Sustainable House Day: downsizer at Ringwood East yields a low-fi green home

Poppy Johnston

Melbourne-based downsizers Howard Elston and partner Libby wanted a smaller environmental footprint home but found themselves adrift in a sea of emissions-intensive, oversized homes.

For them, DIY seemed like the only choice.

The couple spent two years searching for the perfect site and finally landed on a spot in Ringwood East, in Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs that, met all their requirements. The only problem? A touch too big. So big, in fact, that it could fit three ultra-sustainable homes instead of one.

Speaking to The Green List in the lead up to Sustainable House Day, which will feature one of the homes, Howard said that the extra two dwellings allowed the pair to cover the cost of their own home.

“No one involved in the project wanted a big profit, we all wanted to walk away feeling good without taking a massive hit.”

Because the couple were going for a certain look, the homes were classed as a boutique build and pushed the price up towards the premium end of the scale. Curves, for example, are not something a volume builder would usually be willing to pay for.

But Howard, who is very keen to educate people about the perks of living in comfortable, energy efficient homes, stresses the build is otherwise easily replicable and low-tech, following the standard principles of passive solar design.

The green home enthusiast also says that by building three homes, the project amounted to more than just a demonstration home and meant more sustainable housing was added to the underserviced market.

Photos by Dylan James

Site secured – what next?

With a viable site secured (north-south orientation, sloping north so that each home has access to sunlight), the next step was letting gung-ho designer and builder loose on the design. Howard says the builder, David Coates from Sustainable Building and Design, who he’d worked with previously on some renovations, wanted to push the envelope and build a sustainable home from start to finish.

Given free rein to employ the basics of passive solar design – double glazed windows, good insulation, cross flow ventilation leveraged throughout, eaves and roof angles that block the direct summer sun but let the angled winter sun in – the builder managed to achieve an impressive 8.4 star NatHERS rating.

Tick and tick, for the site and design. The team then turned to the materials, the appliances and the construction techniques.

Instead of bulldozing the existing house, it was dismantled to salvage timber and steel that ended up in the roofing and cladding of the new homes. The other key material that features prominently in the design is Timbercrete, which is about two thirds wood waste.

An unusual development for a resi project like this was the use of onsite solar system during construction. The builders tapped into an onsite solar and battery system that was being used to power an off grid back shed on the site, powering their tools with energy from the sun rather than a generator or grid electricity.

Howard says this worked pretty well, although the crew had to be mindful not to use two energy hungry tools at the same time.

Photo: Dylan James
Photo: Matthew Mallett
Photo: Matthew Mallett

Appliances the finishing touch

The final piece was installing energy efficient appliances, including a heat pump hot water system and a reverse cycle air conditioner. Howard owes his low bills – around $20 per month so far – to the efficient design and appliances. Howard owes his low bills – just $15-20 a quarter so far – to the efficient design and appliances, as well as the 8 kW solar power system linked to a LG Chem 9.8 kWh battery supplying the little energy needed. Any electricity shortfalls are met by importing GreenPower.

Nice to live in too

Howard says that he’s much more engaged with the outdoor environment now that he lives in in a passive solar home. The couple monitor the weather closely and open doors and windows to take advantage of breezes, and are aware of their energy consumption and recognise it’s better to use most of it in the middle of the day when their solar panels are generating.

“If you get it right, the house is doing as much as it can, and then all you need is a little a bit of heating and cooling for extended periods of hot or cold weather.

Photo: Matthew Mallett
Photo: Dylan James
Photo: Dylan James

“In general, it looks after you.”

The design is also filled with natural light and allows for a connection with the outdoors thanks to the big north facing windows facing the garden.

“You don’t need to go somewhere special to access nature, it’s just part of the kitchen and living area.

“The house is bigger than you think.”

Two very different buyers

Howard says the two other homes attracted two very different buyers: one interested in the low maintenance design, and the other home appealed to true sustainability enthusiasts looking for affordable green digs in Melbourne.

Other features include a rainwater recovery system and Indigenous themed landscaping. The all-electric homes are also walking distance to shops and public transport.