The Future is Bright

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-By Robert Hoshowsky

When he founded Solar Dwellings 21 years ago, company Director and Designer Griff Morris knew that he wanted to make a positive difference to his community, something he has endeavoured to do his entire life. By 1991, Griff was anything but a neophyte when it came to passive solar homes, having designed and built his first one years earlier, in Victoria in the late Seventies. In many ways, he says, working on solar homes was relaxing; a form of therapy from the stress of his day job. In time, Griff’s passion grew, and so did his knowledge as he spent years researching passive design before creating his own successful business, one with a positive outlook that benefits society and the planet.

“There wasn’t much information available at the time, and certainly no formal training at that stage in good, passive design,” says Griff, who sought knowledge wherever possible, including from overseas contacts in Europe, the electricity corporation in Victoria and the CSIRO, which had established an office for solar and passive energy. “The oil crisis of the Seventies was the impetus for me,” he comments. “I looked at all the different things that were being done, then went out and bought seven acres out of Melbourne, and basically designed a house around that particular block.” The project was a formidable one; designed to fit on the side of a hill for proper orientation, the site required a tremendous amount of excavation – some 8,000 tons of shale, recalls Griff -to ultimately end up with an acre of flat land nestled into the slope. Once the home was completed, Griff landscaped the area and planted 300 trees to make it look as if it had never been touched by the hand of man.

Coming to Western Australia in 1984, the reception to solar homes was met mainly with puzzled looks. “I’d talk to people about passive solar buildings back then and they’d look at me as if I’d stepped out of a spaceship,” says Griff, who then devoted a year to traveling and deepening his knowledge of passive design and other types of construction in Europe, Africa, and China before returning to Australia. Soon, Griff started his own building maintenance company, mainly buying, renovating, and re-selling houses. Eventually, a client for whom Griff had renovated a number of homes asked him if he would “build one of those passive solar houses for her that I was always talking about.”

For Griff the years of hard work and determination are paying off. Today, Solar Dwellings is Western Australia’s leading passive solar home design company with hundreds of clients enjoying the benefits of well designed, environmentally responsible homes.

Affordable, Sustainable Homes

With a dedicated and knowledgeable staff of six full-time employees, three contractors, and association with about a dozen builders, Solar Dwellings is committed to making high-quality passive solar homes accessible to all Australians. By raising the bar for homes which not only take advantage of free wind and solar energy but are comfortable and affordable to maintain in the short and long-term, the company is at the forefront when it comes to encouraging innovation and inspiration in the Western Australian building industry.

Since buying a home is one of the largest outlays most people will make in their lifetime, Solar Dwellings considers the home should not only be designed and built to suit lifestyle needs, but should remain energy-efficient to ensure that it will be a solid investment for the future. With intelligent passive designed homes, occupants are kept warm during the winter and cool in summer, without the need for costly heating or cooling appliances commonly found in conventional homes. Keeping heating and cooling costs to a minimum means not only greater cost savings for the homeowner, but a greatly reduced impact on the environment through energy and water efficiencies, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

“In fact, the design of the building is timeless,” says Griff. “With a well designed passive solar home, one built 30 or 40 years ago, you wouldn’t have to change the design – the skeleton will always remain very current. The only difference in the future might be high tech building products, or recycled and exotic materials.”

The Sustainable Mandurah Home

One prime example of the timeless design, functionality and livability of passive homes is The Sustainable Mandurah Home. Constructed in conjunction with The City of Mandurah and Mirvac Fini, in partnership with Solar Dwellings, Ultimate Homes and Sustainable Consulting, The Sustainable Mandurah Home (http://www.mandurah.wa.gov.au/sustainablehome.htm) was unveiled to the public in 2005 as an example of a dwelling that embodies the best in sustainable design, construction, and living for all parts of the community. It is still as popular with the community now as it was six years ago.

The home is a demonstration rather than display home, and serves to familiarise visitors with sustainable design concepts and living practices whilst maintaining affordability and aesthetics. “It is a clever and simple design, which remains low in operational costs and energy,” says Griff. For visitors, builders, students, and anyone interested in the future of residential design, The Sustainable Mandurah Home serves as an example of how all of us can reduce our ecological impact without compromising lifestyle or budget. Recently, the home underwent an energy-saving retrofit; new solid-state LED bulbs from LED Supplies Australia where installed throughout, offering significantly higher energy efficiencies and long life.

Different by Design

Passive homes demonstrate similarities and differences when compared to traditional homes, such as those constructed from brick, says Griff. Key considerations – such as orientation, insulation and landscaping – are integral to any home’s abilities to keep cool in summer and warm in winter, however in passive solar homes appropriate mass is important to maintain a stable internal temperature. Ideally, passive solar homes should have living areas and large windows facing north to allow the sun to penetrate deep into the interior, other minimal windows east and west, and the long axis of the home within 15° east or west of north. To maintain cool or warmth in the right seasons, proper positioning of windows is crucial. Windows provide not only light but airflow for cross-ventilation cooling homes naturally, and exhaust excess heated air. “The ideal construction would be low embodied energy mass on the inside, with an insulated lightweight material on the outside,” says Griff. “Then you control glazing relative to the orientation of the building and mass ratios to maintain consistent internal temperatures.”

Depending on the building material – brick, stone, or concrete – adequate solar energy can be absorbed by the thermal mass to store heat during the winter months. Ideally in the winter, direct sunlight should flood into the house with the mass of the floors and walls storing the warmth, which is then released back into the home at night and on cloudy days. For the mass to receive the solar energy it is important that insulating materials such as carpets and timber do not cover the floors exposed to the sun.

Most important is to build a residence with sufficient mass to accommodate Australia’s day/night swings in temperature. One of the advantages of building in Western Australia is the prevalence of double brick cavity walls with concrete slab on ground construction to provide the necessary horizontal and vertical mass. “Realistically, you’re trying to incorporate as much mass as possible,” comments Griff. These homes can be created from a variety of materials, including tilt-up panels, cement block, and brick with an outside cladding of treated timber. “It’s how you put everything together, the density of the materials and whether they have high embodied energy. There are other factors to consider as well, such as how much energy was utilised in its production? Where did it come from? How much energy did it take to transport the material to site? These are the factors we will be considering with all future housing.” Along with his responsibilities at Solar Dwellings, Griff also teaches the Housing Industry Association (HIA) Greensmart course, which looks at a number of environmental building concerns including the amount of waste materials generated and energy expended during construction.

At Solar Dwellings, the company’s commitment to a sustainable future is reflected not only in the homes it creates, but in its approach to the building process and its practices such as dealing with clients in a fair, open and honest manner and working with builders who are not only highly competent, but economical. The company offers individual design services and a more economical tailored design option to ensure that the ideals of energy efficient homes are made accessible to the general public. As part of this ethos, the company works closely with clients during a free introductory consultation, through concept and feasibility, costing, planning, design development, documentation, construction, and all the way to follow-up.

The Hunger Project

Griff is a great believer in helping Australia create a more sustainable future and being kinder to the environment. An extension of this commitment is also evident in Griff’s 24- year association with The Hunger Project (http://www.thp.org), a group founded in 1977 to focus on chronic, persistent hunger as distinct from acute famine emergencies.

“I made a commitment to The Hunger Project at a meeting of businessmen in Japan, that when I returned to Australia, I would involve myself in things that would make a difference,” he says. “So I decided that I would make my mark by ensuring passive solar environmentally accessible housing was available to everybody, instead of it only being within the reach of the intellectually or financially able.” The company initially receives only a small upfront commitment fee with the reminder being paid during construction, thus tying its success to the builder’s product and the client’s expectations. “Our fees are based only on construction costs, not the site costs, and those associated with finishing such as flooring and window treatments. So it’s a very ethical and open process – and a large percentage of our annual profit goes to The Hunger Project.”

The Future

Involved in the design and construction of passive solar homes for decades, Griff Morris is optimistic about residential construction. His goal for the future is much like his ambition for the present: to see more well-designed homes built based on the sound principles of passive solar design and universal access. He envisions a future where advanced components, faster construction systems and phase-change polymer materials are financially viable and widely accepted in residential construction and the community.

“If in the future, say 30 or 40 years down the track, if 80 to 90 per cent of homes in Australia were built based on good passive solar design principle, I’d be very happy,” he says. “I would feel I’d left a legacy that would serve long into the future.”

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

November 28, 2020, 10:15 PM AEDT