by Boris Kelly

19 May 2010 –
In 1961, Australia became the first country in the world to introduce strata title as a form of property ownership when, under the Conveyancing (Strata Titles) Act, Strata Plan 1 was applied to a property in Enfield, an inner western suburb of Sydney. Similar legislation was subsequently enacted in other states but, in typical federalist fashion, strata law varies in each jurisdiction.

Today in the Sydney local government area 60 per cent of current residents live in 54,000 high density strata title buildings and 80 per cent of those buildings are expected to be standing in 2050. Across the country, increases in population, especially in our major urban centres, will result in a growth in strata title dwellings. across the country. Planning for an environmentally sustainable future requires recognition of the special challenges posed by strata titled dwellings.

Yet, according to experts speaking at a recent forum organised by the Australian Conservation Foundation’s Green Home initiative hosted by Sydney city council, the particular needs of strata title dwellers is largely ignored.

ACF forum convenor, John Talbot, an engineer and former resident of the Findhorn sustainable community, suggested that 50 per cent of reductions in energy emissions to be achieved by 2050 will come from behaviour change and the other half from the introduction of energy efficient measures.

Of course, individual residents are responsible for their consumption of energy and water resources and generation of waste. However, in a typical strata building, the owners’ corporation, residents, strata managers, building managers and local council can all be stakeholders in decisions effecting common property said Mr Talbot.

But for sustainable environmental practice to be effective, the needs and rights of the individual must be balanced with those of the group. As Graham Cochrane, a strata law specialist, pointed out at the Forum, this may be easier said than done in the notoriously litigious strata sector.

Portfolio manager and apartment dweller Peter Driscoll outlined measures he had taken to reduce energy consumption. Replacement of light bulbs, use of energy efficient appliances, decommissioning heaters and airconditioners, dishwashers and clothes driers, water capture in the shower, using laptops instead of desktop computers, power boards with individual switches to turn off appliances that would otherwise remain on stand by, heat induction cook tops, convection microwave oven, double glazing, worm farms and the use of energy consumption metres were some of the usual suspect actions that can be adopted by the responsible citizen, he said.

If you baulked at the idea of turning off your heater and airconditioner, bear in mind that these comfort zone appliances generate 38 per cent of energy usage in the typical home while hot water accounts for 25 per cent, according to research conducted by the Federal Government’s Your Home initiative. Keep in mind that electricity suppliers base their infrastructure upgrade investments on the capacity of the network to absorb peak loads in winter and summer. Recent and mooted hikes in the cost of electricity can be traced in large part to these upgrades.

Christine Byrne from the Green Strata Network outlined case study examples of initiatives taken by owners’ corporations to achieve best practice in sustainable environmental management. These included everything from No Junk Mail stickers to costly and sophisticated building energy management systems. The challenge for OC executive committees is to achieve energy efficiency while minimising additional costs to owners, she said. Not surprisingly, owners, especially non resident investors, resist increases in levies, however morally noble the cause. Ms Byrne argued that change was best achieved through the simple illustration of cost-benefit analyses and efficient payback periods. The Green Strata Network is in the process of establishing a Wiki-style green knowledge base for strata dwellers, she said.

A central message conveyed by the forum was that a fundamental shift in thinking and strata culture is needed if this energy hungry sector is to be effectively managed. Behavioural change and technological solutions must be supported by legislative action.

The three tiers of government are providing subsidies, services and education programs to home owners and residents in greening their buildings but very little is being done to address the needs of strata dwellers, the forum heard. The introduction of technologies like solar hot water, water tanks and small generation systems that attract government rebates do not adequately account for the technical, legislative and decision making complexities of the strata sector.

It also appears that some major peak associations are not getting the message. For example, a quick survey of their websites suggests that for the NSW Institute of Strata Title ManagementOwners Corporations Victoria, My Strata and the Urban Design Institute of Australia, sustainable environmental management remains a low priority.