28 January 2021

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

| Ian Bushnell
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Canberra’s extreme weather can equal extreme energy bills for residents in outdated housing.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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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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Aah I foresee another rental hike

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

russianafroman3:41 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 Retro6:35 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 Retro10:28 am 29 Jan 21

Climate ready?

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

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

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.

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