards agree with us, Aussie standards are light years behind. In other words, if I had a dollar for every tradesperson that gave me the look when I asked for a low VOC solution I would have probably been able to buy you all a few non alcoholic drinks.
- Environmentally friendly paint: If you know what you’re after, you can get paint that contains much less toxins. We made our choice but were still very surprised when we visited our house while it was being painted and couldn’t smell paint at all! How refreshing! On the negative side, these paints cost more and require more layers (read: more money on paint, more money on the painter) to produce similar results to what normal, toxic, paints would produce.
- LED lighting: As discussed here, we chose LED lights from Brightgreen that are probably the best in the market. They are supposed to be cheaper to run in the long term, but the blow to the wallet is a serious one (and given that IKEA sells four halogen downlight bulbs for $12, I seriously doubt the long term money making effects of LEDs). However, the main advantages – other than the obvious ones of carbon footprints – are to do with much cooler lighting and lighting that does not attract insects. Yes, you read it right: our LEDs do not emit light in the spectrum that drives insects crazy. Or so they say.
- Bamboo flooring: Bamboo is better than wood because it’s much harder than normally available wood, does not require forests to be taken down, regrows much faster (it’s a type of grass), and goes through much lamer chemical processing. On the negative side, it is relatively cutting edge, which can create headaches. Go with a reputable installer and you would pay much more than you would a wooden floor.
- Windows: With windows being a weak spot in a house’s insulation, we planned ours carefully. We went for fewer windows on the north/west sides than we would have otherwise liked, and we got a “special” window on the south to help bring in cooler air during summer [note to readers from the northern hemisphere: the sun shines on Australia from the north]. All our new windows are double glazed PVC ones.
- Cooling: As much as I dislike cooling, Melbourne is notorious for its 40 degree January-February days. Besides, heat will always accumulate upstairs. We therefore took measures to be able to separate the lower floor from the upper one, and installed evaporative cooling for when there is no escaping the heat. Air conditioners are much better at cooling, but they are a carbon imprint abomination and are very expensive to run; I also don’t like their type of cool that often gets me sick when transitioning from the outside to the inside and vice versa.
- Solar hot water: Aided by a gas booster. In Israel everyone has solar hot water; in Australia, which is no less sunny (with the exception of Melbourne winters), solar hot water is the exception. I suspect that would change soon.
Image by Hammer51012, Creative Commons license