Property in the tropics has unique sustainability challenges.

20 February 2014 — Cairns Regional Council recently posted an advertisement for a sustainability manager to assist with its programs.

According to Dan Walton, a sustainability officer on the three-person team in the council, there is a range of programs under way, mostly by way of community education and engagement, and mostly by way of presenting suggestions or options for discussion, rather than any heavy-handed advice or rules.

Most exciting will be the soon-to-be released Cool Homes design guidelines, which will add to an existing set of guidelines for commercial buildings.

Walton confesses the council launched the commercial version first because it would help in its own facilities. “Walk the talk,” he says.

The resi guidelines will be focused mainly on passive design for the tropics.

The guidelines have referenced the federal government’s Your Home technical manual, COOLmob based in the Northern Territory, the Australian Institute of Architects and the Building Designers Association of Australia.

“We’re trying to provide locally relevant material that sheds light on local issues, not necessarily trying to provide all the answers – orientation, instead of a media room, maybe invest in outdoor spaces,” Walton says.

Green ratings that concentrate on thermal mass are not as suitable for the tropics. In the tropics, “thermal mass, done right, is keeping it shaded,” Walton says.

So how keen are the residents on sustainability?

Quite frankly, Walton says, “it depends on how much it costs.”

But with the high cost of electricity in Queensland, energy savings is rapidly becoming a prime concern.

Regular quarterly bills for cooling can shoot to $1000 to $1200 at this time of year, up from $600-$800 during the cooler months, on average.

“The whole industry is market driven. Picking your house out of the catalogue is still the main driver.

“We’ve still got a way to go. If you look at the bell curve some people are more innovative but the bulk of us worry about the initial capital outlay.”

Walton notes that the size of the average Australian new house has started to trend down and agrees it’s only after becoming the biggest in the world.

“The penny is starting to drop: big homes equal big electricity bills.”

At Cairns the council has a range of programs and a range of delivery mechanisms from its own website to radio programs and other media outlets.

Another interesting initiative in Cairns has been the Tropical Green Network, a group of architects and builders with a green bent, facilitated by the council and led by Emma Thirkell.

Part of TGN’s mandate is the recovery and recycling of construction and demolition materials.

Key focus for the council is education and engagement with the community through initiatives such as the new website, Green Thumb, for sustainable living.

The council also has interactive forums for community discussions on its website, on a range of topics from energy to waste water.

And the results?

“The results are good so far. We’ve had close to 6000 people visit our site since we launched on World Environment Day in June last year.”

A key issue, Walton says, is to keep continuity and context between programs, so they continue to thrive and avoid the danger of dropping off.