We were greatly honoured last night to receive a Green Globe Award from the NSW Government. Now in their 16th year, the Green Globes are awarded for ‘Excellence in Sustainability’ in sixteen different categories. This year was the first time they included a ‘Residential Projects’ category and we were lucky enough to win it for the Greeny Flat.
In Good Company
This year’s award winners included the Sydney Opera House (for their social sustainability efforts), Sydney City Council (for their Zero Waste Program), Unilever Australia (who succeeded in recycling 100% of their non-hazardous waste last year) and Austral Bricks (for their research into using landfill gas and other waste products in their brickmaking process). There were four winners in our region including the Greeny Flat, Repower Shoalhaven (for their community energy program), the University of Wollongong (for long-term sustainability efforts) and Stocklands Shellharbour (for the largest rooftop solar array in Australia).
While it was very gratifying and humbling to be recognised in such lofty company, we did not enter the awards because we wanted recognition for what we have achieved. We entered because we are excited about what we might be able to achieve. I have to say that the encouragement we received during the gathering after the award ceremony gives me hope that great things are possible.
It’s a good thing they didn’t allow acceptance speeches last night because I might have given the whole audience a bit of an ear-bashing. I might have said that, while we’re here congratulating ourselves on how clever and good we are, there are serious problems with Australia’s energy policy, building regulations and development planning. Study after study has shown that we are among the worst polluters in the world, that we have some of the worst traffic congestion, that we are building the biggest (and among the most unaffordable and unsustainable) homes in the world, etc, etc. We are squandering our resources, our economic prosperity and our children’s future. Why? We have a country blessed with natural resources and abundant sunshine, wind and ocean energy. We could be leading the world in resource and energy conservation and renewable energy development. Instead we’re leading the world in consumption and environmental degradation.
To me, this demonstrates a complete failure at all levels of government, community and business leadership. Yes, there are many good people doing good things (as evidenced by the awards last night) but we are not doing enough and we are falling further and further behind the rest of the world.
The Greeny Flat is nothing special. The only innovative or revolutionary thing about the it is that we just did it. We simply wanted to show that it is relatively easy and affordable to build an energy positive, water-conserving, low-maintenance, fire-resistant, elderly-friendly, comfortable, healthy and sustainable home. There is no reason why every new home in Australia couldn’t be built to a similar standard. Instead of building the largest homes in the world we could be building somewhat smaller homes that are among the most energy and water efficient. It would cost no more in the short-term and it would lead to huge savings over the long-run. It also wouldn’t cost jobs or lead to economic disaster, it would simply shift more jobs into energy conservation and renewables and it would lead to research, development and innovation in new technologies, materials and systems that could open up global markets for Australian ingenuity and industry.
Michael Mobbs (of ‘The Sustainable House’ fame) tells me we should be focussing on retrofitting the existing building stock, but I disagree. I think we have to fix the new houses first otherwise we’ll have to go back and retrofit them in ten years or so. The current standards for houses in Australia in terms of resource and energy conservation are absolutely appalling. It is a national disgrace that we are allowing the sort of homes that are sprouting up by the thousands in places like Oran Park and Shell Cove. They’re held up as the ‘Australian Dream’ but these are global energy and environmental nightmares. Families are lured into unprecedented levels of debt to build homes that will cost them a fortune to run in a future that will inevitably include some sort of price on carbon emissions. We have to fix the homes we’re building today so that they don’t become an overwhelming problem tomorrow. Once we get the new homes right we can afford to focus on bringing the old ones up to speed, meanwhile they’re not going anywhere.
I was asked a question last night about how we can encourage developers and project home builders to voluntarily lift their game. Unfortunately I don’t think they will. We’re in a housing boom and they are selling their crappy products as fast as they can and making money hand over foot. What possible incentive is there for them to change anything? I think change will have to be forced on them with a carrot and a stick.
Which Comes First, the Supply or the Demand?
The carrot would be cultivated by fostering demand for energy and water conserving buildings (all of this applies to commercial buildings as much as to homes). Right now, if you ask a project home builder why they don’t offer a truly energy efficient option, they will tell you that nobody wants it, nobody asks for it… there’s no demand. Why is there no demand? I think it’s because most people have no idea of what’s possible. Which is why we built the Greeny Flat, but we need hundreds of affordable, energy positive, adaptable examples for people to get to know what their options are. Currently people go to Display Villages where they see fifty shades of grey versions of the same McMansion rubbish. To counter that we need a series of Eco-home display villages (along the lines of this concept I presented in a previous Newsletter) where they can see fifty types of sustainable alternatives. Currently, people watch shows like ‘The Block’ and ‘Grand Designs’ and develop grandiose ideas of what they need in their homes. I’d like to make a TV show called ‘Green Designs’ that focusses on the benefits of small, simple, practical, affordable, sustainable solutions. In short we could encourage change by fostering demand. If customers were fronting up to the big builders and demanding better homes the builders would be forced to supply them.
The stick, of course, would be regulatory. There is no reason why every new home in Australia couldn’t be energy positive. If that were mandated it would force designers, builders and buyers to look towards smaller and much more sensible housing options. The UK was on track to a mandate that required all new homes to be carbon-neutral by 2016. Unfortunately that recently got derailed but, if they could even consider it in cold and gloomy England, it ought to be relatively easy to achieve in warm and sunny Oz. Some people favour incremental change through systems like BASIX but, as I also wrote about in a previous Newsletter, BASIX is a JOKE! and I don’t think incremental change is working. When I left Australia in 1992 to go and live in Montana I thought Australia was way ahead of the US in terms of building sustainability. When I returned twenty years later I was shocked to find that we had fallen way behind compared to the US, and compared to countries like Germany we had been lapped a dozen times. Incremental change is not going to get us caught up because the rest of the world continue to make big improvements ahead of us. We need a huge jump in standards or we’ll be left behind completely, struggling to fix the broken results of failed policies…..
As I said, it’s a good thing they didn’t hand me a microphone last night although it would have given me a nice opportunity to acknowledge that the Greeny Flat has been a team effort and would not be possible without a great deal of help from my parents (Jane and Martin), my brother (George) and my lovely partner (Cintia). Thank you.