It’s a sustainable
For Griff Morris, founder and director of Solar Dwellings, creating sustainable homes is a lifelong passion. Here, he speaks to Lucy Mackey about key sustainable building practices in the industry today, including site orientation, material choice, and passive solar design.
It seems with each year we are increasingly inundated by rhetoric touting the benefits of building or renovating using sustainable materials and energy-saving principles. For Griff Morris, who is a Housing Industry Association (HIA) Regional Planning and Environment Committee member and GreenSmart Professional Training Course main trainer, doing anything otherwise isn’t worth considering. “The question to ask yourself,” says Morris, is “why wouldn’t you choose features that save you money for the life of the building while supporting our environment?”
Currently, the National Construction Code of Australia requires a minimum six stars for energy efficiency. “It’s important to remember that this is the minimum standard,” says Morris. “Your aim should always be eight stars, and this is not difficult to achieve.” Most of the homes Solar Dwellings creates are between 8 and 9.5 stars. “My goal for the future,” Morris says, “is to continue to make sustainability accessible to as many people as possible in a common sense way.
“Incorporating sustainable features is an intelligent way to minimise energy costs from the moment you move in, and create a comfortable home environment year-round.”
With a focus on building materials, energy, water-saving features, and passive design, you can create a home that is cool in summer and snug in winter, and by giving thought to ‘futureproofing’ your home, you can maintain natural temperature control for decades to come.
Morris’ passion for sustainable design was instilled from a young age. “I watched my grandfathers as I grew up, and they considered sustainability in everything they did,” he says. “They didn’t waste one thing. Everything was repaired, recycled and reused.
“In the mid-1970s, when the first oil crisis hit and the world became interested in energy-efficient buildings, I too became interested. In 1976 when I began designing my first home, I incorporated all the sustainable features that I’d been researching. It made total sense to include them and base my overall design on this research.” Morris’ first home was the test bed for what would become Solar Dwellings. “I’ve been researching, designing and teaching ever since,” he says.
Thinking sustainably means looking to the future. It is an unfortunate reality that the Australian climate will grow more extreme, with hotter summers and colder winters, during the lifespan of homes built today. Clever designers and builders keep this in mind.
“Remember that the design choices you make now will be there for decades,” Morris says. “The capital cost of a home is a one-off, but the operational costs and maintenance will be ongoing and compound over the life of the building.”
It’s also important to consider how your living needs will change; a truly sustainable home can adapt as you need it to. As a Count Me In ambassador for the Western Australia Disability Services Commission, Morris encourages the creation of multifunctional future-proofed homes that are accessible for those with disabilities, and will allow owners to age in place.
All sites are unique and come with their own challenges and advantages. By considering all your site’s attributes, you can make them work for you by drastically reducing or even removing the need for auxiliary heating and cooling. Key aspects to consider include boundary lines and setbacks; height restrictions; overshadowing from vegetation and buildings; views; traffic noise and pollution; and opportunities to capture cooling breezes.
Temperatures in Western Australia can range from near freezing in winter to well over 40 degrees in summer, and these large diurnal swings are conducive to effective passive design, that is, harnessing the sun and wind for natural heating and cooling.
“A house can act as a large, combined solar collector and storage unit,” Morris says. By orienting the main living areas of your home 15 degrees east or west of north, you can invite the lower winter sun in to warm them, and block the harsh summer sun with well-positioned eaves, sun shades, pergolas, deciduous trees and in some cases evergreen plants. Tiled concrete floors and thermal mass walls will give back the heat they have absorbed during the day to warm the house at night. Insulating concrete forms (ICFs) are increasing in popularity for their suitability as thermal mass and their modular, stackable nature.
Cross-breezes can be equally helpful when it comes to regulating your home’s temperature; Morris recommends taking advantage of this free source of cooling by positioning windows to invite breezes inside during the summer. Landscaping can also be strategically designed to direct breezes.
When effectively combined, passive design principles can go a long way to keeping your home a pleasant temperature all year, thus cutting down on your energy bills.
WASTE NOT, WANT NOT
Of all the solid waste generated in Australia, around 18.2 million tonnes is building waste, therefore the priority in selecting building materials should be minimising waste. “With renovations, there is much that can be done,” Morris says. “The essential place to begin is with an expert assessment of what to keep and what to remove.”
After this, many of the same passive solar principles of new builds can be applied to renovations. When selecting new materials, Morris’ advice is to look for those with low embodied energy, meaning those that require less energy and money to produce and transport. However, materials with higher embodied energy (such as concrete) can be offset if they contribute significantly to lowering the operational energy of the structure. Also opt for finishes with low amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to minimise pollution of indoor and outdoor air quality.
When it comes to renewable energy, solar panels are still hard to beat. While other renewables such as geothermal and wind energy are not viable for the individual homeowner yet, the market is flooded with easily accessible solar solutions. With so many options available, Morris recommends choosing “a system appropriate for your specific needs and considering which home products will be using power at which time of the day”. Where possible, it’s wise to run energy-intensive appliances such as washing machines and dryers during the day, at maximum solar gain.
“The correct choice of inverter and battery capacity will give you the best performance at least cost,” says Morris. “Before deciding on components, inform yourself and seek expert advice.”
From installing a rainwater tank to selecting fixtures with a high WELS rating, there are a range of ways to preserve water in your home. Morris looks forward to the integration of greywater systems in new homes. “During a new build it is easy to allow for the provision for greywater,” he says. “This will make greywater systems easy to install as they become more viable.” While at present they are more a moral environmental choice than a cost-effective alternative, greywater systems are a worthwhile consideration if sustainability is your goal. “Keep in mind they require approval from the local authority,” Morris adds, “which require you to submit plans showing the reticulation area.”
LIVING THE DREAM
Sustainable homes of low environmental impact are growing more important every day. For Morris, the idyllic sustainable property comprises light, bright and airy spaces across one storey that are healthy and hypoallergenic, and incorporate inclusive and accessible design principles to accommodate aging family and friends into the future.
“The living and dining spaces are well-defined and connected to an awesome well-appointed cook’s kitchen, the hub of the home. I love cooking and sharing food with friends,” he says. “The bedrooms are located in private, peaceful areas with their own private landscaped courtyards. The bathroom, en suite and laundry face north, providing wonderful warm winter sun.”
Morris’ last word of advice is to be well-informed on sustainable practices when it comes to your new build or renovation, because short-term decisions can have long-term negative impacts if not carefully considered. An important part of sustainable building is to get it right the first time, and include elements that will adapt as you need them to. A reliable resource with which to get started is www.yourhome.gov.au.