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Sustainable by design

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Natural Lifestyle Homes helped put sustainable housing into the spotlight back in the early 2000s. The company’s owner talks about how industry and consumer attitudes to sustainability have changed since then.

Gabrielle Chariton

Author

Contributor to Housing

In 2006, Natural Lifestyle Homes won HIA GreenSmart Building of the Year for a sustainable demonstration home in Seventeen Mile Rocks, a riverside suburb located 10km south-west of Brisbane’s CBD. The house, nestled into the surrounding bushland and constructed from insulated wall systems and timber, was built with the specific aim of promoting and generating awareness for eco-sensitive housing. 

‘There was a lot of experimental work going on in that house,’ says Natural Lifestyle Homes Director Matt Carrol, who took over the business from its original owners, Leanne and Jim McNulty, in 2008. ‘The McNultys were very keen on sustainability and they built it as a bit of a test house, to see how far they could take the concepts.’

Dubbed ‘Sustainable House Brisbane’, Matt – a HIA member for more than 15 years – says it remained open to the public for a few years before being sold in 2009. The house utilised solar passive design principles, implemented specifically to meet the requirements of Brisbane’s subtropical climate, and was fitted with a range of add-ons designed to minimise its ongoing environmental footprint: solar electricity and hot water, two concealed 5000-litre water tanks, ventilation system and grey water garden irrigation. 

Fast-forward 14 years. While the environment and climate change still dominate the public agenda, a range of factors have left their mark on the industry. For Matt, the most significant of these have been economic pressures borne from the GFC (and now COVID-19), and the changing attitudes and priorities of homeowners. ‘Green building’ remains an important consideration, but it’s not always seen as a defining factor. Rather, it’s viewed as an integral component of any well-planned project. 

‘After all, when you build green, the home feels better, flows better and is all around more comfortable for those living in it,’ Matt says. ‘We haven’t lost our thoughts on sustainability…we’ve forged some alliances with good architects who are naturally going to design with sustainability in mind.’ 

Today, Natural Lifestyle Homes has carved out a niche in high-end, architecturally designed renovations and new homes across Brisbane’s inner suburbs. Image: supplied
In 2006, Natural Lifestyle Homes won the HIA GreenSmart Building of the Year for this sustainable demonstration home in Seventeen Mile Rocks. Image: supplied

Today, Natural Lifestyle Homes has carved out a niche in high-end, architecturally designed renovations and new homes across Brisbane’s inner suburbs. Matt and his business partner Clifford Keane employ a team of six carpenters and two apprentices, and the company completes around 10 projects per year. Within this market sector, quality is the priority: in terms of detailing, finish and design. Matt and Clifford collaborate closely with architects and clients to achieve optimum outcomes; every project is highly individualised, responsive to the environment, and finished to exacting standards. 

Matt says that many of his clients are aware of the benefits of a home that offers good thermal performance and a certain degree of energy efficiency, but that they’re not always necessarily prepared to up their spend to achieve this – for example, by choosing to build with pricier, but more ‘sustainable’ products. 

‘Those sorts of considerations are definitely still there but they want to know what can be done without any additional outlay,’ he says. ‘People are more into how do we get thermal mass into the house, and that’s really driven the popularity of polished concrete flooring. There’s also more emphasis on looking at design strategies such as trying to orientate the house and pick up the winter sun and not the summer sun.’

There are exceptions to the rule, of course. One of Natural Lifestyle Homes’ upcoming projects, a bespoke home in Brookfield, is set to feature a range of innovative products and construction methods aimed at optimising its energy efficiency. ‘The client is trying to do a few different things… we’ve got Hebel panels on the outside and SolarSpan insulated roofing. Internally, there’s no Gyprock, we’re using an 8mm board that will be rendered over, along with a polished concrete slab, so there’s a bit going on there.’ 

Natural Lifestyle Homes recommends investing in a sun study at the planning stage of a new home to optimise its energy efficiency performance. Photo: Mindi Cooke
(L-R): Natural Lifestyle Homes directors Clifford Keane and Matt Carroll.

So, what can the industry do better in terms of supporting and promoting the value of energy efficient and sustainable housing to the home-buying public? ‘I keep coming back to design,’ Matt says. ‘Builders build what gets put in front of us; sure, we tweak it to best practice but if the designers aren’t thinking about what the sun’s doing and how to keep the house warm in winter and cool in summer, then the rest of it is chasing your tail.’ 

Matt’s top recommendation is to invest in a sun study at the planning stage. ‘That would be the singularly biggest and easiest thing to do…it involves mapping the sun at different times of the year, to see what it’s going to do to the house. Having this information allows you to minimise direct sun at the wrong time of day; and in turn, minimise the amount of heating and cooling needed. You can get it right on paper before building.’

He also says we don’t necessarily need to look too far outside the square to deliver highly liveable, energy-conscious homes. ‘Go back to the old Queenslanders: door at the front, door at the back that lined up. Windows on each side of the house that lined up so you’ve got the cross ventilation each way. Eaves and verandahs to stop the sun getting on the walls. 

‘That is the simplest form of sustainable building and that’s where we started.’

There’s little doubt that Natural Lifestyle Homes, along with a host of like-minded home builders around the country, have helped to shape the industry’s awareness and acceptance of eco-aware building practices. Now, with Matt and Clifford hoping to take their turnover to the next level, they are focused on passing their knowledge and skills onto the next generation of workers. 

‘Any business is all about its staff,’ Matt says. ‘We have to be able to train our current staff or bring in new staff to do what we do, which is the attention to detail and good building practice which goes hand in hand with sustainability. For us, that’s going to be key to our future growth and success.’