“Can you hear the rooster?”
Zac Ingram is calling from his farm in the regional NSW town of Coopernook that he shares with his wife Nicole, their puppy Sol, several goats, chickens and their rooster Heihei.
The slice of land is around 300 kilometres north of Sydney and surrounded by bush. As of the 2016 Census, Coopernook was home to a total of 538 people. And it’s where the two are building their dream home.
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The Ingrams’ decision to build a home defined by sustainability is a natural extension of their own low-impact lifestyles.
“Nicole and I try to live as sustainably as possible in all the areas of our life, so it made sense to try to build a sustainable home - as much as we can - whether that be through sustainable materials or practices,” Ingram said.
“If you can be sustainable and give back that little bit, I think everyone should really.”
They’re going to use wood from the land, and are working with a designer to dream up the perfect optimised home.
That means choosing the smartest aspect for solar power, windows at the precise location for temperature regulation and composting toilets and grey water reuse systems.
As an owner-builder project, Ingram doesn’t expect the home will be complete for another three years but, until then, the two are happy living out of their caravan on the property.
While not all owner-builders have the option to pursue their ideal home, the houses of the future will need to head in this direction, University of New South Wales Professor of High Performance Architecture Mattheos Santamouris told Yahoo Finance.
Santamouris has spent much of his career studying smart building design and heat-mitigation strategies for cities around the world, including Sydney.
Compared to the international standard, Australian homes are among the “worst” when it comes to energy efficiency and design.
And it’s a problem that will have major consequences, Santamouris warned.
Millions of Western Sydney homes uninhabitable within 15 years
The NSW government on Wednesday announced plans to ban dark roofs in a bid to promote energy efficiency.
Planning Minister Rob Stokes referenced UNSW research finding that Sydney’s ambient temperature could be reduced by up to 2.4C by ending dark roofing.
And during a heatwave, lighter-coloured roofs also have the ability to cut temperatures by up to 10C.
Santamouris described this policy shift as a “no-brainer”, but warned that more needs to be done to prevent a mass exodus from Western Sydney.
The population of Greater Western Sydney is tipped to reach 3 million by 2036.
But if new developments don’t comply with international best practice, and older dwellings aren’t retrofitted to keep up, the region will see five to six days a year with temperatures above 55 degrees.
The difference in temperature between Western Sydney and the eastern suburbs can be as much as nine degrees in the hotter months - a staggering gap for two regions only 40 kilometres apart.
Western Sydney’s Penrith has three times as many days above 30C than the CBD.
Three times as many people die of heat-related issues in Sydney’s west than the east, and they also spend as much as 100 per cent more on energy, further exacerbating the east-west wealth divide.
“If we don’t act now in Western Sydney, the area will be completely abandoned in 15-20 years,” Santamouris said.
What does the optimised suburb look like?
Optimised developments go beyond changing the colour of roofs. Smart homes are built with clever insulation in mind, and they also require more space between dwellings for greenery and air flow.
According to Santamouris, investing in smart design can reduce the energy required for cooling by up to 45 per cent.
In turn, it means less investment is required to build and maintain new power plants.
“We have to improve the quality [of our buildings] and this will decrease the energy consumption by up to 70-80 per cent, because the actual energy consumption of Australian buildings is very high compared to the international standards,” he said.
Proactive design policies are already applied in more than 400 large-scale developments around the world, including in Saudi Arabia, Kolkata, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur.
“I don’t really understand why we have to delay here in Sydney,” Santamouris said.
“To protect people, we need to be proactive not reactive. If we’re not proactive, the cost will be 10 times higher and the problem won’t be solved.”
The way forward
Discussing sustainable design, the same phrase, “no-brainer” is used by both experts and builders.
Santamouris is calling for a national housing rehabilitation project to retrofit existing homes with improved insulation and windows - a scheme he predicts will boost employment rates and the economy, while also saving billions of dollars in energy expenses down the track.
For the Ingrams, the solution also lies in looking to our neighbours - and the past - for advice.
“Composting toilets - in countries like Africa, they’re really jumping on board because they don’t require water to use them, you get to use the bottom product which is just like top-soil,” Ingram said.
Similarly, the Ingrams are going to use hempcrete, which is made of woody hemp fibre, lime and water to build their home, along with timber from the land.
Hempcrete has been discovered in 6th century French infrastructure.
While the initial build will cost more than the standard house, Ingram believes the energy-efficient nature of the property will more than pay for itself in the years to come.
“We spend a lot of time outdoors, and in nature, and we want to protect where we spend our time. That’s the inspiration for us."