Making a home “eco easy”

The road to energy efficiency, one step at a time

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

Eco Easy - 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

Investment – Growth potential

Environment – Comfortable for us and the environment

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

Eco Easy - First 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.

Waste reduction

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.

Eco Easy - Major Changes to Our House Eco Easy - What worked, what didn't

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.

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

Eco Easy - What worked, what didn't Eco Easy - What worked, what didn't Eco Easy - What worked, what didn't

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:

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

Eco Easy - What worked, what didn't Eco Easy - What worked, what didn't

Things we wish we had done

The story continues, step by step

Eco Easy - The Story Continues

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: