Architects say it’s time to rethink the suburban dream, with data revealing that around a fifth of new homes built in Western Australia don’t meet six-star energy standards, costing their owners dearly in running costs.
All new-build designs need to demonstrate compliance with the national construction code that includes specifications for energy efficiency.
But Anthony Wright, the research lead of building simulation at the CSIRO, said there was a glaring disparity in the numbers.
Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.
“Nationally speaking, about 1.5 per cent of houses we see come through our database are less than six stars,” he told Jessica Strutt on ABC Radio Perth.
“In Western Australia it is somewhere like 15 per cent or even 20 per cent over some of the past years, and we’re not entirely sure why that is.”
Perth’s love of project homes
Architect Kate Fitzgerald believes it is because project-home builders dominate the WA market.
She said architects were rarely involved in tailoring a design to either its owner’s needs or best use of natural breezes, site orientation, window placement and insulation.
“Part of that is this idea that you can potentially short-circuit the design aspect of the project by going straight to the builder.”
Research by Ms Fitzgerald into 50 project-home companies found that only two had architects working on projects.
She said many people who built their own home steered clear of architects in the belief they were too expensive, but that was not necessarily the case.
“I think a lot of architects really start working on projects that are maybe around the $500,000 mark and over, so we’re not talking about affordable housing,” she said.
“But I think that’s the point with McMansions — they’re not affordable houses, they’re huge and they’re just badly designed.”
Ms Fitzgerald said it was possible to find emerging architecture practices to design homes at a lower price point, or to employ an architect to provide short-term advice on making a project home better.
“We will have a look at your project in the first instance and give you some tips and pointers about which way to face it, and even how to go back to the project-home companies and say, ‘Actually, this is what I want’.”
Design one factor in running costs
The Housing Industry Association, which represents the home building industry, said project homes were designed to meet minimum energy efficiency standards in order to comply with the national construction code.
“There is no difference in how project homes are designed to meet the minimum energy efficiency standards as any other type of new home,” director of policy Kristin Brookfield said.
“All homes in Western Australia are required to meet a six-star design standard and councils are responsible for approving these designs.”
Ms Brookfield pointed out that the design of a building was just one factor in a home’s final running costs.
“All homes meet the six-star standards under the national construction code and the cost of running these is based on the number of electrical appliances a home owner chooses to have in their home,” she said.
“The star ratings only give a home buyer an indication of the amount of energy they use to heat and cool their home.
“No other electrical appliances are included in a star rating.”
Good design can work out cheaper
Architect Ben Caine said many people were torn between good design and building big.
“They do want a house that is energy efficient and well designed, but there just seems to be this really ingrained attitude that a big house is important for resale, to make the most of a block in a nice area or where big homes are prevalent,” he said.
“I get contacted a lot by people who have already been to a builder and been given a design that is too expensive for them to build.
“When I look at the plans, I often find that the houses are horrendously oversized and often have a very poor layout from a sustainability point of view.”
He said his challenge was to persuade people that a smaller, better-designed house would be more comfortable to live in, cheaper to run and would still have good resale value.
Mr Wright agreed, saying his research had found that the cost of building had decreased since the energy star rating was introduced and that there was evidence that resale values were improved.
“A University of Melbourne study looking at Canberra, where they disclose the energy performance rating at the time of sale or lease for their buildings, found that there is actually a price uplift for the houses that perform better, so you may actually get more money back,” he said.
‘Designs have gone backwards’
Many ABC Radio Perth listeners bemoaned the predominance of energy-inefficient design and described well-designed homes that naturally stayed cool in summer.
Greg: “We designed our house five years ago with: high ceilings throughout; passively positioned on our block to maximise solar heating during winter and reduce direct sun exposure during summer; a light-coloured Colorbond roof; light-coloured bricks; and we used top-end roof insulation. Hence, our house is not air conditioned nor centrally heated.”
Helen: “We’ve lost a beautifully treed single-home property next door to two huge McMansions, one of which has five bedrooms for two retired people.”
Claude: “Designs have gone backwards. There are no longer verandahs or eaves used, and here in WA we have a mentality of double brick which we must change. I have completed a timber-framed extension with wall insulation and ceiling insulation and an air gap built into the framing. On very hot days we don’t need to switch on the air con for a couple of days.”
Anne: “My neighbour subdivided and built a McMansion at the rear. It has a black roof, no solar panels. From my shaded garden I hear their air con running nearly 24/7.”
Counting the cost
Ms Fitzgerald said she was not just lecturing other people on how to build their homes — she has put her money where her ideas are and, with her partner and father, built a small, solar-passive home on a 170-square-metre piece of land in Scarborough.
The development will eventually include three houses and has been done without losing the old house that was on the block, or the established trees, and used many recycled building materials.
“We did a development because we wanted to prove to people that what we’re showing on plans and what we’re trying to explain to our clients can actually work,” she said.
“People aren’t aware until a thing is constructed what they’ve actually paid for and that’s quite scary.”
Her house is just 1.5 bedrooms and the living area is three metres wide, but she can show people that the space doesn’t feel small.
“We had 2,000 people through our house on that weekend and not a single person came up to me and said it’s too small, and I think that’s really interesting for a house that size.”
Ms Fitzgerald said there were consequences to the home building industry saving on design costs.
“I think with the fees that are required to design a project, we’ve been circumventing those fees for a long time and we’ve got a whole city full of terrible houses,” she said.
“I think it’s time to say, ‘OK, well we’ve tried that way, we’ve tried to circumvent that skill set’, and if you look at the broader picture, architectural houses always sell for more.”