Every week, new eco-sensitive products and technologies hit the market. State governments and the Federal Government have mandated five-star energy ratings for new houses and apartments and the rating is set to be raised to six stars nationally by 2012. Hot-water systems and lighting must be energy efficient. Showers must be water efficient. House frames must be sourced from renewable forests. Builders must recycle their waste.
Sustainability is no longer trendy, it's ubiquitous. The housing industry itself promotes GreenSmart homes with training and display villages. Major suppliers and project-home builders boast of their environmental credentials, whether justified or not. Architects and planners talk of little else.
"The growth of the eco-friendly building products industry has been explosive," says Sydney architect Adam Pearson, whose mission is to use the latest techniques for his buildings so they don't become redundant early in their life cycle. "What was once seen as a pioneering field inhabited by eccentric tree-huggers has now become almost mainstream. There are many incredible new products - such as re-useable citrus-based paint stripper, which doesn't burn your skin. And it works," he says.
A side effect of the increasing popularity of eco-building products is that some products are getting stamps and approvals they appear not to deserve, says Pearson. "Information about eco-friendly building is readily available; the challenge is there is so much of it to wade through."
Sustainability principles are not confined to new construction. They are just as relevant in renovating an existing home, whether it be new flooring, windows, lighting, insulation or giving the exterior a complete makeover.
Treading carefully Cork flooring is back. A renewable resource, it is an eco-friendly product - the cork tree will die if the bark is not harvested regularly. Modern cork from companies such as Premium Floors is available in a range of patterns and colours as well as the natural look. It is comfortable to walk on, easy to clean, durable and insulates against noise and temperature. It is a fire inhibitor that is insect resistant and non-toxic.
Bamboo is another renewable surface. It can be harvested every five to seven years, compared to trees that grow for 15 to 100 years before they can be harvested. It's easily cleaned, durable and resistant to water, fire, insects and rot.
Windows Much of the energy loss from a home is through windows, but specifying new types of glass can improve a home's overall energy rating by as much as 2.5 stars. Low-e glass is glass coated with a thin, reflective-metallic coating that cuts the transmission of heat and UV radiation. Some types of low-e glass, such as Viridian's ComfortPlus, do the same job as double glazing at less cost. Double glazing using low-e glass will perform even better. Laminated low-e glass also insulates against noise.
If you really want double glazing as part of a renovation but baulk at the cost of ripping out your existing timber windows and doors, a company called EcoMaster has a system to convert existing windows to double glazed by fitting an extra pane. Another solution to keeping out the summer heat is to use a scratch-resistant window film such as that developed by EnviroTint and other companies that provide film shades.
Lighting Building codes around the country now require a significant percentage of domestic light fittings to be fluorescent or LED to reduce energy consumption. LED lights consume a fraction of the energy of halogen lights. They have become more affordable and their tiny dimensions have given architects and builders plenty of new design opportunities. Because you never have to change a light bulb (well, maybe every 25 years) LED downlights can be installed in difficult-to-access spots, such as very high or pitched ceilings, and pretty much forgotten. Some models do not require a transformer, which makes them even easier to install in tight spots.
Lighting manufacturer Flos and other lighting companies are using the added flexibility of LED technology to design elegant new wall, ceiling and table fittings. The new LED MiniStar from Hotbeam, for example, is just 12mm high and can be used in shelving, kitchen lighting, cupboards and under cabinets. SolarCity Solar Lights has developed a solar-powered LED landscape uplight.
Bricks and mortar Making bricks is an energy-intensive business, but using recycled bricks can cut greenhouse gases by 86 per cent. Ecobricks recycles 100 per cent of bricks salvaged from demolition sites. Its recycled bricks are cheaper, have more character and can solve the issue of matching existing brickwork. Colour-matched bricks can be just the ticket for a period-style home or heritage restoration. The 'builder's brick' for rendering is about half the price of a new brick.
InsulationInsulation comes in batts, boards and loose fill and now it can be sprayed on. According to distributors, Planet Green Solutions, a single application of wet-spray cellulose insulation delivers thermal and acoustic insulation, and can be applied to almost any surface including under-floor, ceilings and pipes. It provides a no-gaps finish that is difficult to achieve with traditional batts and costs about the same. Made from recycled paper pulp, it contains less embodied energy than many of its competitors
Cool exteriorMany new homes are built with a rendered brick finish, but it is pricey. Foundations must be poured, bricks laid, render applied and then painted. Blue board is a popular alternative, but requires a thick acrylic render and there can be jointing issues.
James Hardie's new Scyon cladding is a simpler, cheaper way of achieving a rendered look. Its environmental credentials include an R-value of 2.8 when installed under approved guidelines. (The R-value is a measure of thermal resistance. The higher the value, the better the quality of insulation: for example, a brick wall has an R-value of less than 1, while roof batts have an R-value of 3.5).
Scyon is a thick but lightweight cement composite that creates a deeper, more solid shadow line. It comes in different profiles and sizes Axon, Stria and Linea and Matrix are product names within the Scyon range - and panels are pre-primed for finishing with standard paints. Scyon Matrix panels are fixed 10mm apart with nails or screws using a special trim batten behind the gaps for weatherproofing. The Scyon Axon is a vertically-grooved panel, the Stria board has a 15mm horizontal joint and the Linea looks like weatherboard.
If you are renovating an old timber or fibro dwelling and are wedded to the idea of a brick house, there is a cheaper and environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional bricks. The Ancient Stone Series cladding block from Timbercrete comes in a stone or bevelled-limestone look. It is 35mm wide and can be glued to Hardiflex, blue board, concrete blocks or bricks or screwed onto steel sheeting.
Timbercrete is a masonry product made from sawdust, cellulose, cement and sand and can be moulded into bricks, blocks, panels or pavers. It is lightweight and captures carbon gas. It takes less energy to produce that normal bricks, is a better insulator, has a high fire rating and can be nailed or screwed like timber.
Another product made from sawdust combined with recycled plastic, is synthetic-timber decking such as ModWood. Unlike timber, it will last without constant maintenance in an exposed outdoor location.
Power houseIf you want to be the first on the block with the very latest in eco-technology look out for the fuel-cell powered BlueGen mini power station. About the size of a dishwasher, it can produce twice the power needed for the average home for a year and enough heat to supply the hot water. The technology was developed by the CSIRO and manufacture is now underway in Germany.
Currently these low-carbon-emission units cost tens of thousands of dollars but with volume production planned locally this should come down to about $10,000. And, you can then sell excess power into the electricity grid.