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Green Living Moves into the Mainstream


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Green building is becoming a mainstream practice for an increasing number of residential builders. As speakers at the recent Green Living Conference showed, it is also making good business sense.

The annual conference is organised and hosted by Master Builders Victoria. Master Builders’ Sustainable Building Advisor, Dr. Phil Alviano, told Jobsite the main goal is to encourage “real behavioural change” rather than lecture attendees on what they should or shouldn’t do.

The conference has been going for 12 years now. Alviano said it had been a catalyst for a growing community of sustainability-minded builders and designers. This year’s event drew around 130 builders and building designers and featured eight speakers and a product supplier expo and information session.

It also provides an opportunity to network and learn about new approaches.

This year’s conference also provided some insights into what builders can expect from the new iteration of the National Construction Code, which will be released later this year and will come into effect next year. As Alviano says, it is all about “giving people the information they need to do their job.” 

“Everyone who comes along always comments on the types of builders there. These people are prepared to have a go—they’re just looking for the best way to do it and for reassurance.”

Some of the presentations showcased new high-performance products and innovative approaches.  

Dennis Darcy, CEO of the Insulation Council of Australia and New Zealand, spoke on how to maximise the value of insulation for the life of the building; and Matthew Soeberg, Manager Sustainable Homes for Victorian state government agency, Sustainability Victoria, filled attendees in on the Zero Net Carbon Homes Pilot Program.

For builders, keeping on top of changes in technology is a vital part of the mix. For example, Alviano pointed out that not too long ago, everyone was encouraged to install gas mains for hot water, cooking and heating, since gas was cheaper for consumers in terms of energy prices.

Upwards shifts in gas prices, increasing concerns around carbon emissions from the use of gas, and the booming uptake of domestic solar hot water and solar PV panels has now changed that. The all-electric house is now becoming the way forward for many builders and homeowners.  

One of the key challenges for every builder is how to bring the price back so they can deliver high-performing homes while remaining competitive.

TS Constructions director Tony O’Connell gave a presentation on the lessons he had learned when building homes at The Cape, a master-planned, sustainability-focused residential community on the Victorian coast.

Over the past four years, his company has completed 18 homes at The Cape, and there are many more to come. One of the requirements developer Brendon Condon has is for all homes to achieve a minimum of 7.5 star energy rating, according to Victoria’s First Rate system. This is 1.5 Stars above the minimum of six stars stipulated by the current building code.

O’Connell told Jobsite that when he was first building at The Cape, sustainable homes came with a “very high price tag” because the design for sustainability was not as refined; back then the focus was on using products that would achieve performance. Those high-performance products, such as high-spec glazing and insulation with above-average R-values, were expensive.

One of the key challenges for every builder is how to bring the price back so they can deliver high-performing homes while remaining competitive.

There is a sweet spot in terms of price and performance at around eight stars, says O’Connell. This standard is fairly readily achievable through design and effectively addressing some key things that compromise performance—such as building leakage and gaps in insulation.

O’Connell has been using blower door testing to verify the quality of building sealing. He said it is also used as a training opportunity for all the trades including electricians, plumbers and carpenters, whose work on-site can result in poor sealing.

The blower door test includes the use of smoke to show where leaks are. It demonstrates to other trades how their not sealing penetrations properly, for example, compromises the building. The $300 to $400 cost for the test is something, he said, no builder can afford not to factor into their costs; it is a means of ensuring they are delivering a good product.

“Sustainability pays off. It is not a fringe thing anymore, it is mainstream,” O’Connell says.

O’Connell also uses an infrared camera attachment on a smartphone to check the installation of insulation and shows trades, such as electricians, the results. The infrared images will spotlight instances like insulation removed from around a light fitting in the ceiling.

The rule of thumb with insulation is that a five per cent gap will result in a 40 per cent reduction in performance. His testing helps eliminate those gaps, as do practices such as using a spray-in rigid foam insulation for the junctions in wall frames.

“Sustainability pays off. It is not a fringe thing anymore, it is mainstream,” O’Connell says.

“I think the industry is coming around to it, although it’s a gradual movement. And we have a massive opportunity to make a big difference now.”

Master Builders considers it important that the product suppliers at the event are not just there to sell their wares, but also provide valuable technical advice.

“This is about people becoming familiar with the product and confident in using it,” explains Dr. Phil Alviano.

Attendees were organised into small groups for the supplier information sessions, giving everyone an opportunity to talk to them, and “feel and touch” the products.

Being able to ask questions and experience the products meant people could get a sense of what they could achieve. They could see first-hand the kinds of outcomes they are looking for—and find out how that might affect the program, the budget, and the supply chain arrangements.

Alviano says there had been a couple of major turning points for the industry in relation to sustainable approaches in the past decade or so. A major one occurred around eight years ago, when there was the severe drought that put water efficiency in the spotlight.

This led Master Builders to develop and deliver courses for builders, designers, and trades in topics, such as gray water systems, recycled water systems, and rainwater harvesting and storage, because the clients of Victorian builders were making inquiries.

“More recently, we have seen the same thing with energy prices,” Alviano says. “As a result, builders are getting more questions from clients about solar.”

The conference is part of a broader agenda Master Builders has been pursuing around upskilling builders and trades in energy efficiency and sustainability.

Around 1,000 people have been trained to date via specific workshops, and a further 1,000 have gained these skills through the incorporation of the topics in Master Builders’ Certificate IV in Building and Construction course.

“My goal is to provide the confidence, information, real-world examples, and tools to help people build more energy-efficient and sustainable buildings,” says Alviano.  

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