Power play: How fossil free homes are Australia’s answer to economic recovery

There is a severe housing shortage in Australia. In the aftermath of Covid-19, state governments will be looking for cost-efficient means to engage a broad base of the workforce to rapidly boost productivity.

The property industry is one of Australia’s largest employers. Investment in affordable housing and fast-tracking planning approvals for private market housing development will be an effective mechanism to boost the economy by engaging a diverse range of the workforce.

Deep investment in housing is long overdue.

A housing-led economic recovery package will be an opportunity to take bold political leadership to not only pave the way for recovery, but to position Australia as a leader in a new post-carbon world.

IMAGE BY TESS KELLY.

Daniel Andrews flagged in a recent interview on ABC news that construction will be a key government investment priority post COVID-19.

Now is the time to ensure our minimum building standards are raised in anticipation of a surge in building activity.

Now is the time to completely rethink the role that housing plays in our economy, not least because most of us are now spending so much time indoors.

Carbon-neutral housing needs to be the minimum standard for new housing supply in order to best prepare Australia for an economically prosperous and environmentally sustainable future.

Broad investment in the development of carbon-neutral housing is Australia’s once in a generation opportunity to lead the transition to a carbon-neutral economy.

The built environment in Australia contributes around 25% of Australia’s national emissions.

In order for Australia to meet its Paris Climate Agreement targets of net zero emissions by 2050, we need to radically reimagine the built environment as a method to reduce our national emissions and as a key resource for renewable energy generation.

Working from home and spending extended periods of time indoors under self-isolation is putting the energy efficiency of housing into sharp focus.

The majority of housing in Australia is poorly orientated, poorly insulated and poorly constructed. New housing is being produced to the minimum possible environmental standards.

Poorly designed and built housing is expensive to cool in summer and heat in winter. Homes that are unable to regulate a consistent comfortable temperature have significant physical and mental health effects to residents.

IMAGE BY TESS KELLY.

The burden of operating and living in poorly built housing is often placed on lower socio-economic groups and the most vulnerable in our society.

Carbon-neutral housing must be invested in at a federal and state level and incentivised and prioritised on a local government level. Developing more affordable, energy efficient housing that enhances the physical and mental wellbeing of its occupants is a clear opportunity for economic recovery efforts.

We need to consider the most environmentally responsible ways to increase high performing housing supply in well serviced urban areas.

The Davison Collaborative, which was recently completed in Brunswick, Melbourne is a case study on sustainable density, transforming one post war suburban dwelling into three fossil fuel free, 100% electric homes for the next generation.

Constructed with Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) and providing 4.5 kWh of solar and 7.5 kWh of sonnen battery capacity per home, as well as an Energy Recovery Ventilation (ERV) active system, electric heat pumps for hot water and hydronic heating, the residences are all-electric, powered by solar energy during the day and solar battery storage in the evening.

The homes achieve an average of 8+ out of 10 star NatHERS rating and are targeted to be net carbon positive in operation, reducing their environmental impact, as well as reducing energy bills for the residents and their reliance on the grid.

The Davison Collaborative is an example of a housing typology that demonstrates exemplary environmental performance in a connected inner urban area at an accessible cost.

Typologies such as this need to be incentivised by state policies and given priority planning approval in order to meet the associated challenges of economic recovery, the housing crisis and climate change.

No new private market housing should be approved for development that is not carbon neutral by 2025.

Our town planning system needs to rebalance the priorities for new developments, giving greater weight to those applications that demonstrate best practice in energy-efficient construction and operation in order to densify our cities in a way that reduces the carbon footprint of our built environment.

In 2006, the Labour government in the UK introduced regulations for carbon neutral housing by 2016 by then Chancellor Gordon Brown, only for them to be scrapped by the Cameron government in 2015.

The regulations would have required that each dwelling generate as much renewable energy as it consumed in operation. It is an achievable target which is only lacking in political will.

Households, such as those of the Davison Collaborative are already leading the transition to renewable energy in the absence of strong integrated policy from each level of government.

More than one in five households in Australia now have solar panels installed on their roof, accounting for 5.4% of Australia’s total energy generation in 2019.

In 2019, Australia’s household battery storage capacity passed 1 GWh for the first time. Small-scale solar energy production powers the equivalent of more than twice as many homes as Australia’s current large and medium-scale solar farms combined.

IMAGE BY TESS KELLY.

Further incentivisation is required to expand small-scale solar energy generation across new and existing residential buildings in order to fully harness the resource potential of housing.

Investment in carbon-neutral housing, supported by minimum energy efficiency regulations will support homeowners to reduce household emissions and demand more action on energy efficient design and construction practices from the built environment sector.

Reducing the carbon-footprint of our built environment and transitioning to broad-scale urban solar generation would serve to reduce our cities’ emissions, significantly reduce our reliance on fossil-fuels and boost the productivity of Australia’s largest workforce sector towards an environmentally sustainable economic recovery.

Laura Phillips is the Head of Urban Advocacy at HIP V. HYPE. HIP V. HYPE is a community of built environment advocates inspired by a vision to pioneer carbon-neutral housing models in Australia that are centred around the needs of people.

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