If you’ve ever built a new home, you’ll appreciate just how much time and effort goes into the planning, designing and construction phases. But what about if you want to take it a step further by building a sustainable home?

This week on the podcast I’m joined by my husband Paul to share some of our learnings and tips on building a sustainable home …. a process we’ve been living and breathing ourselves for the past two years now as we’ve built our new eco-ish home in Adelaide.

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Resources Mentioned:

Building a Sustainable Home in the Suburbs Part 1: Planning and Design

Cullector Water Saving Shower

Macquarie University VegeSafe Soil Metal Testing program

 

What were some of the stand out selections we made when building a sustainable home?

Laura:

So you might be wondering why I’ve decided to interview Paul and it’s basically because he really took this project in his two hands and run with it. So I can’t thank him enough for project managing our house build. Aspects of it were seriously things that sometimes I just buried my head in the sand and I didn’t even wanna look at it. It was a stressful process at times. It pushed us to our limit at times. Of course it’s all great now that we’re in our new house and unpacking boxes and things like that. But, you know, it seemed to drag on and on.

And Paul just stayed there ticking off the boxes, dotting the I’s, crossing the T’s, following up with builders, making all those phone calls when tradespeople just weren’t doing things the right way the first time. So, before we get started, Paul, I just wanna openly thank you for doing that. Yeah. I don’t think I could’ve done it. Definitely not half as good as what you’ve done.

Paul:                     Oh gee, thanks, Laura.

Laura:

Let’s chat about this house build now. So I first wanna chat about selections and so, Paul, what were some of the stand out selections that you think we made in our sustainable home build to make it a much more sustainable house than the typical home in the suburbs?

Paul:

Well I think in part one we talked a little about the orientation of the building to the sun so we’ve got some large windows facing to the north, which in the southern hemisphere is important for allowing winter sun into your home and heating it up during the day. So that was one of the first things I noticed when we moved in about how effective a little bit of sun coming into those windows were in maintaining a warmer temperature inside the house. And the difference between the temperature in that particular room, the larger family kitchen area, compared to the bedrooms, which are on the southern side of the house. So I definitely thinks that’s the number one thing that we’ve done so far anyway that I’ve noticed that’s really made a difference.

I guess some of the other things that we’ve done was the insulation. So we built our walls with an expanded polystyrene foam. It might not sound very eco, but basically makes our house a bit like an esky so it really retains the heat and we’ll see, but in the summer I’m hoping that it will be quite cool. And even though we have air conditioning installed, we hopefully won’t have to use it as much as we have in previous houses.

Laura:

I’m just gonna jump in there for our listeners outside Australia that may not be familiar with the term esky. It’s basically … It’s an Australian term for like a … What is it? A little fridge.

Paul:

A chilly bin.

Laura:

Well that’s a New Zealand term for it. But it’s basically a box-

Paul:

Cooler.

Laura:

… a cooler, that you put drinks in and take to a party. So I can’t think of another word than esky to call it, but it’s yeah, like a little mini fridge that might have ice or ice bricks or something in it. Yeah, so our house … They’re often made out of … Well cheaper ones are made out of polystyrene so they’re very, got very good thermal capabilities, which is what Paul’s trying to say. So our house, while polystyrene does not sound very sustainable, like an esky it holds the warmth inside, or the cool air in summer. So that’s what an esky is.

So we’re living in a big giant esky.

Paul:

Yeah, so, as I said the name of that material is expanded polystyrene foam, or EPS another one it’s called, and there’s various brand names. The one we’ve got is called Unitex, but there’s also others, such as RendeX or Styroboard. And probably many more. So yeah that was also something we did which I think’s worked out well.

Double glazed windows is another thing. So, again I think we mentioned it in the part one, that we didn’t end up going with double glazed windows in all of the windows because of the expense. So we’ve put them on the northern side and the western side of the house. I guess that’s probably something that perhaps you don’t notice so much whether they work or not, but clearly they will. They work together with the insulation in the walls to make the house temperature more stable. So not as hot in summer, not as cold in winter.

Laura:

And I’ve already noticed in our first three weeks being in the house I’ve think we’ve had the heating, well obviously the heating wasn’t actually installed when we moved into the house, but it hasn’t been a very cold house. We’ve only had heating on one or two times, and even then only for about 15 minutes to take the chill off the air. And that’s in August, which is the coolest month of the year in Adelaide. So I don’t think that we’ll have to be using our heating too much, especially with, as you mentioned, with those windows for our living area facing the north, that beautiful winter sun that’s coming in and heating up the main living area of the house.

Paul:

Yeah, so also our insulation in the ceiling. We got extra above the what we needed to make the minimum standard, so that was another thing that we wanted to do.

So some of the other things … I guess we’re getting down to the things that make the lower impact now, but nevertheless are useful, very useful, important. So rain water tank. So we’re still waiting for that to be installed.

Laura:

You can share what happened to our rain water tank.

Paul:

Well we don’t know. It’s disappeared. So someone obviously really is very sustainable out there and wanted another rain water tank for their house. So I’m not quite sure where it’s gone, but we have to get another one now unfortunately.

Laura:

Yeah, it was basically stolen from our front yard. It hadn’t been installed yet, it was just sitting there and not been plugged in. But yeah, it is there no more. It was to be installed today wasn’t it, but anyway.

Paul:

So when it is there, we’ll be using that to flush the toilet and also, obviously, we’ll have to use to water the garden, et cetera.

Laura:

And drinking water.

Paul:

And drinking water. So, yep, that’ll be great once that’s installed.

Laura:

Let’s talk about, some of the inside selections. So maybe some of our floor covering choices. And now I know I was pretty vocal in some of these selections. We had a great discussion on what to cover our floors with and I know we were looking at polished concrete for awhile there, but we slanted back to some other choices. So anything you wanna add about the selections that we made there, Paul?

What’s the most sustainable floor covering?

Paul:

I guess if we wanted to go 100% the best choice far as thermal properties goes, Laura mentioned polished concrete or tiles, because both of those will absorb heat in the winter and then release it in the evening when it cools down. And also in the summer it keeps the house a bit cooler as well.

But we decided to go for wooden floors because we preferred the look and the energy system we’ve got actually showed that it didn’t make a great deal of difference, although it did show that concrete floors or tiling was better. However, once we decided to chose timber, the timber we chose is an Australian timber, so local, so less … What’d you call it? Can I say food miles? Floor miles?

Laura:   Wood miles?

Paul:     Wood …

Laura:

But yeah, it was a hardwood too from a sustainable plantation and Australian made so we felt good about that choice. And the same thing with our carpets. We’ve got Australian wool … Can’t remember if it’s Australian wool, New Zealand made or New Zealand wool, Australian made. One or the other. But it’s like a pure wool carpet so it’s not off-gassing a lot of synthetic vapours, or VOCs or anything like that, that not a lot of synthetic fibres could be doing. So we’re happy with that choice for sure.

Paul:      Yeah.

Laura:

So obviously they were some of our bigger decisions that we made upfront and we’re making selections throughout the build, but there was … but there was some less obvious selections that we made throughout the build as well. So even like just fittings in our shower and our paints on the wall and things like that. So what were some of the less obvious features that we chose to make our home a little bit more sustainable than the standard home in the suburbs?

What Other Features Make Our Home More Sustainable Than a Regular House?

Paul:

I guess we could say … Well I would say the curtains. Although the curtains are not necessarily something unusual, but we find it important to put heavy curtains to keep the heat inside the house. And that’s also important on Australian western facing windows in the summer to keep the afternoon sun out of the house. So they’re actually installed before we moved in. They weren’t part of the build where we made sure we got them in. Nothing of course to do with not wanting people to look into our bedrooms without any curtains on. So obviously that was an important thing for us to do.

We also have installed something that I’ve not seen anywhere else installed I must admit, the water saving showers that we have. I think Laura knows a fair bit about these.

Laura:

Yeah. They were Australian designed though the brand is the Cullector Water Saving Shower. So we’ve got them in our bathrooms in the house.

The Cullector collects the water that would otherwise be flowing down the drain as you’re waiting for the water in the shower to heat up. And then it feeds that cold water back through the shower while you’re showering with a nice water efficient shower head as well. So you’re saving a good four or five liters of water every shower. And the savings add up very, very quickly and pay for the shower unit in a month or two in a standard family of four household.

So we’re really happy with the Cullector, the Water Saving Shower. And you can buy them directly at watersavingshowers.com.au or at sustainahome.com as well. I think Sustainahome is the first retailer outside Water Saving Showers. So they’re a great, great design there.

Cullector Water Saving Shower Hand Held

Cullector Water Saving Shower Hand Held

Laura:

Again, something I really, really wanted was low VOC paint. VOC’s are basically volatile organic compounds. And if you ever walk into a new house, for example, and you’re quite overcome with the smell of a new house, that’s basically the VOCs coming out of the paint or sometimes even the carpets and the floor coverings as well. They knock me around, I can easily get headaches and migraines or just feel giddy from VOCs so I really wanted to make sure that we had a low VOC paint.

And I was really thankful for that too. So when we moved into the house,  the fumes were really quite low, which was great. And of course opening the windows every day and just purging the house and keeping the airflow through the house as much as possible during this new phase, even though we’ve made more natural selections in our carpets and things like that, but there are still some low VOCs in there, so just moving them on through the house so we don’t have any health impacts from our new house.

Speaking of health, Paul, you recently took some soil samples from our yard and had them analyzed for metal contamination. Would you mind just sharing with our listeners how you did this, why you think it’s useful for anyone considering planting a veggie garden?

How Can You Test For Soil Contamination in Your Yard?

Paul:

Yeah, so, Macquarie University VegeSafe Program offers a service where basically you send them up to five soil samples from your property. I guess they’re doing it to compile a map of soil contamination hot spots around Australian and they’re particularly looking at metal contamination. On the website they give you some instructions about the sort of places around the home where they’re more interested in. So you put your little soil samples into a snap-lock bag and send them off to them. They ask for a donation of $20, which you can pay online.

About three or four weeks after sending the sample to them they send you an email with the results. I was fairly confident that we weren’t going to have any issue with metal contamination where we were. Those sort of things normally reserved for industrial areas or if you’re putting your house on a petrol station, old petrol station or something like that.

Laura:

Or if you’re living in a town where there’s metal smelters, you know, Port Pirie, Mount Isa.

Paul:      Yeah. Or maybe next to a main highway.

Laura:    Or even Newcastle, near the old Cockle Creek Smelter.

Paul:

Yep. So yeah, our house, as far as I know, didn’t have any of that history. So and the results showed that the metal content of the soil was well below the safe level. Like I said, I did it just out of interest, to see what the process was. But of course, given we’re going to be growing fruits and vegetables in our garden, something that’s important to know if you did have contaminated soil and that you would need to clean it up before you went ahead and planted anything. So now we’ve got peace of mind that there’s going to be no issues with that. So yeah.

So it was pretty easy process. Like I said, Macquarie University does the analysis.

Laura:

Obviously it’s only available for Australians. That service.

Paul:

Yes, it’d only be Australia. But there’s likely to be similar services in other countries potentially. So it was … I just had a feeling that sort of thing existed so I just did an online search and came across it.

Laura:

And of course if you live outside Australia, engineering consulting firms always offer these service, although the larger firms don’t necessarily do it just for a small residential facility and that costs a lot of money. Or you can go directly to a NATA-certified lab that specialize in contaminant analysis for soils and water. So you can always get that done yourself no matter where you live.

What home projects are you looking forward to now that we’re living in the home?

Paul:

I think the installation of solar panels will be good. So we haven’t got any as such for electricity at this stage. We would’ve liked to have installed them upfront, but we decided that we didn’t want to spend that money at that stage. However, we do have solar hot water, which is gas boosted. So essentially if the sun isn’t shining enough and the water doesn’t get hot enough, then gas will kick in to give us the hot water.

And I have to say that I’ve never had a working hot solar water on my roof before. But in the first few days we’re here, we only had the gas, the solar panel hadn’t been installed yet. And I’ve definitely noticed a difference. With the solar water the water was a lot hotter and obviously we’re not using the gas to heat it up. So that’s good for the environment and good for our wallets as well.

Laura:

I just want to clarify you comment on not wanting to spend the money on solar, it was more the fact that we had a finite budget for this build and we prioritized the spend on the structure and the insulation and the double glazed windows, all aspects that add a significant cost to a house build. They cost a lot more upfront. So we funnelled our money into those areas of the home that aren’t as easy to change later on. And we thought okay, we can the solar put on six months down the track after we’re in the home. So we didn’t have to have that capital upfront because we were quite stretched financially in this build, yeah.

Paul:

Yeah. So I guess in this stage we haven’t thought too much about what that solar might look like. So how many panels we get etc. That’s probably another Eco Chat podcast in a time.

Laura:

I think there might be a couple in that one for sure!

Paul:

We spoke obviously about having a garden, so yes that’s another thing that we will get on to at some stage.

Laura:

I guess August or September really is optimum planting time, which is this weekend really, but this next month is probably the best time to be planting a summer garden, but I’m not sure whether we’re get it in before this summer.

Paul:

I think we can wait a bit longer. We can plant later in the season here in Adelaide than where we were living in Roxby Downs, but yeah, I’m not sure how we’ll go this year with a garden. We’ll see how we go.

What have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve personally learned while building a sustainable home?

Paul:

I think most of the lessons don’t necessarily relate to specifically to building a sustainable home, just a home in general.

You need to do your research to decide exactly it is what is you want and where you want to spend your money. Because in general people don’t have an infinite budget. It’s nice to be able to find things out yourself, but it’s also good to have asked for help from people who know  what they’re doing, even if means spending a bit more money upfront to get that help. I guess you need to try and take the long term view and once you’ve built your house there’s lots of things that you can’t change. So it’s worth trying to do it properly, or what’s properly for you, at the start, from the start.

Laura:

Have you got an example of where we did that for this build?

Paul:

Where we achieved that?

Laura:

Yeah, where we got good advice and you think we made a good decision because of that. Or have you got an example of where we didn’t seek advice and made a mistake because we didn’t?

Paul:

Oh there’s probably multiple. I engaged the sustainability assessment, or energy assessment, I think it’s called actually. I’m not even sure how I came across this woman but I ended up dealing with her and I … Normally what these people do is they probably work for builders and it’s their job to, once the house has been designed, to put the various aspects of the house into their models to discover how many stars the energy efficiency of the house is and you have to get at least six I think in South Australia when you’re building a new house.

But I used them in a different way and I said I want to make it better than that. If I did this, then what would the rating be? And we went back and forth at a bit, adding things on, taking things off. And they also gave me advice about where the best place to focus on was.

I remember one of the things she said was, there’s no point going crazy with insulation in your walls and having single glazed windows. You’re better off using a little bit less insulation in your walls and getting double glazed windows, because otherwise you’re going to start losing all your heat through single glazed windows with metal frames. So that was one place I guess where we asked for advice to help us out in the build.

It’s nice to think that once the builder has the plan then you can just leave them to it and then they’ll just go ahead and build it exactly as you want. The reality is that you need to keep an eye on things regularly because, this is not necessarily because builders are doing the wrong thing or trying to take shortcuts, but builders have got multiple projects on the go and heaps of tradespeople and often something that comes out of the builder’s mouth between that and going into a trades person’s ear it changes somehow. And so there could be misunderstandings and whatever, so you need to try and avert mistakes before they happen. And if they do happen, get onto them straight away.

Laura:

And make sure everything’s in writing when you do get on to them.

Paul:

Make sure … Well make sure, I think the biggest thing is there was a gap between our expectations and what the builder thought they were supposed to deliver. Now maybe our expectations were too high in some cases, or whatever it was without making any judgment about why that is, you need to try and make sure your expectations and the builder’s expectations are aligned so it’s clear to them what you want and therefore they can give it to you.

But things are going to go wrong along the way, or there might be compromises. There might be something that you wanted and when it comes to do it, for some reason it can’t be done or it’s not practical or whatever. So if you’re constantly engaging with your builder and have a good relationship with them, then that makes things a lot easier. So in our case we weren’t living close by in Adelaide for the first six months of the build, which is probably the best six months to be away because they were just basically building the frame and whatever but in the last few weeks I was catching up with the supervisor every week and asking questions. And more often than not, they’d say oh yeah, we haven’t done that at all. This is like this because of this and it was okay.

And it’s important to have that good communication between you and the builder because there are times where I wasn’t feeling I was getting it and when that happens you can start thinking why is this happening, oh no they’re gonna do this, it’s gonna be wrong, blah, blah, blah. When perhaps everything was okay, sometimes you can make things up in your head as well. But if everyone understands each other and is talking a lot then it makes things a lot smoother.

Laura:

And I guess there was that example where something did go our way too. We looked at the house and we were … You know the frame and the walls had gone up, maybe even the roof was on. And we were in the living room and we’re thinking actually this is a lot darker than we thought. And at that time we had noticed that in our upstairs room of our house the builders had installed an incorrect sized window. Too large a window had been put in and it needed to be a much smaller window that the council had approved, so we couldn’t look into our neighbours back yard and watch them skinny dipping in their pool.

But basically we were there and we caught it and the builder said, all right that’s the wrong window, we’ll change it out. And we thought oh that’s actually a spare window. Can we put it in this extra wall downstairs to make our living room have a bit more natural light? And again because of the good communication we had with the builder and they were flexible, at that stage they were able to do that. So that was probably an example where we did pick up something and was changed for the better.

But there was, obviously, a lot of example where we picked up mistakes as well. But we were still able to get them changed because we picked them up.

If you had the chance to go through this process again, what would you do differently?

Paul:

I’d try to find a house that was already built that I liked! I’d probably think differently once I’ve forgotten about this build. No, I think we wasted a bit of time at the start by going through a drafter. Our plan was to go to a drafter, design the house, and then shop around for builders because we thought that would result in a better outcome for us financially. It was that point where we came across a building broker, which is basically someone who can help you choose a builder. Because we really didn’t have any idea about how we were going to choose our builder.

Laura:

Yeah, we were flying blind.

Paul:

So, I think in hindsight, I see the value in going to a building broker from the start. Once we’d chosen the builder, there were some issues with the design that the drafter had done for us. The builder had to basically redesign the upstairs, which cost us some time and some money.

I think if we went through that process we would’ve maybe ended up with a better design. I think our design is quite good, but maybe … Because we sort of got stuck with keeping what the drafter had designed for us downstairs, which was still okay, but I often wonder if we’d gone with the building broker from the start how would it have been … what would it look like? Would it be different? Would it be better? So I think the chances are it probably would’ve been, but we didn’t really want to go back to the start at that point.

Laura:    Yeah, we’d already lost six months

Paul:      Yeah.

Laura:    And then we had council approval.

Paul:      Yeah.

Laura:    And then we had to change it and go back for council approval again.

Paul:

Yeah. So especially when you’re trying to build the sort of house which isn’t the typical one, not to say that ours is really radical, but it’s not your typical brick veneer home. So I think using a building broker to choose the right builder and maybe that builder being more … might have ended up being more of an architect type builder. Who knows what we would’ve ended up with.

But anyway, that’s okay. No point dwelling on that too much. We still ended up with a nice house. So I guess that’s probably the main thing. I might have started out a little bit differently.

Laura:

Yeah, well thanks for sharing. Well that’s pretty much it, unless you’ve got anything else that you’d like to recommend to our listeners today who are keen to build their own sustainable home in the suburbs? Any tips on where they can start that we haven’t already mentioned?

Paul:

Yeah, I think it’s worth trying to find someone who specializes and shares your interest in building a sustainable home from the start. I don’t think going to one of the volume builders and trying to get them to change what they normally do is really going to work. I guess that’s sort of how we started out, even before we went to the drafter, we had sort of a large builder who … they’re not going to be very flexible. Because the way they keep their cost down is to basically build every house in a similar way. So yeah, I guess if there’s anyone you know who’s built a house, a particularly sustainable house, ask them for advice. It’s always good to talk to people who’ve done it before.

I think brokers are a good resource. Go to them and say I want to build, and they will ask you what sort of house you want to build, and if you go to one or two or three of those and each of them recommend two or three builders that they work with to help you, well then you’re going to have plenty of choice of who to go with.

But, yeah I think trying to choose a builder early on is probably good because I think you’d probably get through the process faster than doing it the way we did it. Yeah, I dunno. What do you think, Laura? Do you have any recommendations?

Laura:

No I think you’ve really covered everything, Paul.

So you’ve shared some great tips today and obviously great learnings as well. I guess flexibility comes to mind though. Everyone tells you that builds are going to take longer than you estimate. A builder will say yeah it will be nine months from when we pour the slab and things like that. And I guess in our heads we had “No, that’s not going to be for us. They’re going to deliver on time and everything’s going to be fine.” And we’d already decided we’d draw the line in the sand, we’re moving from Roxby to Adelaide on this date and then we had a short term rental. But that short term rental ended up turning in to six months. And then all of a sudden we’re looking at ourselves thinking how did this happen? How did it blow out? And the build ended up going four months over schedule.

But yeah, just being flexible and having that communication with the builder and inspecting every stage throughout the build and fixing up any mistakes that come up along the way. And I’d love to say have heaps of savings because at that time, you know, it puts a lot of financial pressure which definitely happened to us as well. A lot of pressure and we had to magic up money in different ways when our budget blew out. But at the end of the day we’re here. We’ve survived. And yeah looking forward to making our house a home.

So, thanks again, Paul, for coming on Eco Chat and sharing your learnings and perspective of building our sustainable home in the suburbs. I really appreciate you chatting to our followers today.

Paul:      No problem, Laura. It was my pleasure.

Laura:

So there you have it. I hope you found this discussion on building a sustainable home in the suburbs and what to look out for in the construction in the selection phase handy. Whether you’re building your own sustainable home now or potentially in the future, hopefully there’s heaps of food for thought for you there to help make the process a lot more easier, stress free, and I more sustainable for you and your family.

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Building a Sustainable Home in the Suburbs Part 1: Planning and Design

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Have you built or are you in the process of building a sustainable home? What features did you choose? What were your biggest lessons along the way? Share below!

Laura

Laura

Laura Trotta is one of Australia’s leading home sustainability experts. Fusing her professional expertise as an environmental engineer with the down-to-earth pragmatism that comes from being a busy mum, Laura is an eco thought leader who’s not afraid to challenge the status quo.
Laura

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