Most policy action on making residences more environmentally sustainable has focused on introducing and lifting regulatory standards via rating schemes for new builds and renovations. Yet, creating sustainable low carbon housing and goes well beyond selecting appropriate building materials and techniques that emphasise renewable resources and energy.
How we live in our homes can undermine potential sustainability. On the one hand, a dwelling might be built in tightly sealed ways but, on the other hand, double-glazed windows and doors might be left ajar. Moreover, fly-wire screen doors might not be opened as designed for useful cross-ventilation and energy saving appliances might be over-used or misused.
Increasingly household practices have come under scrutiny, especially once post-occupancy evaluations of the performance of dwellings built for sustainability have shown significant variability from optimal or expected use due to householder practices. Policy responses to improve household practices responsible for such perverse effects have centred on environmental awareness and educational programs building knowledge and skills.
Simple = sustainable living
Certain studies of the sustainability of various households show how minimal and efficient living in relatively small dwellings with fairly ordinary sustainability building ratings can have closer to one planet lifestyles than the over-consuming in seemingly super-sustainable grandly designed homes – again emphasising the key importance of householder practices.
Growing houses, shrinking households
Two key areas that receive too little attention from sustainability policymakers are the size of dwellings and size of households and mismatches between the two. Encouraging smaller dwellings is much more of a challenge in countries such as the US, Canada and Australia where average new dwelling sizes have increased to 2-3 times the average size of new builds in the UK and Europe more generally.
Exaggerating this per capita wastage of embodied materials, family homes occupied by one or two residents continuously use more heating, lighting, cooling, waste, cleaning, water and energy services per capita than small dwellings with multiple occupants. This explains why, as aging populations are a worldwide trend and “empty-nesters”, widows and widowers tend to stay in the family home, responses based on greater sharing of spaces and facilities are attracting greater attention from senior residents and policymakers alike.
“Cohousing” models have spread in the UK and Europe where city and national governments, especially in Germany, set aside land, offering legal templates and financial models, specifically for such developments. Key characteristics of eco-cohousing include modest and attached private dwellings, sharing common spaces and facilities (such as kitchen-dining areas, laundries, workshops and guest rooms). There are various models, including self-building, which increases affordability, and cohousing complexes that incorporate wider neighbourhood benefits through shared space and facilities.
In Australia, such models of “” – a term covering shared houses, shared land and ecovillages as well as cohousing – receive next to no attention by policymakers, but impressive models such as (tenant cohousing in Heidelberg Heights, a Melbourne suburb) and (Adelaide) have been developed by residential groups determined to marry environmental values and social values in residential communities living compactly and collectively growing food and dealing with their waste.
The likely popularity of such cohousing and ecovillage models is indicated by the attraction of and models, which draw on certain features of cohousing without incorporating some of cohousing’s key definitional characteristics, namely resident-initiated, self-governing, intentionally communal communities. Such “” are initiated and coordinated by architects and sustainability experts rather than residents being the drivers and collective clients. Moreover, they have tended to be more expensive than mainstream options for private apartments.
Breaking down the barriers
Typically, residential groups in Australia have had to work in incredibly intense ways for long duration to research and engage and maintain the necessary planning, legal, architectural, building and financial professionals to collaborate on establishing or retrofitting complexes for a few dozen households. Such groups need to develop sophisticated collective decision-making skills but external barriers centre on planners and financiers because they are – in self-perpetuating ways – considered marginal or alternative models.
So the next and decisive step in resident-driven eco-collaborative housing will be planner, policymaker and financier discussions around processes and codes to facilitate and enable such self-managing groups to establish their projects more easily and quickly in Australia – responding to the need for more community-based, environmentally sustainable and affordable complexes in urban and rural areas.
Anitra Nelson, the author of a recently published book on international cases of eco-collaborative housing (2018, Pluto Press), is a researcher at the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University in Melbourne.