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Green for the mainstream

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How do you plan and build an affordable, water-wise, energy-efficient home? Environmental scientist and media professional Dr Josh Byrne has the right green guide to help.

Anne-Maree Brown

General Manager of Content

In the final weeks of the school year of 2020, West Australia’s Fremantle finally started to experience the hot dry days of summer for which the port city is known. The mercury started rising to above 30 degrees before 9am, soaring to well above 40 by noon.

As one of Dr Josh Byrne’s children walked into the living room with a jumper over his school uniform, the environmental scientist, researcher and television presenter was amused to realise that his offspring was blissfully unaware of the swelter outside.

‘I had to laugh,’ Josh says. ‘They had absolutely no idea it was so hot, inside the temperature was sitting at a cool 22 degrees.’

The child’s attire provides a perfect symbol for the success of his family home’s liveable design. Josh’s House, as it is widely known, was created by the renowned sustainability practitioner to not only demonstrate the benefits of green housing, but to provide a cosy, healthy home for his own family. It is as much about the comfort for his clan, as it is a powerful scientific demonstration.

Photo: Joel Barbitta
Photo: Joel Barbitta

The plan

It all began, conceptually speaking, in 2012. After many years of communicating and demonstrating how to make homes more sustainable in the media, it occurred to Josh that he could do more than just retrofit and repair older homes. Perhaps he could start from scratch and build a home that not only performed well, but also provided performance monitoring publicly. There was also another, much simpler motivation – it was to be their family’s first home.

‘We had always rented, so this was something my wife and I were interested in doing,’ he says ‘We had always worked on older homes, looking at draft management, insulation and shade deficit, now it was super exciting to do it properly from the word go, returning to 101 to get the design right. If built right, homes can perform much, much better.’

There was also another reason for the need to ‘show not just tell’. Josh and his team were motivated to test some misconceptions in the housing industry – particularly that high-performance energy-efficient homes were boutique, expensive and complicatedly out of reach.

In fact, the opposite is true.

Working with volume builder and HIA members Highbury Homes, that had never built a 10-star home before, and on a tight budget, the long-term presenter of ABC’s Gardening Australia set about to design and build ‘Josh’s House’ with products that were easily attainable.

First, there was the subject of orientation. Josh and design partner, Griff Morris of HIA member company Solar Dwellings, wanted to capture warming winter light with rooms zoned for optimum thermal performance. It also needed to ‘feel’ comfortable along with being energy- and water-wise. This meant being generous with space, with ceilings slightly higher and doorways slightly wider, while windows were carefully positioned to allow for plenty of natural light and garden views.

By responding to the block as a whole, they intentionally built a modest home, predictably making the most of the garden space. This included incorporating home-grown produce, using fruit yielding vegetation to also create shade and thermal control, room for composting, and every egg-loving homeowner’s feathered friends – chickens.

‘It was also important for us to create a garden you wanted to spend time in, seamlessly transitioning inside to out, with room for outdoor entertaining in comfort, children’s play zones, cooking facilities and even private spaces by the master bedroom,’ Josh says.

Photo: VAM Media

The performance

With the build now complete, the accompanying website ‘Josh’s House’ continues to display performance data in real time, including temperature, humidity, energy and water usage, and battery performance, along with other big picture data points, such as greenhouse gas emissions and solar power offsets.

The home, designed in 2013, used the best affordable innovations and inclusions at the time. Since then, Josh has continued to keep up with what is available and affordable to the market to not only provide continued cost savings, but the ability to check on performance before and after the modifications.

21 years of GreenSmart

In 2021, HIA GreenSmart turns 21! HIA is proud to have developed one of Australia’s first professional green building initiatives for the construction industry, and delivered training and accreditation to professionals and businesses over the past two decades.

A sustainable approach to building and renovating, the program offers a HIA accredited training course for builders or designers wanting to develop new skills and acquire green credentials. Recently updated, the training covers the latest in green building ideas and innovations.

Become a HIA GreenSmart Professional or get GreenSmart accreditation for your residential project or email greensmart@hia.com.au for more information. In addition to increasing your environmental awareness, skills and knowledge, becoming a HIA GreenSmart Professional means you get access to news and opportunities to help promote your services in the marketplace.

The guide

After a year that has seen most of us spending more time at home during the day due to COVID conditions, the need for change has been highlighted dramatically of late. If a home is designed to be climate responsive and thermally stable, it is ultimately more cost effective to run and better for our health.

‘In the past, homes were created around morning and evening being the heavy use times, so many homeowners are now surprised by what it takes to make the home comfortable during the day,’ Josh explains.

Knowing where to look for guidance during a build, he advocates for following HIA’s own sustainability protocol, HIA GreenSmart.

‘We found it to be a good, practical, robust tool for the mainstream market which is very much what we set out to do with our project. I think it shows terrific leadership from HIA, especially as it has been running for a long time, tested and continuously revised.’

The handbook

With the data on the website, research papers written and now Josh Byrnes’ new book The Sustainable House Handbook available, the home is a true showcase of what is easily achievable for the average Australian house. As a result, many large-scale builders and land developers have reached out, asking questions for their new developments and transition plans towards net zero energy homes.

‘The home has clearly provided evidence that they can make changes that are practical and affordable,’ Josh says. ‘The truth is, making modifications to an already established home is much more expensive than building right the first time.

‘There is a choice now to design and build our homes better. After all, improvements in the way our buildings are designed to perform will always be on the agenda, so why not start planning for the home of the future now?’

The future

For Josh, the future now is about scale: to provide the necessary support and urban design thinking required to create sustainable urban environments.

‘Houses form part of streetscapes, streetscapes form part of precincts, and precincts make up neighbourhoods and communities. To create sustainable urban environments, we need to think beyond individual buildings and address the spaces and infrastructure in between. It is about moving beyond a focus on density and energy efficiency alone, to also address liveability and community wellbeing.’

And of course, closer to home, with the chickens happily pecking away in his yard, with fresh veggies on the table, the kids joyously (with or without jumpers) oblivious to the summer heat, Josh knows firsthand that green building is really about comfort as much as it is about sustainability. Every family and every community deserves it.

For more information about Josh’s House, visit www.joshshouse.com.au. To purchase The Sustainable House Handbook, go to Booktopia or visit your preferred book store.

Green building tips

Josh’s advice for those looking to apply green building principles, include:

  1. Respond to the site and look at orientation at the planning stage.
  2. Make the necessary tweaks to designs, such as window size and positioning, which can make a huge difference to solar gain.
  3. Choose building materials, glazing and insulation best suited to the local climate type.
  4. Aim for quality of construction to avoid air leakage and properly installed insulation.
  5. Choose efficient electric appliances, such as air-source heat pump hot water systems and induction cook tops.
  6. Include rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) systems to produce renewable energy.
  7. Consider the garden – it is not just leftover space but is integral to the performance and comfort of a home.

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