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Byron Shire
January 29, 2022

Get the build right first – for you and the planet

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Aslan Shand

How we build our homes to stay warm in winter and cool in summer can dramatically change how much we contribute to toasting the planet. 

The world’s population of humans is predicted to reach 11.2 billion by 2100. Housing all these people on an increasingly constrained planet means we need to get savvy about sustainable building now to reduce carbon emissions. 

It doesn’t matter if you are building flats in the city or a shed in the country; the materials you use and the choices you make will impact not only upon the carbon footprint of the building but also on the carbon footprint of the building’s long-term use. So what are some of the key points to keep in mind?

A green living wall on a hotel in London. Photo Vera Kratochvil

Location, location…

Firstly, take a look at your local environment. It will influence how you orient your building and with what environmental constraints you need to work. 

‘Make sure that your home is designed appropriately to the local climate – in northern NSW, minimise summer sun and maximise winter sun,’ says Renew spokesperson Sasha Shtargot.

‘Solar passive design is very important – a passively designed home makes the most of natural heating and cooling to keep its occupants comfortable year round. The orientation of a house, spatial zoning, thermal mass, ventilation, insulation, shading, and glazing are the seven core components of passive design.’

Thinking ahead

‘Make sure your home is designed for the long haul,’ says Sasha, ‘and that its materials are durable and able to be easily re-used or recycled. When designing your house, think ahead: over time will your family grow, will it shrink, or stay stable? 

‘How will your health impact upon your needs in 10 or 20 years? With these things in mind, you can design a house that not only meets your current needs but also can adapt without needing extensions or renovations.’ 

Size matters

On average Australian houses are the biggest in the world and the more space you have the more heating and cooling you need to provide. By thinking about what your needs are and building appropriately you reduce your environmental impact and energy use, and save money on bills. 

In fact there are many people who are now inverting the concept of big is best and seeing how much they can fit into a tiny space. 

‘Tiny homes are gaining in popularity,’ explains Sasha.

‘They cut your environmental footprint, potentially provide freedom from debt and open up mobility – when you get the urge, you can just move on if you have a tiny house on wheels.’

A decent lining

The classic colonial Australian house, often referred to as the Queenslander, is designed to let the air flow through with open windows, verandahs, and no insulation. But the reality is that Australia is not a country where the temperature is a perfect balmy 27ᵒ all year round. 

It is in fact a country that has extremes of heat and this is only going to increase as the climate crisis gets worse. So a few tips from cold countries where they need to keep homes balanced against the environment are handy – most importantly, insulation. 

It isn’t just the roof – you can insulate walls, floor, and use double or triple glazing for windows and doors. This way you are keeping the heat or cold outside and more effectively managing your internal building environment without resorting to heavy use of heaters and air-conditioners. 

A green roof or green walls are another effective way to insulate a building. They filter water and help create environments for insects and small animals in cities and towns, as well as a handy vege patch in the house. 

Green roofs have now been mandated in a number of European countries. For example, in the Austrian city of Linz this applies to all new residential and commercial buildings with rooftops larger than 100m2. From 2015 France has required that all commercial buildings be partially covered in plants or solar panels.

Think outside the box

Sustainable building materials are key and while timber might seem to be a good means of renewables it can come at a significant environmental cost.

‘Earth building materials such as rammed earth and mudbrick are good in many respects,’ says Sasha. 

‘Regenerative materials including bamboo, straw (strawbales), and hemp are readily renewable. Concrete, most commonly in floor slabs, embeds thermal mass in passive design, but use eco-concrete, which replaces some of the high-embodied-energy cement content with alternatives such as fly ash. 

‘Timber is versatile and attractive but can come with huge environmental costs. Use recycled timber if you can, and if not choose timber with a sustainability certification such as FSC.’

Future gold

That’s right, it’s water. As the climate changes and warms how we manage our water will be essential. It isn’t just the cost of the bills but the actual availability of water that will be critical. 

‘Rainwater tanks are essential,’ says Sasha.

‘Deciding where they are located will determine their size and shape. 

‘You may want to place tanks next to the house or shed, which makes water collection simpler and reduces pipe runs.

‘Consider installing a greywater system, take shorter showers, fix dripping taps, run the dishwasher and washing machine only when full, install low-flow showerheads, and mulch and improve the soil in your garden to hold water.’

There is plenty to think about whether you are building a new house or shed or retrofitting it for a sustainable future. From lighting and dripping taps to green walls and insulation there are plenty of ideas on how to begin saving energy and recycling materials for a more sustainable future. 

For more information on sustainable housing, go to renew.org.au, a national, not-for-profit organisation that was set up in 1980 to advocate for sustainable building and communities.

This article is from The Echo‘s eleventh annual sustainability supplement Sustainability 2019 – hints for living a sustainable life. Check it out for more great tips for those who would like to tread lightly on this planet.

More articles from Sustainability 2019:

Local councils taking action on the climate crisis

Local councils are on the front line of managing resources and the environment and are in a position to implement practical on-the-ground changes to protect the environment, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and plan for the impacts of the changing climate.


Power to the people: take the climate crisis into your own...

If you had to walk a kilometre to pump your water from a well, do you think you would be careful how many drops you used?


Been thinking about going off the grid? Here’s some firsthand advice

Thinking about going off grid? ‘Do it!’, says local filmmaker David Lowe.


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  1. I bucket out my wash machine water to lawn n plants, shower w a bucket & hand wash in this then onto t garden. Oh what a feeling!

  2. Hard to believe how unlivable the new houses built in this country still are. How inefficient our buildings are. How wasteful the building process is and just how bloody ugly they are!

  3. Really though our bodies are also a question, as Graves pointed out in a story once. Why waste our organic mass in a grave or incinerator when it can be added to the compost? Consider your will .

  4. I had a robot girlfriend once -sorry, partner – who called herself a building designer .. because she never quite passed architecture …. of course there’s alignment and such, sometimes this is necessitated by the nature of the street alignment, at any rate it’s obvious, winter summer sun, louvres, heat rising, seasonal wind et cetera … my mother collected rainwater in a bucket when the greens were in their nappies, she thought it was good for her skin … that woman friend had a vegan dog, died when she was four years old … and the woman had the gall to call herself an animal healer


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