I have an addictive new app from Science Alert, which brings the latest science research in Australasia right to my phone. I’m sure you can guess why I like it. The other day it had this study from Wendy Miller at Queensland University of Technology showing that green homes use 80% less energy. Living in the desert and as an informed modern citizen, I’m obviously very interested in this type of thing. Cutting down energy use is important for everything from your budget to decreasing greenhouse gases, and I know a lot of you are interested in those too.
But while the article is exciting and interesting, it isn’t all that relevant for most of us because we aren’t in the position of building our own homes. I do have a dream for far in the future, depending on the mood I’m in it’s for a rammed earth home down south somewhere with a pot belly stove, or a minimalist home near Litchfield with an outside bathroom and large verandahs, where I don’t have room for junk and replace my 53 bookcases with ebooks. In the meantime, government housing and small town, um, architecture leave me dreaming.
The one thing I do have is generous and talented readers. So when I saw the press release it finally prompted me to shoot off an email to the lovely Ania Hampton. This clever lady runs her own business, Hampton Sustainability, consulting on environmentally friendly building design, and she put together all sorts of information for me that is useful to those of us who aren’t quite at the point of designing our dream home and are still making do with what we have.
All credit goes to Ania, any mistakes are my translations. This is aimed at Australia, so northerners remember to flip things. This is a quick and dirty guide, if in doubt talk to a professional about your personal circumstances!
As the name suggests, passive design is making the most of what you have before you add in things like air conditioning and heating. The main things are to encourage sun in winter and keep it out in summer, and to make it easy for breezes to enter and travel through the house. East and west are hard to shade because of the low angle of the sun, and insulation can help but will also trap heat, which brings us back to those breezes. These general principles will apply depending very much on your circumstances, for example where breezes come from and whether heating or cooling is more difficult.
Some things you may be able to do in your home with a bit of creativity and gardening. For example, we have arranged our bedrooms to have the girls sleep together and the other ‘bedroom’ has become the playroom:
- Rooms –
- North – living areas,
- South – bedrooms,
- West and East – kitchen (east), laundry, garage, etc.
- Windows –
- Most facing north. Shade them with eaves or this is the place for a pergola attached to your living areas covered with deciduous vines like wisteria – they provide shade in summer but lose their leaves in winter.
- Avoid shading southern windows
- Western windows need full length shading, so vertical screens, awnings, retractable blinds, or trees. Keeping the sun out is the most effective way to keep it cool!
- Southern climates – high levels of insulation, heavy building materials (brick instead of timber), double glazing.
- Northern climates – lower insulation, lightweight construction, breezes are paramount (raise house to access stronger breezes and allow air to circulate underneath).
Things you can do
Not all of us can rearrange our rooms, windows and gardens if we’ve lucked out in our existing house design. But there are still things you can do in both your home and in general. We all know that we should be looking at energy and water smart appliances, and in houses your fridge and air conditioning are huge energy users – turning the TV off standby doesn’t do much good compared with an old fridge with bad seals or a second fridge living in the garage.
Here are 5 simple ideas everyone can do right now:
- Ceiling fans – every house in Australia should have one in each bedroom and living area. Great for providing comfort in both summer and winter – somewhere like Melbourne, you can get away without air conditioning as long as the fans are on and even in the desert they make an enormous difference.
- Curtains with pelmets reduce overnight heat loss, which is more important down south, which just happens to be where almost everyone in Australia lives.
- Seal all gaps and cracks around doors and windows. Rubber seals are better than foam.
- Drop the heating setpoint by one degree, raise the cooling setpoint by one degree. You probably won’t notice the difference except in your energy bills. How many of us even look at the temperature after the first time we set the remote? Remember to put a jumper and slippers on before you turn on the heating and vice versa for air conditioning. Except for the all important sleeping, has anyone else noticed that little kids really don’t seem to notice the temperature too much?
- Learn how to “drive” your house. Which windows catch the winter sun? Make sure the blinds are open. Where do the cool breezes come from? Open one or two windows on that side and all the windows on the other, leeward side. The idea is to create negative pressure on the leeward side to draw air through the house.
I know we are bombarded with this message all around, but I’m a great believer in little and often. It’s my turn to push the reminder, maybe in a slightly different way which will catch someone else’s attention.
Be mindful of what you are doing, what you are using, how you are moving and what you are showing your children. Question what you need and why you are doing something, and especially question if there is a reason or if it’s just a habit.
Choose one of those things or something you’ve been meaning to do, and commit to actually doing it long enough that it becomes your new habit. Then you can think about adding another one.
What practical things have you done to make your life more energy efficient? Do you have tips you can share or something you’d like to commit to in the comments?
Once again, a huge thank you to Ania for the work she did, there’s still more I didn’t use. It’s wonderful to see passionate people wanting to share and I hope I’ve helped.
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