Hidden Studio house
Hidden Studio by Harley Graham Architects. Photographer: Andy McPherson

OPINION: When you think of an unhealthy house, what comes to mind? Mould, damp, leaks, dark and dingy spaces with poor airflow. You are a product of the home where you live; just ask an asthmatic living in a mouldy or poorly ventilated home.

Or check the statistics for hospital admissions from hypothermia – they paint a picture, not of rugged hikers straying off pathways in the snow, but of elderly people who can’t afford to heat their homes due to poverty.

So it’s hardly surprising that Australian consumers want healthier homes. Research shows that homebuyers use words like comfort and liveability to describe the attributes they value in homes.

While not couched in the technical language of sustainable design, these words describe the benefits that sustainable design brings: energy efficiency, natural light, comfortable temperatures and connection with the surrounding environment. Homes like this are already being built in Australia, but if they could be considered the norm rather than an expensive option, we’d all be healthier.

We have a clear picture of what needs to happen to get us to a place where Australian homes have high energy performance as standard, with all the benefits for health that this brings. The building sector has ASBEC’s Growing the Market for Sustainable Homes: Industry roadmap and the Council of Australian Governments Energy Council’s Trajectory for Low Energy Building is paving the way for policy at national level.

But as any homebuyer can tell you, getting finance is an absolutely crucial part of a home purchase. Other countries are getting in on the act with tailored financial products, which value the qualities of sustainable homes.

In some countries helping home owners become more sustainable is a no brainer

German state-owned development bank KfW, for example, has worked to support German climate policy by undertaking a raft of big picture green finance measures, from divestment from fossil fuels to corporate loan schemes to German businesses that invest in energy efficient buildings.

Germany is even mulling creating private bonds through a proposed climate foundation that would combine bonds and state support to help building owners to improve energy and resource efficiency.

For homebuyers, KfW offers home loans that prioritise sustainable features such as energy efficient heating and insulation and forging a “new normal” for family homes. At last count, KfW has provided finance for four million homes to be built or refurbished to higher energy standards, saving around 9 million tonnes of carbon a year over the first decade of the program.

Green finance pays dividends – including 320,000 jobs

This green finance approach has paid huge dividends, not only for the climate but for the German building sector, with the funding also securing an estimated 320,000 jobs per year, along with €260 million in investment.

New Zealand goes for green

Closer to home, just across the water in New Zealand, ANZ is trying a similar approach. Their Healthy Homes loan package provides a one per cent saving on the standard loan rate for homes that meet a minimum 6 Homestar rating (the New Zealand Green Building Council sustainable home rating).

With most new homes built to New Zealand’s building code minimum standards achieving a 3-4 Homestar rating, this represents a major improvement on energy, health and comfort standards.

The homes funded through Healthy Homes have lower heating bills in winter and lower costs for aircon in the summer, along with natural light which saves on lighting costs and has been shown to improve mood.

In New Zealand’s wet climate, a warm dry home is less likely to harbour mould or sustain damage from water ingress – a no-brainer for a healthier place to live.

Healthy Homes loans are also available to upgrade existing homes. ANZ’s New Zealand subsidiary has also pledged $NZ100 million for interest-free loans to insulate existing properties. Here in Australia, this kind of retrofitting of existing homes would help the vast majority of our housing stock to achieve better energy performance.

There are clear benefits for banks offering green loans. Owners of energy efficient homes are potentially less likely to default on their mortgages as they save money on bills and are healthier.

In a climate where energy prices are rising, this is likely to become a bigger factor in the future. Additionally, climate-aware design, which accepts and designs for the reality of climate change, means homes are less exposed to climate related risks like heatwaves and flooding.

Even when we don’t use the language of sustainability, Australians value what it provides for our homes. Our building sector has the experience and the know-how to build high-performance homes, and our banks would benefit from providing finance for them. Finance products that take account of the benefits of sustainable homes can provide home comforts for all of us.

Spinifex is an opinion column open to all, so called because it’s at the “spiky” end of sustainability. If you would like to contribute, we require 700+ words. For a more detailed brief and style guide please email editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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