A sustainable eco-home with vertical gardens and an urban rooftop farm is a nice ideal, but for most Australians the simple goal of a ‘healthy home’ is more achievable.
Already commonplace throughout Europe, ‘healthy homes’ protect us from the elements, don’t make us sick, and are available not only to the rich but also to renters, low-income earners and social housing dwellers.
University of Adelaide researcher Dr Lyrian Daniel is part of a movement of housing experts trying to shift Australia’s focus from expensive, high-performance eco-homes to affordable, accessible healthy homes.
Australia’s building regulations for new homes focus on energy efficiency, but ignore basic questions of how living environments affect our health and welfare, Dr Daniel says.
“When it comes to eco-homes or high-performance housing, we’re not acknowledging the reality of the situation where that’s not accessible to the majority of Australians,” she says.
“Having a low environmental impact is a really important goal, but it doesn’t speak to the reality of day-to-day Australia.”
While renewable energy is increasingly popular among Australian owner-occupiers, with rooftop solar power achieving record levels of uptake in 2017, many Australians don’t yet have the luxury of choosing a home based on its energy efficiency.
“If you’re looking to buy a new home or move into a rental, energy performance is not top priority, it’s probably finding a home that’s a reasonable commute from work, close to schools, and is in reasonable physical condition,” Dr Daniel says.
“Because of how expensive housing has become [in Australia] people have even less of a choice, so those performance issues, people aren’t even getting to them.”
While eco-homes are mostly new builds underpinned by an environmental objective, healthy homes can also be created by “retro-fitting” existing houses in various simple and inexpensive ways.
With a third of Australians now renting, and many parts of the country experiencing housing affordability issues, retro-fitting homes is crucial to raising living standards.
Retro-fitting involves making affordable and often do-it-yourself modifications to a home, which can improve liveability as well as reducing energy costs.
“New homes make up a tiny proportion of building stock every year, yet we’ve got this vast existing housing stock that’s pretty crappy. That’s why we have to look at retrofitting,” Dr Daniel says.
“Let’s get everyone into good homes first.”