John Civijovski recounts his experience of creating an eco friendly home.
Working with eco architect Gareth Cole over two decades, I saw the beautiful eco homes they had designed and built. But the question always remained, what to do with our existing homes if we are not ready to build our dream house? How can we save on energy costs and play a part in helping our environment?
The following is about how we changed our home and lifestyle to a more ecological way of living. This is the story of how we bought a typical suburban residential property and the steps we are taking to make it Eco Easy®.
Buying our new house
Like most couples, Janelle and I made a list of what we wanted in a new home (style, number of rooms, space to extend, and so on). Easy enough, but not complete. We had to think about capital growth – all those things we see on real estate TV shows, like a growing suburb, close to schools and shops, quiet street, etc. We also wanted a house with the potential to become eco friendly, mostly by saving energy through passive solar gain. By using the warmth of the sun in winter and minimizing sun penetration in summer, we could enjoy comfortable living year-round with minimal heating and cooling. In the end we came up with three lists. These are the shortened versions!
House – Our needs & wants
- Minimum 3 bedrooms
- Decent sized block
- Colonial style windows
- Potential to extend
- Quiet street
- Airy, full of natural light
Investment – Growth potential
- Close to shops
- Close to schools
- Easy access to major roads
- Growing suburb
- Close to public transport
- Priced near the median
Environment – Comfortable for us and the environment
- Rear facing True North
- Minimal windows on east and west walls
- No big trees overshadowing the rear
- Can achieve cross-flow ventilation
- Minimal need to drive
All this seemed easy as we typed up our list, but the reality was quite different when we went looking for our new home. You can imagine the response from real estate agents, who probably thought it would be easier to win Lotto than find us a suitable home. After three months of constant web searches, home inspections and endless driving, we identified approximately 100 suitable homes, of which we visited around 30. Of these, only four homes faced north at the rear and only two of those faced close to True North.
We did find our new home in March 2002, with the rear facing slightly off True North, with no windows on the east and west, and insulated ceilings. It was close to shops and public transport, allowing us the choice of walking or driving. We achieved the whole list of wants, but we had to compromise slightly on the size of the rooms.
The first small steps
Our aim from the beginning was to extend the house, as well as add ecologically sustainable design (ESD) features to make the home more naturally comfortable. Rather than wait for work to start on the extension, we wanted to start immediately making a difference environmentally.
Saving water and power
Our move into the home in late June 2002 coincided with the beginning of a severe drought, so our first step was to install a water-saving showerhead. The existing handheld showerhead had an “eco” option but it didn’t provide an adequate shower. We installed an E-co Shower adapter with a cleverly designed showerhead that reduces water flow but still produces a great shower. We tested the flow rate to verify the 60% saving in water, which also resulted in savings in electricity usage from the hot water unit.
Sealing the gaps
The winter of 2002 wasn't as cold as previous winters, but Janelle really felt the difference from our old place. She was right, because when we began renovations we discovered that over the years the windows, walls and doors had all moved, leaving gaps for draughts to enter. If you placed your hand next to a gap, you could feel the air movement. We closed off the gaps around the windows, as well as adding seals around the bathroom, garage and external doors.
Coming from apartment living, it was great having some open yard space. It also provided us with an opportunity to compost our waste in our backyard. We now have two compost bins where we throw all our food scraps. This has dramatically reduced our garbage by nearly two thirds, as well as reducing the number of plastic garbage bags we use.
Major changes to our house
After months of studying drawings for the rear extension, we decided on the first concept, designed by our architect Gareth Cole, with an extra bedroom upstairs and a new family/kitchen area below, all facing north. Here is what our home will look like when finished (fingers crossed). Following are some of the items we took into consideration for our Eco Easy extension.
- Reuse as much building material as possible from the existing section of the house
- Introduce more thermal mass into the extension
- Add a pergola to the north for summer shading
- Landscape to use less water and reduce threat of termites
- Plumbing changes for instant gas hot water
- Steel frames and Boxspan steel bearers and joists
- CSR Hebel 75mm PowerFloor, and PowerPanel for the walls
- Extra insulation in walls and roof
- Install rainwater tanks
- Install 4 star toilet suites
- CChange from electric to gas cooking
- Add screens for shading as well as privacy
- Use lighter external colours to reflect summer heat
And much more. Our basic plan was to divide the home into north and south zones that could be separated with doors so there would be no huge spaces to heat and cool. We wanted a house of adequate size for our future family, with a well laid out kitchen, a loft bedroom with extra space, and a large living area (no more poky spaces). We also wanted to make it work as naturally as possible, using products that were both DIY and eco friendly.
Living in the new cocoon
After about 8 months of dismantling part of the house and building the addition (our cocoon) it was time to get back to normal life (marrying, having kids and just enjoying living in our new space). So, what worked best for us, what wasn’t so good, and what would we do differently?
What worked, what didn’t
Good – What worked best for us
I can’t say enough about having a space in your home that is naturally lit. Our efforts to find a home that faced north at the rear of the property were definitely worthwhile. It’s also nice when family and friends visit and comment on how nice and cosy it is. Because the orientation is only a couple of degrees off True North we have sun beaming into the main living area most of the day. Here are some of the highlights:
- Creating an open, usable living space from three poky little spaces.
- Insulating the new cocoon – floor, wall and roof.
- Adding 800mm eaves on the north.
- Dividing the house into zones. The focus of our home is the rear living and kitchen area, which can be closed off from the other two main zones, the south-facing living room and ground-floor bedrooms. In winter we close off these areas to make the house warmer.
- Using ComfortPlus solar control glass, rather than normal glass – double the cost back then, but worth it. The benefit in noise reduction was a surprise and we love it. We also wanted better glass as we didn’t want to have curtains in the living/kitchen area. In 2003 energy efficient glass was very new and not much was known about it by window manufacturers. With help from Pilkington technical staff, we worked out that ComfortPlus was the optimal glass for our northern elevation, as we wanted winter solar gain, but minimal transfer at night and in summer months.
- Using CSR Hebel 75mm floor panels, which we installed over steel Boxspan bearers and joists, to give a concrete feel to our raised floor. Although the floor panels were a lot harder to install than the wall panels, I’m convinced that, together with floor tiles on top, they provide a great thermal solution. They do help to balance temperatures in summer by soaking up the heat and in winter retain some of the heat from the day’s sun.
- Adding quality curtains. We’ve found that the curtains on both the north and south sides of our house work well. After having curtains in some rooms and not in others, we’ve noticed you can really feel the difference, especially in the two rooms remaining in the old part of the house with standard glazing. With the addition of two small children, we have now changed several room usages, so we plan to install more curtains.
- Ceiling fans. When we bought the house there were ceiling fans in a couple of rooms. Since then we’ve added new fans in our extension and we plan to add one more in the lounge room to enable better air circulation. By using fans we’ve minimised the need for air conditioning.
- Changing from electric hot water to an instantaneous gas hot water heater. We wanted a solar hot water unit, but that required more work to move plumbing around, on top of the extra cost of the solar hot water unit. Gas, on the other hand, was a quick changeover because the gas and plumbing were in the same area.
- Adding a pergola. We love sitting under the shaded pergola with the grapevine above. It’s adjacent to our living area and provides good summer shade.
- Water-saving showerhead. I think my wife is finally convinced about this (or is she just used to it?).
- Composting – it's a no brainer. We don't have much of a veggie patch, but when I have the time to work it, I use the decomposed organic matter from one of our two compost bins. As a bonus, I usually find some watermelons growing out of the compost heap that I didn't expect.
The cocoon part of our home works the best, with the larger living areas for our new family. Our home performs much better than before and is naturally comfortable. In summer, when it’s 38 to 40 degrees day after day, we do need to use the split system air conditioner that was in the house when we bought it. It’s handy for those extreme days when there is little or no air movement outside. In winter, it’s only when the external temperature drops below around 13 degrees, with no sun through the day, that we need to turn the gas heating on in our living areas. The more sun during the day, the later in the evening we need to put the gas heating on, and sometimes not at all, depending on how late we stay up. Again, we can open and close off zones, so we only heat or cool the areas we are using. In spring and autumn we open up the south zones to help cool the northern side of the house as it warms up, or close them off as it cools down.
Not quite so good – the compromises
- Carpet upstairs instead of floor tiles. Our upstairs, facing north, has the same amount of glazing as downstairs and gets a bit more light. In summer the extra eaves overhang (800mm) stops the sun hitting the windows. However, we have carpet upstairs, instead of the tiles in our original plans. I lost out to my wife, who wanted carpet in the bedroom (I would have been happy with a big rug). The result is that the Hebel floor panels can’t help reduce temperature internally because that thermal mass is now covered by carpet (an insulator) and there is too much glazing, with little benefit from thermal mass. We will try to remedy this by using shutters or screens to minimise the exposed glass.
- Gas instead of solar. The cost of moving the plumbing plus the extra cost of the solar heater didn't make good sense at the time. The instant gas hot water is good, as we never run out of hot water. However, it's not literally instant, especially in winter, when some water is wasted.
- Unable to recycle the old bricks. We reused almost all the hardwood (from the old truss roof) and softwood (from the stud frame) but we were unable to reuse the old bricks. We thought we could at least use them for garden edging or steps but, after a couple of hours of trying to clean the old bricks, I decided it was futile. I was breaking more than I was cleaning, so they had to go to the concrete recyclers.
- Tiled roof instead of Colorbond steel roof. A steel roof will cool down quicker than a tiled roof in summer, and is a lot easier to insulate. However, it made no sense, environmentally or economically. We only needed around $400 worth of roof tiles, plus labour, to complete the extra roof we added to the back. The alternative would have been to pull the whole roof off and replace it with Colorbond steel, and spend many thousands of dollars doing it.
- Non-native plants. In the garden, we introduced natives among the existing plants, but we also chose some that we liked but were not so water efficient. To avoid feeling guilty, we installed rainwater tanks.
Things we wish we had done
- Put more mass into the back area of the house using CSR Hebel panels on the inside of external walls. We didn't do it because of cost. We ended up cutting 75mm off the reveals of the window because they were manufactured for wider walls. It would have also given a nice chunky look to the walls.
- Installed the skylight windows much earlier. On the plus side, waiting a number of years meant that we had far better quality glazing on the skylights. Summer is so much better upstairs. Even though it still gets hot, when the skylight windows are open the room temperature is back to liveable within an hour. Also, one of the skylights is over the stair void to create a chimney-like effect for hot air to rise.
- Redesigned the plumbing to cater for a solar hot water unit.
- Planned way ahead for underfloor heating.
- Plumbed the water tanks to the downstairs toilet. We hardly use the tanks during winter and that water could be used for the downstairs toilet. When we installed them we had just gone into a long drought and all the tank water was used on the garden (which we love to relax in). We had always planned to have more water storage and then to plumb to the toilets.
The story continues, step by step
Since 2003 a lot has changed in building technology. For example, LED lights have improved in quality and dropped in cost. We have started changing some of our halogens to LEDs in the living areas, where we use lights mostly in the evening, and we will reuse the old halogens in the toilets and bedrooms, and in time change them all to LEDS.
Our future plans include:
- Convert garage into new play room for the kids (a mini cocoon).
- More underfloor insulation in the old part of the house, as the rooms are now used more frequently.
- More water storage, under the house – and this time connected to toilets.
- New ceiling fan in the living room on the south side to create airflow on still days.
- Some rooms have changed from offices to kids’ bedrooms, so we will install curtains to make the rooms warmer in winter.
- Better integration of home and working life. Now I work from home, I am using more devices and energy (but saving on transport)