House at Church Square

The perception that an energy efficient home is too expensive to build is a myth, according to Christchurch-based architectural designer Bob Burnett. And it’s a myth he and others in the industry aim to debunk with the SUPERHOME movement.

There are currently two demonstration homes being developed by Burnett in Christchurch’s Church Square that he has designed to 10 Star HomeStar standards. The homes are due for completion at the end of this month, and one was recently formally awarded 10 Star HomeStar Design certification by the NZ Green Building Council.

Burnett says the homes distinguish the SUPERHOME movement from general talk about green building, as people can see the process of building affordable green homes and the results.

There will be a public meeting in August at the Church Square site to showcase the houses and their innovations, and to formally launch the movement.

Media coverage of the projects to date, including a piece on a NZ TV station, has seen a flurry of phone calls and emails from potential buyers across the country, he says. The worksite has also seen a steady stream of drive-bys and drop-ins from people keen to purchase or replicate the demonstration homes’ materials, design and technology.

Burnett says most of the materials and technology, including laminated veneer lumber framing, solar photovoltaics, reclaimed heat ventilation systems, in-floor hydronic heating, and substantial insulation, are fairly standard – they’ve just been put together better.

He installed the insulation himself, because he doesn’t have trust in the quality of workmanship delivered by NZ insulation installers. Even one gap in the insulation will compromise thermal and energy performance, he says, and a recent report by the Building Research Agency of New Zealand showed that 75 per cent of the country’s homes had faulty installations.

The SUPERHOME movement has so far gained support from the central government, Christchurch City Council, and a number of builders, developers, designers, architects, investors and materials manufacturers. An initial meeting hosted by the council drew over 120 people, and Burnett says some of them went away with ideas that have resulted in positive changes to projects that were already under construction.

The movement aims to inspire the building of 1000 homes that achieve HomeStar ratings between six and 10 stars.

The concept is not only about the energy ratings either. Burnett says affordability, earthquake resilience, thermal comfort and a healthy indoor environment are also key elements to what makes a Super Home.

Ultimately the aim of the industry-led initiative is to “promote and normalise” the idea of energy-efficient sustainable homes through open source sharing of design and construction information.

“We want to get people to understand it doesn’t have to be complicated,” Burnett says.

“These [demonstration projects] are modest, affordable homes.”

Super Home at Church Square
SUPERHOME at Church Square

He would like to see a similar concept applied to homes as is legislated for cars in NZ, where a vehicle displays both a price for the car, and the fuel cost to run it. This, he says, would make it clear to people that running costs are a major factor in home affordability.

To assist with this, the movement currently has three tools under development that the central government’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is keen to promote.

The first is a dashboard-type digital tool with an infographic of a home that shows what initiatives can be implemented, and the costs they might add in terms of building, then displays the corresponding benefit in terms of energy bill reductions.

The second tool is a mortgage calculator that shows users the degree to which mortgage terms and interest costs can be reduced if energy bill savings are put towards additional mortgage payments.

The third tool shows the degree to which a home’s value as an asset is increased by various sustainability initiatives. Burnett says that this concept is well understood in the US and Europe, where research has shown an energy-efficient home is worth between 10 and 20 per cent more on resale than a business as usual home.

The return on investment on a badly built home, he says, is compromised by issues including mould and condensation as well as poor performance energy-wise.

“Better quality means a better ROI long-term.”

Building code standards are too low

The main barriers he identifies to the normalisation of sustainable homes are the country’s building code, which sets the bar extremely low in terms of energy and performance, a building industry that is currently “booming” with work and is reluctant to embrace change, and a market that is not financially literate on home running costs.

Small cost increments are falling

Burnett says that the cost of building a 6 Star home is currently roughly two per cent more than doing code minimum and achieving around 3 Stars. The energy saving difference is 50 per cent lower energy bills for the 6 Star home.

The cost of doing 7 Star is around five per cent more, and achieving 8 to 9 Stars costs 10 per cent more. However, these costs are falling, he says, as the price of technology such as solar PV and the price of sustainable materials is reducing due to market demand.

The movement is also looking to influence the design and construction of social housing. Burnett says there are discussions underway with Christchurch City Council, which is planning a number of social housing infill projects.

Options being put on the table for council to consider include designing and building demonstration homes as part of the projects, or private investment developing homes that are then made available to tenants with power costs included in the rent.

Burnett says that discussions around rebuilding the city more sustainably have been largely a “talkfest” where “very little real stuff happens on the ground.

The Church Square projects are the movement’s way of “making it real”.

“We are leading by example, from the grassroots, doing ground-up stuff,” Burnett says.

“We said [to councillors] what they need to do is show leadership and show you can do energy-efficiency for little more cost than doing code minimum.

“There’s no excuse for building very cheap low quality housing and harnessing people to massive power bills for the rest of the life of the building.”

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  1. How can I go and have a look at completed 10 star houses? When are they open to the public to view?

  2. Nice work Bob!
    Great to see other Architects leading the field and ‘raising the bar’ in the area of our housing’s performance.
    For generations to come, the residents & community will benefit with healthier lives & lower living costs.
    Keep it up!
    Black Pine Architects