Chief executive officer of Hubble, Marco Salinas

For many people, building a home can be exciting, with fun decisions to be made about the size of the living areas and the colour of the walls.

What’s typically less engaging are decisions about energy performance, and how design choices can impinge on energy consumption once the occupants move in.

Unfortunately, not all architects and builders are well-versed in energy efficiency and the associated tools, such as the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERS). Even if they do, it’s not that easy to communicate technical details to the client, especially when the plans keep changing (and subsequently the energy performance).

That’s why the Adelaide-based sustainability consultancy SUHO, which is responsible for South Australia’s first 10-star home, has decided to make its sophisticated energy consumption software available for purchase through a web-based platform called Hubble.

The chief executive officer of the digital spinoff company, Marco Salinas, told The Fifth Estate that the algorithms take into account a range of variables such as location, orientation, roof type, window thickness, insulation and ventilation.

It only takes a few minutes to get an estimate and it’s extremely easy to use – simple enough for a homeowner planning a renovation. Users simply plug in the location plus a few details, such as what the walls are made of and where the windows are located, and the software spits out the design’s energy consumption, comfort level, an estimate of its NatHERS star rating, and expected cost savings.

Users can then keep altering the design, adding insulation or double glazing, and watch the star rating climb.

The machine learning-enabled software is the product of over a decade of development by SUHO for its own energy performance services, with the help of Adelaide’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, AiLab, and Carnegie Mellon University on various aspects.

The tool is far from complete: The plan is to keep refining it and add new abilities, with the ambition to be able to provide an accurate payback estimate for efficiency enhancing features down the track.

As the platform is at the pilot stage and not yet publicly available, the team is still trying to smooth out its pricing and payment structure. But Salinas wants the tool to be as accessible as possible, and will consider a freemium model where a limited version can be accessed for free and users pay for additional capabilities.

While Salinas expects builders and small time architects to be the primary customers, anyone who interacts with energy efficiency in buildings are likely to find value in the tool, such as energy efficiency consultants and quantity estimators.

The platform will continue to be majority owned by SUHO, with the aim of attracting external investment to target export markets. It’s already got the support of South Australian innovation specialists LeapSheep.

Second and third home buyers are more receptive to ideas about building better quality

Director and owner of SUHO, Jim Woolcock, says that energy efficiency is typically well down the priority list for first home buyers, according to market research conducted before the launch of Hubble.

He says that a lack of experience means they often want to build as big as the site will allow, and cheaply.

Second and third home buyers, however, tend to be more receptive to ideas about building better quality in terms of energy efficiency.

He also says that the energy rating process is also flawed: Energy efficiency happens at the end of the design process and is generally just about compliance.

Director and owner of SUHO, Jim Woolcock.

According to Woolcock, most building designers use the official energy efficiency software once the final design is signed off, and send that through to an energy consultancy to do a rating.

But by that stage, it’s too way too late to intervene with potentially cheap and easy energy performance fixes, such as a change in orientation, because it’s really difficult to change the specifications of the building once everything has been approved by the owner.

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