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Green Houses (Grapeshot Magazine: Issue 8, Vol. 6, November 2014)

The need to be green has become a controversial and diverse topic in recent years, and often it’s hard to actually see the full picture. The idea of having a green self-sustainable home is seen as being something only rich people can afford, or conversely something that is only suited to the “hippie” lifestyle, living off the grid in Lightning Ridge. As is often the case with these topics, these stereotypes can be very deceiving, and it makes you wonder, is it really so hard to be green?

In recent years, the previous Australian Labor government provided over-generous incentives for people to install green energy technology. Now, the current Abbott government is scaling back incentives and the lack of enthusiasm for green energy in Australia comes not from emissions or environmental concerns, but from cost. While we see the standardised McMansions of the outer suburbs and constant development of new housing units, in amongst them are greenhouses in various shapes and capacities.

The show Grand Designs focuses on people building extra-ordinary homes in which to live; and it is a great place to start to show that being green is not only surprisingly easy, but is actually becoming mainstream. Many home designs in this show place environmental sustainability as being a primary motivator in a building’s design, which has led to the creation of some amazing architectural buildings. An example was the construction of a Brittany Groundhouse in France, which was built using recycled materials like tyres, clay and earth, and even incorporated the use of glass bottles for windows. Not only did this create a beautiful building, but it cost a comparatively cheap price (just under $250,000). When you look at the cost of building a home from scratch today, building a totally environmentally friendly house for that price is a bargain.

The series shows that social perceptions towards greenhouses are shifting. Once being seen as the domain of the hippie who lived in the middle of nowhere, today houses are not only being more eco-friendly, but this eco-friendly trend is feeding into different cultural methods of building houses. Houses are built differently throughout the world based on materials, location and cultural values (such as Switzerland having laws on specific house design, or the construction of traditional homes in Japan). But, despite these differences of climate and economy, houses globally are being built to be more environmentally friendly. From the increasing usage of bamboo in building houses in Asia to volcanic stone as an effective natural insulator; the options and materials available to build these houses have become extremely diverse.

As luck would have it, houses are not the only thing being improved. With all the talk of the excessive prices of alternative power, many other options have arrived, especially in regards to solar power. Technology overseas in regards to solar power has developed enormously. In the United States, solar power is the second fastest growing method of power behind Natural Gas. The Department of Energy plans to have 27 per cent of America’s electricity supplied by solar power by 2050, which is a huge jump from less than 1 per cent currently. There are signs of solar power globally becoming a serious viable option, such as the recent completion of the largest solar thermal plant in the world outside Las Vegas, which provides 377 megawatts of power (enough to power 140,000 homes).

But where is Australia in this movement towards green technology? Unfortunately, behind. For example, Australia’s largest solar farm, located south of Canberra, can only generate 20 megawatts, and considering what a sun-soaked country we are it seems ludicrous to think we wouldn’t be leading the way in some form with solar power.

Progress is certainly being made, in terms of house design itself. The ACT Government is aiming for a renewable energy target of 90 per cent by 2020, which is enormous compared to the national target of 20 per cent. Additionally, laws around housing development have changed too.

Kathy Barnsley is an architect based in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales and says, “People are more focused about the environmental impact of houses. The NSW Government introduced Building Sustainability laws in 2005 that requires that every building maintains a certain level of sustainability. This has created and supported a market for a lot of new green technologies.” These laws don’t just focus on technology like solar power, but on the design of the building including windows and passive solar design, the buildings orientation, or materials used.

These changes enable a building to be more environmentally sustainable, and according to Barnsley “it isn’t about extra money, it’s extra thought. Being smart about the basics of a building’s design. This method of design has brought people’s attention to sustainability, and it has become more mainstream.” There has been a cloud over sustainable laws, like the controversial home-insulation program under the Rudd-Labor Government or the over-generous solar power schemes. Barnsley admitted that Federal governments had made mistakes with management of these programs and been too generous with incentives adding, “these programs need to be affordable for everyone, including the government”.

So the question still remains: is it easy to be green? It may not be seen as being easy now, but it is almost a certainty it will be in the future. Barnsley says that it will take time, as Australia is still behind the rest of the world. “It has to be economically viable, not just with materials and power but with water and other services.” There is no denying that the ball towards a green future is certainly rolling. It is exciting to think that many of these technologies will be more readily accessible to our current generation when we are buying or building our homes. (That is, if we ever have the money to do so – but that is a different story!)

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