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How to weatherproof your home for all seasons

Despite the internationally perpetuated urban myth that Australia is sunny and warm all year round, poor designs of the past mean we are far less prepared for our natural conditions than we should be. Whether you’re renting, buying or retrofitting your existing home, putting some thought into how your living environment copes with temperature extremes will quickly pay off.

Warming solutions for winter

A winter-proofing plan should consider three key factors: how you live in your house, the size and tools you need to heat it more effectively within your budget and the obvious delight of staying warm.

Zoning will help to link your daily habits to your heating plan. If the spare room is used only on the odd occasion, that “zone” becomes a lower heating priority. If all your time at Home is spent in a combined kitchen/living area, focus on heating just this zone to combat power bills and cut wasted emissions.

A radiant heater heats people and objects through a direct hit of heat and will work well in a draughty room where warm convective air can easily slip away.

Your heating plan should incorporate the right-sized tools as well as the right type of heating devices for the job. Investing in heaters offers two options: radiant or convective. A radiant heater heats people and objects through a direct hit of heat and will work well in a draughty room where warm convective air can easily slip away. It also suits a bathroom. A gas heater will produce only about one-third of the greenhouse emissions as a standard electric heater.

The price of getting gas connected depends entirely on whether there is an existing line to your house. However, it’s an investment with the immediate pay-off of lower energy bills. Convective heaters, which warm the air and circulate it throughout a room, work well in a small space. It sounds obvious, but make sure you turn the heater off when you leave the room.

There’s nothing like a few goals to keep you motivated through a change in habits. Programs such as 1 Million Women (1millionwomen.com.au) offer tools to help you count the cost of your actions in dollars, emissions or both. The savings soon add up: zoning can save a typical three-person home around $60 a year and 3000kg of carbon pollution. Switching to green power (greenpower.gov.au) is the easiest way to save on greenhouse emissions.

Thermal mass
Builders, architects and designers utilise principles of thermal mass to capture valuable and free winter sunlight. Thermally dense features (eg polished concrete flooring or masonry around a fireplace) will absorb sunlight during the day and release heat naturally from the concrete in the evening.

Ceiling insulation may reduce heat loss by 35 per cent. According to the Federal Government’s Cool It brochure, uninsulated walls account for a further 15–25 per cent loss, which increases if there is no underfloor insulation. Curtains are obvious insulators and as many renovators upgrade simply for looks, you can often pick up second-hand curtain bargains. Thick curtains insulate most effectively when a pelmet is attached above. Opening the curtains during the day to let sun in and closing them as soon as the temperatures cool in the evening will keep the valuable free warmth inside.

Don’t forget to add layers: throwing on an extra jumper or a blanket while watching TV can eliminate the need to crank up the heater.

Rugs and carpets are also great insulators and renters and cash-strapped retrofitters alike should be able to find something on a tiny budget by looking online at sites such as gumtree.com.au. While you’re covering up, don’t forget the walls, especially those that are south facing. Large woollen hangings can help reduce heat loss in winter, so perhaps those 1970s macramé devotees knew more than we realised!

Double glazing
While not cheap, double glazing cuts down noise, reduces heat loss in winter and, of course, heat gain in summer. You may not know but windows have their own energy-rating scheme (wers.net). If you’re renting or your budget won’t stretch as far as double glazing, check out the more temporary but effective measures such as ClearComfort window membranes.

Mind the gap
Sealing any gaps to keep your highly valued heat in is crucial. In the book Making Your Home Sustainable, ACT’s retrofitter Derek Wrigley relies on an incense stick to detect the gaps around doors, windows, bands, chimneys, exhaust fans, skirtings and wooden floors.

Those feeling too lazy to add sealing strips, paper or plastic film over draughty spots should certainly heed Wrigley’s advice: “Every leak of expensively warmed air to the outside is lost money and every leak of cold air into the room has to be heated again. So every air movement — in or out — is a heat loss!”

Layer up
Too often we aim to heat or cool our home while failing to also dress appropriately for the season. Don’t forget to add layers: throwing on an extra jumper or a blanket while watching TV can eliminate the need to crank up the heater.

Orient yourself
If you’re building, make sure your builder uses passive solar principles to ensure the “zones” you’ll most use in winter are the ones that capture the winter sun.

Smart design
One of the joys of the evolution of sustainability is the plethora of “smart” designs now on the market to help you become warmer and greener simultaneously.

Solar air heaters such as those produced by www.smartroof.com.au will push solar-heated air from your ceiling space back down into living areas to help you stay toasty warm, while there’s a range of ethanol fireplaces (ecosmartfire.com or bluboxfireplaces.com.au) that run on methylated spirits, a renewable energy that burns clean and is readily available.

Hot air rises
Some of the simplest heating options have been around for decades, such as the trusty ceiling fan. Simple to install, cheap to buy and eco-friendly, a ceiling fan will heat by simply pushing the hot air back down from the ceiling. Keep it on low and turn it on only when you need it.

The Australian Consumers Association also provides a useful heating calculator on its website: choice.com.au

Breezing through summer

Innovations such as heat-reflective paints and geothermal and solar technologies on top of age-old commonsense make keeping your home cool easier and cheaper than ever. A good designer will likely suggest breakfast rooms face east, living rooms look north and to avoid windows facing west. Of course, the more you can be specific about your living habits, the better solutions they’ll be able to find.

The design of your home should make good use of any north-facing positions for rooms used in winter.

If there’s an architectural holy grail, aspect is surely it. The design of your home should make good use of any north-facing positions for rooms used in winter — they’ll soon turn into your favourite spaces for soaking up the winter sun.

It’s not always simple, though, as you’ll also need to work out how to escape the same aspect’s tendency to become scorching in mid-summer, but as builder–designer Peter Reefman from Energised Homes learned, there is plenty of potential to make an impact if you cover all the bases.

Reefman’s current carbon-zero home features 8.1 stars and is entirely eco-cooled. “This has been a work in progress across about seven houses over 15 years,” he says, admitting he has lived in some very average-performing homes along the way.

Visitors to Reefman’s Victorian home at 8 Aquarius Court (it’s open regularly to the public, including on Sustainable House Day) are impressed by the results, which come in part due to the building’s natural convection system that sees hot air cooled along its journey over a concrete slab before being sucked out of the house through a cooling tower. The real success is Reefman’s holistic approach: cross-ventilation, shading and insulation all play their part. “In real-world performance, the hottest day the house has experienced so far was when it was 40.7°C outside. The inside temperature maxed out at 26.5°C without any artificial help — not even a fan,” says Reefman.

Eco-friendly cooling (and, for that matter, heating) works best when occupants embrace “active living” in their Home, which really amounts to using commonsense.

Most of us are still all too eager to crank up the air conditioning on a hot day. Air-conditioning works by dragging hot air across refrigerant coils to make the user more comfortable. The catch is that the system has to work hard to get the temperatures down, making it especially inefficient on hotter days, so try a ceiling fan first. At current rates it will save you about $115 a year off your energy bill versus air-conditioning. www.savepower.nsw.gov.au

Geothermal systems work by exchanging heat with the earth, where temperatures are just 12–15°C. The result is more efficient cooling (and heating). However, although systems such as Direct Energy’s EarthLinked are starting to make their way into homes, it’s still a pricey business: expect to pay $10,000–$15,000 more than for a conventional heating or cooling system, in large part thanks to the underground drilling required to get it up and running.

Any renovations should take into account how to harness the joys of cross-ventilation. Your goal will be to align windows and doors across from one another at opposite ends of a room or hallway to give cool breezes free access through your home.

Even moving a window or doorway a few centimetres can make a big difference to how good your cross-ventilation is, so make sure you talk to your architect or builder about any possibilities for unfettered airflow where it’s needed.

Plants and shade
When cooling your home, it’s a mistake to be focused purely on what’s happening inside. Plants will capture heat nicely before it hits your house, so make sure you allow a landscaping budget as part of the first phase of any renovating efforts. Deciduous plants on any pergolas allow the winter sun to filter through in the cooler months. Blinds are an asset for cooling in summer. Any blinds or awnings should be adjustable so they’re useful year-round.

In the Byron Bay hinterland, renovator Jen Djula looked closely at the possibilities outside her home in order to keep her small worker’s cottage sustainably cooled.

“We intentionally chose not to have windows or large openings on the western side of the house. Instead, we planted out the western border of our property with beautiful native rainforest trees. We also rely on big established native trees that surround our house to provide us with large amounts of shade and keep the house cool,” she says.

Choose the right paint
We tend to forget that lighter coloured paint produces less heat but nowadays reflective paint is on offer. According to Barry Battiscombe from Astec Paints, the secret to the company’s Energy Star paint is in the tiny ceramic balls mixed into the product. “Paint it onto the roof and walls and you’ll block up to 90 per cent of solar radiation from entering your home,” he says.

“We also painted the house a light colour and built a large deck outside. It’s protected from the west and shaded by an enormous tree. Inside, the kitchen is along the western wall, so we’ve insulated it even further from the heat by using a bank of storage cupboards along part of that wall,” says Djula.

New technologies also offer the chance to turn your roof into a weapon against the heat, as a Victorian country club discovered when they installed the smartbreeze units on roofs in their new home development. Solar-powered fans operating as set-and-forget systems have made a significant difference at Kithbrooke Park.

“You can feel the air movement quite specifically in certain conditions.  Our poor fans were running flat out during February last year, in the most extreme bushfire season ever experienced in Victoria, but we deliberately set the units on solar only and were able to maintain homes to an internal temperature of mid-20s, despite the mid-40s temperature outside,” says Kithbrooke Park Project Manager, Rina Neustroski.

Step outside the box
Finally, don’t be afraid to venture outside the square in both design and lifestyle decisions for cooling your home. Conjure the iconic David Burns eco-house with a climate-control chimney that multi-functions as stairs over three levels, as well as a place to hang art.

Sue White

Sue White

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