CRC for Low Carbon Living: How to build a new low carbon home that can set you free from bill shocks

CRC for Low Carbon Living

If you’ve ever watched an episode of ABC’s Gardening Australia you will know its star presenter Josh Byrne is not only an environmental scientist but a highly accomplished professional who’s built a 10 star house in Fremantle near Perth for his family. The house, which didn’t cost much more than a regular build, is comfortable in winter and summer and has set his family free of electricity and gas bills. So it’s great to see he’s the lead author of this new guide from the CRC for Low Carbon Living that can show you how to achieve similar results. 

If you’re looking to buy a house you will know it’s probably the single biggest investment you’ll make in your lifetime. You’ve no doubt also figured out it has to deliver short term benefits now for you and your family but also long term investment value. 

That means your home needs to perform in multiple ways.

But you wouldn’t know that from the plethora of marketing out there about project homes. The material is dazzling and full of tempting things to get excited about like walk-in robes, seamless indoor-outdoor living, endless family entertaining areas, stone benchtops and ensuites for master bedrooms. 

Many also promise their homes will be six star energy efficient. Sounds like a bonus, doesn’t it?

The problem is a six star rating is actually just the legal minimum for a home to be compliant with Australia’s building code. (The NatHERS rating system actually goes to 10 so you can see how easy it is to mistake how good six star is!)

The sad truth is six star is not a bonus. It’s not an added extra, and it probably won’t guarantee you a home that’s comfortable, energy-efficient and affordable to live in when the electricity bills roll in.

That’s exactly why the CRC for Low Carbon Living has produced a guide to help you navigate the options when you’re building a new home. 

Even better, it’s commissioned environmental scientist and television presenter for the ABC’s Gardening Australia Josh Byrne to be lead author.

Guide to Low Carbon residential Buildings – New Build, is where you will find the practical hands on help to navigate the brochure-speak of new home marketing and unpack the facts from the hype.

The aim is for you to get the street appeal from your new home that you want, as well as the comfort and investment value that delivers over the long terms, including comfort in winter and summer, and no nasty energy bill shocks.

An added bonus is that if you follow the guidelines, you will get a high-performing home that is also good for our environment because it will have lower carbon emissions. It’s a win-win for all!

The sad truth is six star is not a bonus. It’s not an added extra, and it probably won’t guarantee you a home that’s comfortable, energy-efficient and affordable to live in when the electricity bills roll in.

Josh’s House is a ‘Living Laboratory’ research project through the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Low Carbon Living.

The Guide will help you understand some of the basic terms and concepts around low-carbon, high-performance homes including thermal mass, building envelope, passive design, embodied emissions and operational emissions.

It starts with how to set targets for your new home in terms of carbon emissions and energy use.  

You’ll find information about the important rating systems and programs such as the Housing Industry Association’s GreenSmart, the Built Environment Sustainability Scorecard, and NSW’s BASIX rating.

It also lets you know what to consider at the earliest stages, including:

  • Local climate conditions – a home design that works in Brisbane might not work as well in Melbourne, and visa-versa
  • How vegetation that already exists on the site could work with your home’s aesthetic
  • Local regulations, particularly options for low carbon design
  • The local style of housing and why there may be good reasons some features such as verandas or louvre windows have stood the test of time 

The guide then steps you through how to make good decisions around design, orientation, materials, fixed appliances, landscaping, energy and water.

Some of the topics include:

  • an overview of passive design and how to make it work for you including orientation, shading, home layout, windows, cross-ventilation, thermal mass and Passive House principles
  • how to lower the embodied carbon of materials
  • reducing waste from construction 
  • how to make sure landscaping benefits your home by improving its thermal performance and at the same time keeping garden water use to a minimum
  • choosing services such as hot water systems, space heating and cooling technology; lighting and on-site energy generation

Finally, you’ll learn how to  keep up the good work with advice about ongoing monitoring and measurement, to make sure your low-carbon home performs as it was designed to.

Among one of the biggest decisions you’ll make is about whether to have an all-electric home or keep gas appliances for cooking, heating and hot water for instance.

Josh’s House is now electric, solar and energy free

Josh Byrne says that when he first built Josh’s House, a 10 star rated Living Laboratory for testing low-carbon housing approaches at Fremantle in Western Australia, gas was connected because at the time it was seen as a more-cost effective and lower-carbon choice than all-electric.

The home he built and occupies with his family had a gas-boosted solar hot water system and gas cooking.

But things have changed. Gas prices are higher than they were and state-of-the-art appliances such as induction cooktops and heat-pump hot water systems are much lower, so he decided to cut off the gas, retrofit electric cooking and install a heat-pump solar hot water system.

Josh’s House was also one of the first homes in WA to install solar electricity battery storage and has now achieved net-zero for energy on an annual basis as the energy-efficient and thermally-efficient home has all its energy needs met from rooftop solar and the solar storage battery system. 

The Guide uses the knowledge gained from Josh’s House to help your new home achieve a similar result.

Josh completed his home in 2013 and says it still demonstrates what can be achieved using fairly standard materials, without adding much to the budget.

 The Guide is about things that are “accessible, palatable and cost-effective,” he says.

It will be useful for home buyers, owner-builders, volume builders and home designers looking for guidance and a “sensible, pragmatic and methodical approach”.

“A quality build will pay for itself over time,” Josh says. 

  • Photography by Brendan Hutchens, VAM MEDIA

The full suite of low carbon guides can be found at Built Better, the CRCLCL’s built environment knowledge.

CRC for Low Carbon Living

University | Australia