5 March 2013 — According to a study by Pike Research, a global market research and consulting firm specialising in clean energy, the global market for green homes will be worth $84 billion by 2020. And much of the growth will be happening in this part of the world.

Rising economic prosperity in the Asia-Pacific will drive residential construction. The report says we can expect significant growth in the construction of energy efficient homes right here, providing the right regulatory and financing conditions are in place.

But while this sector is growing, we should watch out for a number of interesting trends.

  1. Urban density and smaller footprints. Residential allotment sizes in the city itself are getting smaller. Younger people and empty nesters are now settling in the city where they can be closer to cultural activity and public transport, perhaps establish a milieu. To this end, San Francisco planners are proposing to build what they call “Twitter” apartments, micro-sized apartments that will be as small as 220 square feet, about the size of a parking space. Perfect for singles. You can just imagine it now, apartments with foldaway beds that become kitchen tables. Less square footage means less cost for materials and labour. It also leaves less energy to heat and cool. You can also bet that these sorts of apartments will increase inner city population massively. We can expect some other cities around the world, including those in Australia, to take it up, especially with reports from CommSec and IbisWorld telling us that house sizes here are getting smaller and more are renovating.
  2. Development of smart homes. The Smart Grid, Smart City program set up by the Australian government could be a sign of what we can expect in the future for residential building. One such display home, located in the Sydney Olympic suburb of Newington, is now being trialled through to September 2013. Green technologies there include 2 kiloWattW BlueGen gas fuel cell and waste heat used for hot water, 0.5kW thin film PV pergola roofing, a charge outlet for an electric vehicle, energy efficient appliances, LED lighting including an LED chandelier, a smart meter linked to an in-home display for electricity use, demand response air conditioning, recycled water for the laundry, toilet and outside, water efficient fixtures and in-home displays for water, displaying both potable and recycled water usage.
  3. Home energy tracking devices. More homes will be fitted with Apple-like devices that track energy use by appliance. One example is the Nest Learning Thermostat. Now only available in the US, it’s likely to come to Australia.  The Wall Street Journal tells us that it came out of iPod inventor Tony Fadell’s start-up, Nest Labs. “Nest operates with the same genius wheel user interface as the original iPod, with a digital screen in its centre. It connects to your Wi-Fi network, allowing you to control it remotely via an iPhone app or the Web. And its stylish design made of brushed stainless steel is a showpiece. What makes Nest stand out from other programmable thermostats is that it learns your behavioural patterns and creates a temperature-setting schedule from them. Nest has six sensors that can determine things like when you’re away from home.” Another innovation is Belkin’s Conserve Insight device which gives a constantly updated read-out on the amount of power being churned out from the wall, and then maps this usage to estimate how much you’re actually paying. It also measures the amount of carbon dioxide being generated. Similarly, Fujitsu has released energy-saving low cost switches while Intel has come up with a Home Energy Dashboard. In the future, every green home will be fitted with these devices, allowing people to monitor and control how much energy they use. Rising electricity prices will also drive this trend. You can bet there will be a demand for it. A recent Australian Bureau of Statistics report found that despite the number of green buildings and homes, Australians are using 25 per cent more electricity and 22 per cent more gas than they were 10 years ago.
  4. Blue = Green. Water conservation is now in green buildings everywhere. Not just in the installation of rain water tanks either. Building Products News reports that in Victoria, the Government has established a Smart Water Fund and has incorporated sustainable water use principles into current plumbing apprenticeship training at one of the colleges. The Master Plumbers and Mechanical Services Association of Australia has set up a program to provide training in measures that would reduce consumer’s costs in water and energy use. And so it goes.
  5. Net Zero Water – This is the concept that would create water independence for households and relieve strain on ageing water supply systems already under pressure from population growth, pollution, inefficient use and climate change. Net Zero Water focuses on water harvesting for potable and non-potable uses, grey water reclamation, and onsite waste water treatment including composting toilets. Grey water is water left over from running the sink, doing laundry or dishes, or taking a bath or shower. Black water is water discharged from the toilet. Neither is suitable for drinking, but they can be treated and re-used for other purposes. Potable water is often used for toilet flushing, irrigation and laundry. Rain water tanks can supply water for purposes including washing clothes, flushing toilets and watering gardens. These tanks can also help save money on water bills, especially when combined with other water saving devices such as dual flush toilets, water-efficient showerheads, trigger nozzles and tap timers. This will also require government support. Given Australia’s vulnerability to drought, we can expect more active in this sector. Expect Net Zero Water to be incorporated into green buildings everywhere.
  6. Net Zero Homes. This is a concept that makes the country’s housing stock neutral in terms of carbon emissions. The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council details how it can be done in its report Net Zero Emission Homes: An Examination of Leading Practice and Pathways Forward.  It sets out a road map for the industry to deliver carbon neutral homes. Much work still needs to be done. According to the report, we need a target for zero carbon residential buildings, an industry-endorsed and government adopted definition of such homes and the construction industry needs the skills to build these sorts of homes. The report also calls for mandatory requirements and compliance mechanisms as well as a single national rating tool. This is a trend to watch out for. If it happens, it will reshape the green residential building industry.
  7. Green Design. This uses the right floor finish, wall finishes, building products, paint, furniture and all aspects of building interiors to create sustainable choices. Ideas include smaller dining rooms and more functional kitchen areas, products made from organically sourced materials such as refinished woods, organic hemp carpets and cushion covers knitted from local wool.
  8. Green roofs. We can expect more vertical gardens in houses to counter the heat island effect. In Europe, there are city and even national governments that have mandated their use. For example, Linz, in Austria requires green roofs on new residential and commercial buildings with rooftops. German green roof building is being rolled out under the Federal Nature Protection Act, the Building Code and state-level nature protection statutes.  We don’t have any of that here but green roofs and vertical gardens in residential buildings around the world are taking off.

Green residential building will transform cities and the construction and real estate sectors. All these trends will drive it, and make it more dynamic. Watch this space.

Leon Gettler is a freelance business journalist, author and podcaster. He works for a range of publications and produces two podcasts for RMIT every week: Talking Business and Talking Technology. He has an acute interest in the environment, its impact on business and the response of businesses and governments.