22 June 2017

Thoroughly Eco

An innovative and inspiring energy-efficient home shows the many ways we can go green in the city for all sorts of benefits.


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When locals heard the Baillies were planning to take away the original character bungalow and replace it with an eco-home, some had visions of a hippy, green, straw bale, grass roof monstrosity along the traditional street of bungalows. They need not have worried.

The Baillies took great pains to acknowledge their neighbourhood. And while the building is an attractive contemporary weatherboard home, at the same time it is intensely ‘dark green under the skin’.

Russell Baillie has been sketching and doodling his dream home for over a decade. An engineer, he works as the energy manager at the University of Auckland, eliminating faults and reducing consumption through energy efficiency measures. Previously, he was an energy efficiency preacher for the Government’s EECA Business team.

So, the Baillie home is the embodiment of everything he’s done in his professional career, promoting energy efficiency. Planning has been a long slow process that intensified four years ago when Russell and his wife Gail embarked on the classic real estate dilemma, one which clearly impacts on sustainable urban issues - determining the location.

“On top of our list was somewhere close to public transport, the CBD, where the kids could walk to school. It needed to be on busy bus routes to get into town, close to shops and cafes; no more than a single bus stage to get to secondary school. Plus we wanted to get the girls into Epsom Girls,” says Russell.

They were hunting for a run-down place to pick up and put on their empty section in Sandringham. To avoid resource consent hassles, it couldn’t be a heritage protected street. And it had to be on a street orientated north south so every room would face north. “So we knew which 15 streets we were looking at,” jokes Gail.

North facing windows and a solid concrete floor provides plenty of solar gain during the winter months. Appliances were chosen for their efficiency.

North facing windows and a solid concrete floor provides plenty of solar gain during the winter months. Appliances were chosen for their efficiency.

It took two years to find the right place. Once that was sorted, they aimed to create a super-energy efficient house that was warm, dry and healthy, and didn’t need space heating.

“Then a whole bunch of other sustainability stuff came into play with selection of materials manufactured with less nasties, locally sourced that was not too much more expensive than imported.”

Russell designed the home, had it drawn up, then decided it didn’t look good enough. So, he sacked himself as a designer and employed RTA Studio to make it look nice. “While it wasn’t a cheap decision, it was a very good value decision. The value-added was much more than the extra cost of employing an architect. That’s quite a lesson for a lot of Kiwis. That cost return on investment stuff that people often ask about – how do you put a dollar value on the comfort and quality side?”

“We don’t need heaters and there’s always somewhere warm in the house to go to.”

Daughter Maia likes her new home a lot, because it’s a lot warmer than any of the previous houses she’s lived in. Designed for the sun, all living spaces and bedrooms face north. Even in the depths of winter, the temperature doesn’t drop below 18 degrees.

The buzzwords are thermal mass and solar gain with concrete block walls through the main internal walls and darkened polished concrete floors that soak up the sunshine, storing energy and slowly releasing heat overnight back into the house.

The buzzwords are thermal mass and solar gain with concrete block walls through the main internal walls and darkened polished concrete floors that soak up the sunshine, storing energy and slowly releasing heat overnight back into the house.

The kitchen is the heart and soul, the control deck in open plan living. Everything spreads out from there for optimum indoor outdoor flow to the deck. Skylights above the kitchen are triple glazed.

As part of the design process,  the angle the sun would come inside was calculated and slim metal sun-shades were sized above the windows so in winter, sun comes deep inside but in summer, not so much. As the afternoon sun gets lower, it’s harder to design for the west-facing sun. So, big sliding outdoor shutters pull across windows at the front of the house.

Expensive to build? “Yes it’s more expensive. But it’s hard to break down. There’s a lot of extra geeky stuff because I’m an engineer.” Gail guesses it would have cost about 25% more than the average house. “But we spent less per m2 than the average Remuera mansion being built. It was commensurate with a luxury home in this part of town.

Instead of giant marble expanses and $10,000 ovens, that money went into a lot of eco and other aspects of the house.”

For example, it’s close to double code level insulation. Walls are 50% thicker with much higher levels of Knauf Earthwool insulation than required. And because aluminium window frames get cold and heat disappears, locally custom-made  timber joinery with European tilt and slide hardware keeps the house warmer. “You can leave them open all day for ventilation but they also slide open.”

Studies completed about 10 years ago showed the best thing the government can do for health outcomes is install insulation and ventilation systems in rental properties because a dry house is a healthy home. “The health returns are four times greater than the energy savings. You’re a lot healthier in a cold dry house than in a moderately warm damp house,” explains Russell.

“So we’ve installed a Zehnder two-fan heat recovery ventilation system where we’re exhausting air out of the bathrooms and laundry and supplying clean tempered air into bedrooms to keep the air fresh and clean.”

Showers are fully enclosed in glass cubicles that reach to the ceilings – like the shower dome system - to keep wet air from moving through the home.  And Methven Aio and Satinjet showers are very water efficient.

Photo-voltaic panels on the roof make their own electricity and a Tesla Powerwall  battery stores electricity for use when the sun isn’t shining.

Photo-voltaic panels on the roof make their own electricity and a Tesla Powerwall battery stores electricity for use when the sun isn’t shining.

Much research went into the selection of appliances, a trade-off between energy efficiency and cost. The kitchen has an induction hob. It’s much faster and the rangehood is crucial for eliminating moisture.

Rainwater is collected in three tanks behind the house and treated by UV filters that make it drinkable. During the recent Watercare crisis, the Baillies could continue to shower as they desired, having more than one months water still in their tanks.

The list of energy saving features is exhaustive. The aim is to achieve a 10 star Homestar rating. Russell hopes they’ll be the first in Auckland.

Extra dollars were added because Russell intended the house as part of his industry research and training. He installed data collection measures for the electricity they import from the street and export back, ventilation, power used for the laundry and to charge the fully electric car, the domestic hot water, the rain water tanks and supply systems, the UV systems, kitchen appliances, lighting and general power points about the house and the solar power off the roof.

“None of this makes the house more energy efficient but it lets us know where it’s being used.” He can identify waste and take corrective actions. When someone spent 49 minutes in the shower recently, he could immediately see when it happened.

Everything can be monitored on the laptop.

Everything can be monitored on the laptop.

Gail recently completed a landscape design course and assures the lawn should arrive during autumn. Other landscaping, well on its way, features native planting, an edible garden with a bounteous crop of tomatoes and vegetables along the entry. A green wall of apples and pears is espaliered on the boundary and a food hedge of feijoas forms a screen from the road.

Many more features of the home make it more liveable for a greater variety of inhabitants. It is inter-generationally accessible for disabled people and has a 5 star Lifemark rating. Crime prevention for environmental design makes it safer. These simple design elements are easy to incorporate when building new, explains Russell, much harder when the home is already built.

Whether building an eco-home is viable for most people comes back to what you value most. “Are you making decisions based on short term economics, the long-term cost of ownership or the health, warmth and comfort of your home?”, says Russell. “Most decisions are a weighted priority,” adds Gail. “There are a lot of little things that are probably more accessible to most people.  You can do your own pick and mix.”

For sure, going green adds up. But for the Baillies, who are living the eco dream, life is much warmer, drier and more comfortable than ever before. The kids have been noticeably healthier.  Hard to put a price on that.

For more information, check out the Baillie eco-home Facebook page

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