Making our homes comfortable without cranking up the aircon

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Trivess Moore, RMIT University; Aimee Ambrose, Sheffield Hallam University; Graeme Sherriff, University of Salford, and Stephen Berry, University of South Australia

Summer in Australia seems to bite harder each year. Adelaide set a record maximum temperature for the nation’s capital cities of 46.6°C last January and there have been extreme heatwaves around Australia. The challenge to remain at a comfortable temperature in our homes is unprecedented.

Early European design influence used shade and ventilation strategies. The wraparound veranda and classical Queenslander are examples that respond to the harsh Australian summer. This design response was typically paired with behaviour such as children playing under the lawn sprinkler or sleeping under the veranda to catch the evening breeze.

The rise of air-conditioning has moved us away from climatically and culturally sensitive ways to deliver comfort during extremes. For many, the press of a button provides superior and controllable comfort. This has led to high energy and energy infrastructure costs, especially when used in peak heatwave periods. It also increases carbon dioxide emissions, which are driving climate change.


Read more: Buildings produce 25 per cent of Australia’s emissions. What will it take to make them ‘green’ – and who’ll pay?


Design for climate
Low-energy and zero-energy homes can reduce energy demand and environmental impact. They can also improve liveability, affordability and the health of occupants.

These homes represent a modern reinterpretation of design for climate, based on the science of energy and materials. Such homes are a marriage of passive solar design, building material characteristics and technologies to reduce energy use and provide energy on site.

In this context, recently published research conducted in South Australia asks: are we unlearning coping strategies used to actively manage our thermal comfort? We interviewed householders of the Lochiel Park green village in Adelaide to explore individuals’ housing histories to understand the changing relationship between the occupant, the building and the resultant energy use.

Lochiel Park was Australia’s first large-scale attempt to create homes that use near net zero energy in a net zero-carbon precinct. The homes are rated a minimum 7.5 NatHERS stars. They have double glazing, ceiling fans, solar water heaters, solar PV, energy-efficient appliances and energy-feedback displays. All of these features were, and remain, well above the requirements of building regulations.


Read more: Getting practical with push for zero-carbon homes

Read more: Sustainable housing’s expensive, right? Not when you look at the whole equation


Solar PV and water heating are standard on Lochiel Park houses, but like many features of low-energy homes are not required by Australian building regulations. University of South Australia, Author provided

The research revealed that occupants had used a wide range of practices to adapt to extremes in their previous houses. They discussed strategies such as sleeping downstairs, in well-vented hallways, or outside under the veranda where it cooled down more quickly at night. Typical behavioural responses included active management of homes such as closing curtains and blinds to shut out the sun, fixing temporary shade-screens or opening the house to gully breezes each evening.

The introduction of the air-conditioner changed buildings and lifestyles. Single-room air-conditioners redefined strategies: instead of sleeping outdoors, residents might drag mattresses into the lounge room. No longer did the local swimming pool look as inviting. As one resident put it: “I’m not going to go outside in the heat to get in the pool.”

External shading or heavy drapes were no longer seen as necessary. Venetian blinds and other lightweight window furnishings became popular. Active operation by opening and closing windows, doors and curtains became less important.

Relearning almost-forgotten strategies
New generations of families grew up in an environment where they did not need to learn those previously essential active coping strategies. The move to a purpose-built low-energy home, designed to include active participation by occupants, has reintroduced some of these almost-forgotten coping strategies.

However, they have been placed in the contemporary context of societal perceptions of public safety. For example, one householder noted:

You’d sleep outside of a night. Do that now, you might not wake up in the morning.


Read more: How safe is Australia? The numbers show public attacks are rare and on the decline


New research on Lochiel Park looked at what households are doing to cope with heatwaves. Stephen Berry, Author provided

For some, the homes held the promise of ‘perfect comfort’ without the need for cooling. The research finds that moving to a ‘low-energy’ home has reduced, rather than eliminated, their active involvement.

Data from monitoring temperature and energy use show that Lochiel Park homes perform significantly better than most other dwellings. The houses are only 7.5 stars out of a 10-star NatHERS scale, however, so their investment has not afforded occupants year-round ‘perfect comfort’ without the need for adaptation or active heating or cooling.

Tracing the housing histories of residents has revealed an ongoing dynamic of coping with extremes and trying to create a comfortable indoor environment. Comfort has been transformed from being mostly an achievement of the householder to an outcome of technology and, more recently, to an attribute that occupants expect their building to provide.

It remains to be seen if and when net-zero-energy homes will replace the current housing stock. What is clear is that even in high-performance housing residents still have a role in creating a comfortable temperature and coping with extremes of climate.

A key concern is the high risk that ‘unlearning’ traditional comfort practices increases our vulnerability and reduces adaptive capacity to heatwaves. As we saw last January with rolling blackouts hitting more than 200,000 homes in Victoria, relying on air-conditioning creates challenges for our energy networks during extreme weather. The impact on emissions makes this reliance doubly problematic.The Conversation

Trivess Moore, Lecturer, RMIT University; Aimee Ambrose, Reader in Energy Policy, Sheffield Hallam University; Graeme Sherriff, Research Fellow in Urban Studies, University of Salford, and Stephen Berry, Research fellow, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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7 Comments

Total Comments: 7
  1. 0
    0

    Stopping cutting down acres of trees to build housing estates would help as well.

  2. 0
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    Sadly Australian homes are NOT built to cope with hot summers and cold winters. Homes should have verandahs like they did many years ago. Outside blinds and block out curtains inside make a huge difference to the temperature inside on a hot day. I have air conditioning but very rarely turn it on. I also have security screens on all my doors and windows so at night I can sleep with the hole house ‘open’ which helps the house to cool down dramatically. It also keeps my electricity/gas bills very low. I feel sorry for people living in apartments. A lot of buildings (hospitals etc.), have windows that do not open, hence the necessity to have air conditioning – not good.

  3. 0
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    We own a 1880 built Queenslander in Bundaberg. It has large rooms with fifteen foot ceilings, wide verandahs all round, a dark central hallway, good air flow under it, trees around it. It is the most comfortable house we have lived in. Yet people in town are going towards the smaller brick homes that invite the sun in, then of course they need to have air con.
    We installed PV panels when we got here six months back – so we didn’t get a great feed in tariff. but we use our high current devices (dishwasher, washing machine, water heating, oven) during the day when possible, each electricity bill comes in a small amount in credit!
    On super hot days if we want to stay cool at bedtime, after our shower we lay on the bed with a floor standing fan on a timer, so we can go to sleep with it left on. I brought some old heavy linen sheets back from France, they are the best fabric to sleep on and under. All old fashioned things but they work well.

  4. 0
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    The best houses are those with wide verandahs that go all the way round the houses.
    Thick walls (certainly not brick veneer, rendered building material or besser brick) with insulation (not the silver foil stuff as it perishes and goes black) in the walls and roof. Timber floors which are above the concrete slab tend not to be as cold as the normal carpet as It is attached to the concrete slab. Outdoor blinds at the outer edge of the verandah shelter verandah base as well as the windows otherwise the verandah “floor” radiates heat to the house walls. Indoors block out blinds and curtains block some heat in Summer and cold in Winter. Unfortunately my back wall is in the Sun all day so part of my unit does get hot during heatwaves.

  5. 0
    0

    The best houses are those with wide verandahs that go all the way round the houses.
    Thick walls (certainly not brick veneer, rendered building material or besser brick) with insulation (not the silver foil stuff as it perishes and goes black) in the walls and roof. Timber floors which are above the concrete slab tend not to be as cold as the normal carpet as It is attached to the concrete slab. Outdoor blinds at the outer edge of the verandah shelter verandah base as well as the windows otherwise the verandah “floor” radiates heat to the house walls. Indoors block out blinds and curtains block some heat in Summer and cold in Winter. Unfortunately my back wall is in the Sun all day so part of my unit does get hot during heatwaves.

  6. 0
    0

    In WA good insulation, window tinting and roller shutters are vital. At this moment in Jane Brook near Perth at 4:25 pm the temperature is 35 degrees. Inside our living area it is 24 degrees. We have NOT had the AC on for a couple of days. We keep all windows and doors closed with roller shutters closed on the north side. So plenty of light east and south because window tinting looks after that. If it had hit 40 degrees by noon we would have the AC on. But not today and it is very comfortable. We will open doors and windows about 6pm and enjoy the sea breeze. With solar panels in action our last 2 monthly power account was $24.00. It is NOT ROCKET SCIENCE. Our neigbours have their AC on 24/7 and wonder why their power account is over $750.00. Deeerrrr !

  7. 0
    0

    Stop concreting all your gardens – plant more grass and trees. Trees close to the house provide shade.
    Use heavy thermal curtains ALL year round – keeps heat out in summer and in during the winter months.
    Use fans instead of air con. it has been proven they are cheaper and more environmentally friendly to run.
    We get the sun through our dining room window in the summer so this year will be getting new outdoor blinds to hang on the verandah.


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