This Melbourne couple’s sustainable home proves downsizing doesn’t have to mean sacrificing on comfort

Rose Mary Petrass

woman standing outside home with plant
Kathy Leitch outside her home in Ringwood, Victoria. Image supplied by Kathy and Peter Leitch

What do you do when your home is too chilly and you can’t find any sustainable homes on the market? You build your own. 

Kathy and Peter Leitch have lived in their 7.3-star home for around a year so far, after downsizing from a larger home. Their new home features better insulation, low-energy lighting, and heat pump temperature control. 

This retired couple decided to build their sustainable home in Ringwood, in Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs, after finding no houses on the market with environmental features that were up to scratch.

“Our old house was full of drafts and you couldn’t heat the place in winter,” Peter explained. 

“We looked around at places that were built already, but we couldn’t find anything that was built properly. That’s why we decided to go on our own and design the house to incorporate the features we felt were necessary for making our retirement comfortable.”

To build their sustainable home, the couple needed to locate a block with a good north-facing aspect. Next, they engaged Nelson Riofrio to draw up the basic design, and draftsperson Brett Kirkwood to “make it more practical”. Builder Peter Dolton and project manager Michael Ling worked on the home, which the couple says ended up being a “combined effort”. 

The finished home has a north-facing living and dining area, with triple stacker double glazed doors and double glazed windows. A flat polycarbonate roof that “looks like glass” was installed on the north face of the deck to draw in extra heat in the wintertime, and a motorised blind was installed to allow the option to keep out summer sun. 

The main bedroom of the home gets year-round shade and privacy from a tree, and there are ceiling fans in all the living areas and bedrooms. The couple installed an efficient reverse-cycle air conditioner and a heat pump system connected to all the rooms. There is an EV charger in the garage for their hybrid car.

The couple says that to keep to their budget, they unfortunately had to make “all sorts of compromises” – including engaging an architect who was not very experienced in sustainability or passive design.

“We had to educate the architect,” Peter said. “He didn’t make the right design for solar panels. [The roof design] obstructed the ability to put solar panels, and we couldn’t put as many as we wanted.” 

“Architects get too caught up in the design that they forget about the functional aspects sometimes and don’t make compromises”. 

Even so, they managed to install enough solar panels to reduce their electricity bills by half, and cut out the gas bill entirely. They opted for a gas-free home with induction cooking and heat pump water heating. They installed a one thousand litre rainwater tank that feeds the laundry, toilet and garden. In the end, those features save money in the long run.

“This saved us money so we could spend those savings on other features.

“For example, as it’s a two-storey house the heat goes up the staircase. We designed it with a sliding door to separate the stairwell from the living/kitchen/dining space. 

“My husband has Parkinson’s so we can’t have internal concrete floors because we are worried about dropping and smashing things. So we chose engineered timber over the concrete slab. It is waste laminated timber, with the top lamination being quality timber for aesthetics. So it’s a nice timber floor – but underneath it’s waste timber.” 

Another recycled material the couple chose was a decking material made of recycled plastic. Mod wood is able to withstand harsh Australian conditions while cutting costs on maintenance (like sanding and painting) that would be necessary with traditional timber products.

In the end, it all paid off – their north-facing, architecturally designed bespoked three-bedroom home, built on a 311 square metre block with sustainable features ended up costing around $600,000. Which, being in an urban area and only a seven minute walk to the train station, they think is reasonable. 

Especially with electricity bills now reduced by half. 

What advice do they have for others? 

“Make sure the living area is north-facing – for Victoria in particular. Before you put in more technical environmental aspects, definitely put in ceiling fans in the bedrooms. This reduces the need to use air conditioning by quite a lot,” Peter said. 

living room with ceiling fans
Image supplied by Kathy and Peter Leitch

“A cross-breeze for ventilation is in every room we can get it. We have a triple lock security door, so we can have a lovely cross breeze with the screen door locked all night. 

“If you’re getting an architect, before you say yes to the design get it checked by a consultant. Our builder by law in Victoria had to have an environmental rating for NatHERS. So keep your eye on that throughout the whole process.”

Another piece of wisdom the couple imparts is to set aside UVP thermally-broken window frames as part of the budget. This addition, they said, would have added $10,000 extra to their bill – so they opted for aluminium instead. 

“Fortunately, we’re the kind of people that use knee blankets in the winter.” 

One of the downsides of using aluminium is that condensation can appear on the frames – but it dissipates by mid-morning. By having non-thermally broken frames, heat and cold can pass through those frames. 

However, the couple say that “taking into account everything, we are happy with the comfort and the bills aren’t too bad.