Steve Driscoll

4 July 2011 – Landcom has teamed with Clarendon Homes to create a sustainable display home range at The Ponds in Sydney’s north-west. It’s a move that’s small to start with, but ultimately designed to shift the market.

Benchmark, the first of three houses in the new Eco-Living range, was unveiled last Friday. The remaining two will be open by Christmas.

Each of the homes will have a different level of sustainability, right up to the Net-Zero house, which will be so heating and cooling efficient, it will offer its occupants “virtually no bills”.

Director, sustainability and policy at Landcom, Steve Driscoll, says sustainability is a concept that barely registers in greenfields housing estates throughout the country. Yet it’s where the majority of Australians turn to buy their first home.

By putting a sustainable home up alongside the usual offerings in a display village, the average buyer will have a chance to select something that is stylish, affordable and yet looks “normal”, Driscoll says.

Even better is that the additional cost to go to a six-star standard in the homes will be only a fraction more than a regular volume home offering, about $6000. Benchmark would sell for about $330,000 if all its inclusions were replicated.

Universal design
In a nod to the longer term and social sustainability, the houses will also feature “universal design”. In other words they already have built into them the ability to be quickly and cheaply converted to become wheelchair or stroller-friendly, to accommodate an ageing or ailing population, without forcing residents out of their existing communities.

For instance, there is a built-in door frame between the living room and adjoining powder room. This is wide enough to allow a wheelchair to roll through. And, next to the shower and bath, the tiles and wall have been strengthened so that handrails can be quickly attached.

In the kitchen, the island bench, set at the regulation distance from its twin, conceals ready built drainage and power attachments so it can be moved further out to make room for a wheelchair.

“Houses don’t make communities,” says Driscoll on the subject of universal housing. “They are just building blocks. It’s the people who live in houses who form communities. Unfortunately local communities lose a great deal when ageing people, who have lived most of their lives in a particular dwelling, need to move away because the house is no longer suitable for their changing, age-related capabilities.

“Given the reality of our ageing population, there is no point designing homes that don’t support ageing in place.”

Interestingly, another factor driving the Eco-Living range, Driscoll  says, has been pressure from the building products industry to showcase emerging materials that could contribute to a lower carbon economy.

“Landcom is constantly being approached by the building materials industry to demonstrate the latest and most relevant sustainability products,” he says.

Ripples in the pond
The ambitions of the Eco-Living range are not huge. At least not ostensibly.

In an interview with The Fifth Estate after last Friday’s launch, Driscoll said the new range was not about instant transformation, but about creating “ripples in the pond” (The Ponds in this case); and perhaps a line borrowed from land rights campaigners that, “from small things, big things grow”.

Landcom believed the goal was important enough to fund the three houses.

It selected Clarendon Homes, because of its size, as one of Australia’s leading volume builders and therefore with potential to influence the market.

Already, Driscoll says, the signs are positive.

“Clarendon says it’s already starting to ripple through their business and that’s a lot earlier than we thought it would happen,” he says.

Turning niche mainstream
“A sustainable home like Benchmark has traditionally been considered a niche product, however Landcom is highlighting that such dwellings can be mainstreamed and made accessible to everyone and, most importantly, at an affordable price.”

Design sustainability specialist for Clarendon Homes, Shaila Divakarla, agrees the partnership is already having a major impact.

Clarendon is now working out how to incorporate more sustainable features into its offerings in a six-star package, and the entire supply chain is being examined, Divakarla says.

“Clarendon Homes’ entire supply chain is now also beginning to look at ways of developing and introducing more sustainable products into the housing industry as a direct result of working with us and Landcom on the Eco-Living Display Homes project,” she says.

“This project is already transforming the industry.”

Shaila Divakarla

Divakarla said there were five key reasons that people and the industry had become more aware of sustainability.

“These include regulation changes as the government brings in tighter sustainability regulations,” she says. “Escalating energy and water prices are driving people to become more environmentally conscious. The traditional family is also reducing in size, increasing the market for smaller dwellings. Finally, people are living longer and exploring ways to remain in the community they know as they age.”

The time is right

In Driscoll’s view, it’s about time: sustainability a huge imperative.  “Twenty-five per cent of the world’s water is consumed in the built environment,” he says. “It’s a big consumer [of resources] and it needs to do something about that.”

The project home market, Driscoll says, is how most people enter the housing market, but the problem is that the offerings are very similar to one another and the competition is to offer more for less.

In the exhibition villages “just over the hill” from the Benchmark house, he says, “there’s bit of a Kath and Kim ‘look at me, look at me’ thing going on.

“This means consumers tend not to be exposed to anything much more than a four bedroom home with five living area.”

The choices they make become self-fulfilling prophecies, he says.

Worse, ironically, is that this industry is very efficient – perhaps most efficient in the world housing – so that an extra bedroom can be tacked on for as little as $5000 or $6000.

Young first home buyers might have parents in one ear saying “go for it now; don’t do without like we did,” while rising standards of living mean that people feel they can afford more.

Against these pressures, it’s hard to ask new home buyers to make choices that are more frugal in terms of space and resources, without a concrete example, and at a competitive price point.

It’s true all new housing needs to conform to the BASIX house rating standards in NSW, but that’s about weeding out worst practice.

Landcom wanted to take things further and unleash a competitive spirit as it’s emerged in the commercial sector.

“What we wanted to do was to break that cycle and display something innovative and different,” Driscoll says.

The Eco-Living range is about tapping into the competitive spirit of the property industry, “and this is an industry that thrives on competition”.

How successful does Driscoll think the range will be?

“It’s too early to make that call. One of the things I like about Landcom is it doesn’t make claims ahead of time; it does it with data.”

But the prognosis is good.

“The price on utilities is only going in one direction, and probably the price on building materials too, with a carbon tax.”

Payback for sustainability becoming familiar

So the idea of embodied energy and a payback period is all starting to add up to the average consumer. He points to the huge controversy that erupted around the scaled back feed-in tariffs for solar energy, and says people are becoming familiar with the concept of payback for sustainable features.

So what’s next in the game change agenda?

Driscoll points to a block of apartments in Penrith and a row of terraces – “not townhouses” – on Landcom’s drawing board. It’s medium density migrating to the outer suburbs.

In a nutshell, Driscoll says, what Landcom is really after is not something weird and wonderful, but “a new normal”.

Universal design

Highlights of the universal design at Landcom’s Benchark display home at The Ponds, Sydney include:

  • level transition between indoor and outdoor areas suitable for wheelchairs and strollers
  • wider external and internal doors and spacious and open planned living areas
  • Living room or bedroom – The living room on the ground floor can be easily converted into a full universal size bedroom
  • Powder room or bathroom – on the same level can be converted to a full universal bathroom, with sufficient circulation space and layout of fixtures for people with disabilities. Waterproofing and drainage for a shower are incorporated into the linen cupboard which allows for conversion into a shower recess at a later date. Provision for hand rails, through wall strengthening has also been made around the toilet and shower areas. An extra drainage point for the toilet has been provided for installing a wheelchair friendly toilet if needed.
  • Kitchen – additional drainage to the kitchen sink has been built in to enable the island bench to be moved to create more space between the kitchen benchtops if required in the future

Similar features will also be incorporated in Landcom’s two other Eco-Living homes.

The Benchmark home will also include:

  • a six star thermal performance rating. It achieves this by optimising solar orientation with living rooms facing north, good cross flow ventilation with windows on opposite sides and a sheltered outdoor clothes drying area
  • an airconditioning system with inverter technology
  • eco bricks
  • modwood decking (a recycled plastic and timber product)
  • a rainwater tank (in addition to the recycled water supplied to the home from the area’s water mains)
  • waste sorter bins.

The Greencycle home will feature:

  • building materials and products that are environmentally friendly, have a high recycled content and are capable of being recycled at the end of their life.

The Net-Zero emissions home:

  • will be smaller and smarter and showcase leading-edge design and technologies to create net zero emissions and a net zero emissions water home.

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