All of Canberra’s housing stock needs to be climate ready

Ian Bushnell 28 January 2021 37

Canberra’s extreme weather can equal extreme energy bills for residents in outdated housing. Photo: File.

We’re all breathing a little easier under the cool spell that relieved the capital from the recent heatwave, but spare a thought for those who had to hide away in darkened bedrooms, or the relative cool of the bathroom as the climbing mercury reminded us what a Canberra summer can be like.

It’s been a mild one compared to last summer’s inferno, but the hot boxes remain, and not just old guvvies. There are still plenty of modern units that can be like ovens.

It’s a reminder that developers, builders and landlords have a responsibility to upgrade Canberra’s housing stock to be climate-ready because there are lives at stake. Heat remains one of Australia’s biggest killers, but even if air-con is available the cost can mean some won’t even switch it on.

Which is why the ACT Government’s package of climate change measures, including establishing a $150 million fund for its Sustainable Household Scheme and establishing a $50 million fund for a Vulnerable Household Energy Support Initiative, is welcome.

They come on top of a range of rebates and subsidies already available to businesses and individuals.

The Labor-Greens Government now needs to press on with making minimum energy efficiency standards for rental properties law, as promised under the Parliamentary Agreement.

The agreement commits the government to enacting legislation this year, with progressive implementation over the coming years.

For those in the rental market suffering through Canberra’s frigid winters and searing summers on the wrong side of the energy divide, it can’t come soon enough.

Landlords have every incentive to bring the properties into the era of sustainability, including turning off the natural gas mains and switching to smart electric appliances so their tenants don’t have to break into a cold sweat every quarter when the bills arrive.

Governments can use both carrots and sticks to achieve their ends, but it is much better if the private sector gets out in front and leads by example.

Developers cop a lot of criticism in this town, but a recent DA showed just how one is being a flagbearer for designing and building housing that will suit the Canberra climate and not cost residents the earth.

For POD Projects’ Paul O’Donnell it makes perfect business sense to do the right thing.

”It’s what people want,” he says. And he wants to take it to the next level.

High EERs, no gas, solar power, double glazing, measures to reduce the heat island effect such as reflective materials and landscaping, including big shade trees, are all included.

POD is even looking at a dedicated solar farm to supply residents with low-cost electricity. Other developers take note.

O’Donnell also talks about future-proofing the development, including charging points in the car-parks as the electric car trickle becomes a rush.

This is real strategic thinking of the kind we need from government.

Unfortunately, while the states and territories, particularly the ACT, adopt more aggressive goals to lower emissions and combat climate change, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is more like King Canute trying to hold back the tide.

Of course, old Canute was making a point, but Morrison seems intent on trying to salvage as much as he can from the fossil-fuel era just as the world looks set to accelerate action to decarbonise.

The new Biden administration has put the US back in the climate change game, and Australia is likely to come under pressure to lift its performance.

It would be better for the Australian Government to read the room, take a leadership position and as a supposed supporter of free enterprise, help business take us forward.

But real change can happen at street level, and that means the ACT ensuring all its people are housed appropriately, and new developments give people what they want, and need.

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37 Responses to All of Canberra’s housing stock needs to be climate ready
Nick Swain Nick Swain 4:48 pm 04 Feb 21

The plague of dark roofs seems to be a good place to start – lighter colours reflect heat. Then there is the lack of space to plant trees on suburban blocks filled with over large houses. Needs to also be a bigger % of green spaces in suburbs – yot the government wants the Suburban Land Authority to maximise its returns which can be counter to climate objectives.

    nickwest nickwest 5:52 pm 04 Feb 21

    Nick Swain, you’re on to something there. Go for the low-hanging fruit first. A light-coloured roof doesn’t cost any more than a dark one (and if you’re renovating, light paint costs the same as dark paint!) and will make a house significantly more comfortable in the summer, to say nothing of contributing less to the urban heat island which affects the neighbours too!

    Canberra’s building codes are reasonably strict – I don’t know why dark roofs aren’t already restricted, but you still see them on plenty of new homes.

    TimboinOz TimboinOz 7:43 pm 04 Feb 21

    dear Ian,

    when you bought your first house in Canberra?

    were, siting / orientation / or any other powerful and basic markers, major drivers of your selection?

    If not, why not? How many kids were you planning on? I’ve been a ZPG chap since the late 1970s.

JC JC 5:34 am 02 Feb 21

I am all for higher new build construction standards.

But bringing old stock up to scratch, in many cases only way to do that cost effectively is to knock the things down and start again.

And even partial upgrades will cost a motza.

Question is who is paying?

    TimboinOz TimboinOz 8:40 am 07 Feb 21

    It depends, doesn’t it? Our house – which we bought in 1981- was built in 1976 by AV Jennings. It’s a BV house and it ought to be terrible.

    But, it’s on the North side of the street, runs due East-West within 5 degrees.

    We added a deep and long deck on the North side, with 91% shade under the clear roofing, The ceiling has a total of R6.0 insulation and all the BV walls have rock-wool insulation. We don’t use A/C but do have ducted evaporative cooling. Which can be used without the water pump at night, for ‘night-sky cooling’ – our interior temperature this AM is 18C!

    We have 13 panels on the roof and use Noiro panel heaters in Winter.

    Being aware of energy efficient housing drove our search way back when in 1981.

    JC JC 9:40 am 07 Feb 21

    Yes it does depend. But I’m certain you will agree your home is the exception and the vast majority would not even come close. Hence my point that most would be need to knocked down to be done effectively is spot on.

    TimboinOz TimboinOz 12:17 pm 07 Feb 21

    Many will be suitable in terms of siting, many won’t. And what’s more you don’t know for certain if you are correct.

    Most of the houses in our cul-de sac were suitable, and have been upgraded. Several houses lost in the 2003 fire storm have been replaced with energy efficient ones.

    Maya123 Maya123 3:48 pm 07 Feb 21

    Shading the north stops the winter sun. The north should be left clear to catch the winter sun, to assist with warming the house. Because the sun is higher it shouldn’t come in at all from the north on the longest summer day, and only a little at most on the other days; unlike winter when it pours in. That’s how energy efficient solar houses are designed, with large windows on the north to let in sun, and few small windows, if any, on the other sides.

    chewy14 chewy14 9:54 pm 07 Feb 21

    Yes Maya,
    I thought that was strange too as that’s the last thing you would want to do from an energy efficiency perspective.

Ol L Ol L 7:59 pm 01 Feb 21

Aah I foresee another rental hike

Fortress Epiphany Fortress Epiphany 6:57 pm 01 Feb 21

Who is going to pay for it. Expect the tenants to be the ones who pay. I’m so glad I sold my last rental property in 2018.

Mike Dee Mike Dee 9:51 am 31 Jan 21

😧😧 if you look out over canberra city from the newer dendy cinemas big windows you wont see one solar panel .... my question ...why not ???

Sharon Kelley Sharon Kelley 6:45 pm 30 Jan 21

I would love to see them start by installing solar panels on all government housing stock, the people that can least afford the astronomical electricity bills from heating their homes. Most guvvies have electric heating only, and many older residents can’t afford to heat their homes in winter.

assiduous assiduous 10:24 am 30 Jan 21

Ian – the ACT government housing policies have contributed to a rise in homelessness, and falling home ownership rates.

How do you propose this is paid for Ian? Rents in the ACT are already very expensive.

0-EER houses are a consequence of a broken economic system, captured government and a lack of education. People who built 0-EER rubbish happily sell them to a debt laden next generation for windfall gains backstopped by a government that actively prevents the existence of a free market. The latest drip-feed of land via ballot was oversubscribed by something like 10 to 1.

Young people are livid at the intergenerational theft that has been taking place through house price inflation & the day of reckoning is coming.

    salvatge salvatge 8:56 pm 01 Feb 21

    Can you point us to any newly built 0-EER dwellings?

    assiduous assiduous 1:24 am 02 Feb 21

    I’d certainly hope not, but that’s beside the point. I’ve seen alot of (existing) 0-EER housing stock in CBR, and it is rather expensive to buy or rent.

    Maya123 Maya123 3:51 pm 07 Feb 21

    That’s because lots of people want to rent in inner suburbs, and that’s where older houses are most likely to be 0-EER. If people are willing to go rent in outer suburbs they would likely find houses with higher EER ratings.

    JC JC 5:30 am 02 Feb 21

    Plenty of land available if you care to look. Want to go buy some today go to Taylor and you will get your choice without ballot.

    Also available in Throsby.

    And don’t forget that the bulk of new land is taken up by builders so a look at the real estate websites also shows plenty of brand new housing stock for sale.

    So don’t buy this supply argument.

    assiduous assiduous 10:13 pm 02 Feb 21

    Ah yes halfway to Murrumbateman… pretty good for retirees i suppose, and those who want the Sydney commuter experience. Of course, the saving to be had buying in Googong pays for a brand new car.

    New land for detached housing makes up between 9 and 28% of all new land released in the ACT for development since 2014-15. The main reason they haven’t sold the pitiful amount of supply they put on the market is that ACT Labor doubled the price of land between 2010-2017.

    salvatge salvatge 3:15 pm 04 Feb 21

    Good point, selling land “halfway to Murrumbateman” is definitely “intergenerational theft”.

    And the ACT Government should be held to account for unilaterally increasing the value of land in Canberra for those eight specific years.

Phwoa Phwoa 7:56 am 30 Jan 21

A price comparison between getting work done to make more efficiencies vs other states make it already difficult to achieve. Price gauging is very alive in the ACT. That needs addressing.

Bill Gemmell Bill Gemmell 9:13 pm 29 Jan 21

Trouble with legislating is it creates chicanery. In short, the investment class will do as little as possible to meet the minimum standard, while the renting class will not discriminate in times of property shortages.

Peter Major Peter Major 6:05 pm 29 Jan 21

You're already the highest priced rental market, so we'll just add a few hundred on the weekly bill as Canberra is such a wealthy city. Oh yeah, didn't they put the rates up 3.5% this week.

Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 5:45 pm 29 Jan 21

"For those in the rental market suffering through Canberra’s frigid winters and searing summers on the wrong side of the energy divide, it can’t come soon enough."

What about, For those home-owners suffering through Canberra’s frigid winters and searing summers. It isn't only renters who live this way.

Improved housing, improves the comfort of homes for everyone. Why did it take so long for these obvious things to be implemented? Why is this not happening now, at say point of sale? This should be done though by the new owner when the house changes hands. I don't believe present owners should be penalised for failures of the past. If when homes are sold, the new owner had to bring them up to higher standards, this would gradually improve the energy efficiency of all housing; whether the owner lives there or tenants. I said the new owner, because needing to upgrade the house would be an expense they could calculate for. It's a choice for them; if they can afford it or not. If someone selling the house needed to spend money to upgrade the house before being allowed to sell it, what if they were selling for financial reasons and didn't have the money to upgrade the house?

I belonged to a group in the late 1970s or early 1980s which advocated for higher energy standards for houses, and wrote submissions on this. As far as I could tell, we were absolutely and completely ignored. I could come close to crying over that, because that was before Gungahlin existed, much of Belconnen, some of southern Canberra, and before most of the knock-down rebuilding began. If suggestions that we made then had been adopted, much of Canberra would be leading the way in energy efficient housing. The suggestions were obvious ones; better insulation, sighting the housing to take advantage of the sun, etc...basic things. If I, as someone who had just left high school, coming from a family who never considered these things, thought these things were obvious and should be done urgently, why did it take trained people in authority many more years to bring in better standards, and waste precious opportunities, to do this, when the house is being built? (Others in our group had relevant qualifications.)

If houses had been built better then, both home-owners and renters would now live in better housing.

Even though houses now have better insulation, there are still more improvements needed, from how housing is designed, to regulations, such as guaranteed and enforceable solar access. This would give encouragement to people to build more solar housing.

    Joel Dignam Joel Dignam 3:05 pm 05 Feb 21

    Home-owners should have good homes too. But the key difference is that home-owners *can* improve their homes, people who rent their homes can't.

russianafroman russianafroman 3:41 pm 29 Jan 21

I had this same discussion with someone on a different article’s comment section. The guy’s response? “I can just turn on my A/C, why should I care about climate change?”

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 6:35 pm 29 Jan 21

    I can turn mine on too but I find little need to as the house hosts the same temperatures that have been around for the last 40 years.

    The person you spoke to probably lives in a house that has been built to need A/C.

Capital Retro Capital Retro 10:28 am 29 Jan 21

Climate ready?

The climate has been with us every day for billions of years and it will continue that way.

    salvatge salvatge 8:47 pm 29 Jan 21

    I know right?! This is a real opportunity to get back to the Eocene and all its benefits.

Alan Sargeant Alan Sargeant 10:14 am 29 Jan 21

Interesting position, standards can be set quite easily for new housing but retrofitting is expensive and someone has to pay. If landlords have to pay then they need to be allowed to pass the costs to tenants who will receive the benefit of lower costs for heating/cooling.

    Nick Savino Nick Savino 3:27 pm 29 Jan 21

    Matthew Waugh agreed plus landlords should be able to claim more back at tax time compared to standard capital improvements.

    Ashley Wright Ashley Wright 6:30 pm 29 Jan 21

    Matthew Waugh I think he was meaning pass on the cost via higher rent. In which case lease length is not an issue.

    Alan Sargeant Alan Sargeant 9:55 pm 29 Jan 21

    Matthew Waugh It would be totally unreasonable to pass the full cost on immediately through an increased rental. Many years ago I had a rental property and the tenants wanted a garage and we agreed an amount for the rent to increase so that the garage could be amortised over a few years: it was a win/win solution and everyone was satisfied.

    Where there are economic benefits for tenants as a result of some upgrade it is reasonable that they make a contribution indirectly to the upgrade through an increased rental payment. The longer they stay the greater the contribution and also the greater the benefit they receive.

chewy14 chewy14 9:45 am 29 Jan 21

Whilst some of these measures might be good things, the author should at least acknowledge that they will come at a cost and for rental properties, that cost will be borne by renters.

Landlords aren’t benevolent, they won’t bear the costs of these policies, their tenants will.

Martin Budden Martin Budden 8:05 am 29 Jan 21

Excellent article.

Mark Bowell Mark Bowell 7:33 am 29 Jan 21

Won’t happen

    Joel Dignam Joel Dignam 3:04 pm 05 Feb 21

    the government has literally committed to make it happen.

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