A spoof image of Al Gore’s house that circulated the web

23 November 2011 – When the news broke that the world’s highest profile multi-millionaire environmentalist was a US$30,000 annual utility bill shy of a carbon neutral lifestyle, even ardent fans of former US Vice-President Al Gore were a little shocked. Gore’s 20-room home and pool house devoured nearly 221,000 kilowatt-hours, more than 20 times the national US average.

So what is a green-leaning chatelaine or an eco-friendly McMansion dweller to do when it comes reducing the impact of their lavish homes?
They enter the brave new world of the luxury green retrofit. And not too soon.

From Malvern to Mosman, inhabitants of Australia’s most expensive suburbs are still blasé about quarterly power bills that cost the same as a Smart car.

Mosman Council, on Sydney’s lower north shore, likes to regularly remind its ratepayers of their profligacy. It found that each resident, on average, had an ecological footprint of 14.7ha – almost double the national average. If everyone had the same size carbon footprint as the average Mosman resident, then another seven planets would be needed to support the world’s population.

This means that if all the resources needed to support a Mosman lifestyle had to be found within the local area, only 58 people could live in Mosman.

Even without fair lights, Al Gore’s home racks up power bills of US$30,000 a year

But the good news is that a luxury green retrofit makes selling high-end homes, which is reasonably difficult in these straightened times, significantly easier.

Double Bay real estate agent, Michael Pallier of Raine & Horne says the number of prospective buyers looking for established homes that have benefited from a green-maker over is growing.

“They are so much easier to sell, I can’t put a dollar value or a percentage premium on it just yet but if it is there is greater competition then it is easy to say these homes are selling for more money than the same type of house without environmental benefits,” Pallier says.

One purveyor of smart metres Deb Noller, of Switch Automation, has had a first hand view of clients’ Damascene conversion after receiving shocking gas and electric bills.

Noller tells the tale of one client, the owner of a brand new Melbourne mansion, who opened an $11,000 power bill, an Al Gore gasp-worthy wastage.

The chief culprits for sucking resources, both energy and water, faster than anything else inside luxury dwellings are pool pumps and airconditioners, under-floor heating, and anything that making living on acreage more comfortable.
With Noller’s help the Al Gore of Melbourne halved his bill through a green retrofit and lifestyle changes but couldn’t do with out under-floor heating.

Noller warns there is a plethora of eco-bling designed for renovators for whom money is no object.

She says one of the most perverse are the smart metres that need new batteries more often than a two year-old’s toy, or pull more energy than required while informing you that you’re using too much energy.

Unnecessary renewable energy devices, like turbines or inefficient solar panels, visibly attached to the outside of poorly-designed buildings are the very definition of eco-bling blindness.

The antidote to eco-bling and other pitfalls of the green retrofit may be found in architect Luigi Rosselli’s investigation of “responsible comfort” and designer Anthony Ashworth’s focus on “temples of light and power”.

Luigi Rosselli’s project, winner of the Milo Dunphy Award for Sustainable Architecture 2011

Rosselli has set about to prove that sustainable solutions can be applied to top end residential architecture without limiting human comfort.

In recent contracts, as with the renovation project at Kirribilli in Sydney, which won him this year’s Milo Dunphy Award for Sustainable Architectur from the Australian Institute of Architects NSW, Rosselli includes a clause that encourages clients to avoid airconditioning or pay a penalty that would be donated to sustainability advocates.

While Ashworth is adamant that existing homes, even wildly inefficient ones, can be renovated to become places that support and empower the owner “physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually”. A world away from a residential succubus or on-the-nose eco-bling.
Both advocate using rammed earth walls and well located operable skylights; sun drenched courtyards, breezy verandahs; green roofs and external shutters. The aim is to maximize the level of climatic and physical comfort that architecture, integrated with nature, will allow.
An example of a green make-over for multi-million house aimed at upping the “responsible comfort” factor is Janine & Tony Adams Vaucluse home.
Replete with a front yard vegetable patch, the former duplex had a sustainably stylish reincarnation. (Think: Peter Sellar’s ‘The Party’ meets ‘The Inconvenient Truth.’)
A mixed lolly bag of styles from different eras (the bottom part of the building was a 30s bungalow that had been renovated in the 70s), were smoothed over by Phillips Henningham Architects to create a 50s aesthetic. https://www.melissacollison.com/media/pdfs/PalmSprings.pdf

Rammed earth walls feature in the Milo Dunphy award winner by Luigi Rosselli

A rooftop solar photovoltaic system produces now more energy than the house needs and hydronic underfloor heating maintains warmth.
Floors made from bamboo, a renewable natural resource, have been laid throughout the home. Wood-composite pool decking made
from recycled milk bottles and drought-tolerant plants were favoured.

During the nine month renovation, Janine Adams became an enthusiastic advocate for the luxury green retrofit.

“Our power bills were 100 per cent less expensive – we generate more power than we use and that is because the orientation of the house, the well-placed windows and the cross breezes we get mean that we use so little air-conditioning,” Adams says.

“Comfort was important to us as was making sure we didn’t detract from the look of the house with ugly environmental solutions,” Adams says.
The new convert to front-yard horticulture and sustainable product selection is encouraged by the choices available to the green renovator.

“It is amazing how things turned out, even the compromises turned out better than we had planned. Reconstituted Modwood decking looks spectacular and bamboo flooring is quiet and hardwearing,” she says.

Adams is also excited about the legacy their retrofit may have on those involved with the project. “I think the people we inspired who can do the most are the architect and the builder. Once we started researching a more ecological way to live we couldn’t stop and they understood everything we were trying to do.

“It would have been a shame to have pulled the whole building down and equally a shame to put in inefficient wasteful additions to our home … combining beautiful, comfortable and eco-friendly is very important.“