arch-peace editorials

24 November 2009

The property problem

A recent poll gathered that, give or take, just over half of all home owners in Australia are intending to install solar panels of some sort within the next two years.(1) Tim Flannery thinks this is great news, and that maybe we can start to lower the shoe size of the average home's carbon footprint. “Electric water heaters are a major contributor to the problem, accounting for roughly a quarter of household energy consumption. By comparison, using a solar water heater saves about 3 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year.” Great for some I thought.

This age of sustainable design makes certain assumptions. First, that the person wanting to be green owns the abode they want to green. Second, that they have the permission to alter it.

My semi-detached flat has a fifty square metre roof sloping at about 32 degrees due North. My flat is also on a strata title managed by a body corporate (now “owners corporation” in Victoria). In 2007 a power company made me an attractive government-subsidised offer to install a solar water panel and heater. I almost said sure, go ahead, but thought I'd better have a word to the body corp at the upcoming AGM. Response #1.

  • no one is permitted to put anything on their roofs as they do not own them. The body corporate must maintain the tiles and solar gizmos will complicate that and may damage the tiles.
Oh well. I continued with my action list – here are the responses in a nutshell:
  • No we can't get a water tank for common areas. That's too hard and there's nowhere to put one.
  • No we can't put a water tank on one of the 40 plus unused car spaces under the building. The body corporate is not in the business of buying car spaces from owners.
  • No you can't use your sunfilled carspace under your flat for anything other than a car.
  • No the complex can't get gas like the neighbours. It's too hard, it's been looked at.
  • No you can't put an external sunshade or blind up. It would change the look of the place.
  • No we can't get green power for the common electricity. It would cost an extra $2.65 a week for 25%, which is unjustifiable... and green electricity is dubious.
  • No we can't get individual water metering for each flat so that you know what you use, you must continue to pay an equal share (360 litres per day), whether you're in a bedsit or a three bedroom flat.
And so on. Underlining these responses was the fact that most of the flats are rented, and there is no benefit to the owner to increase the sustainability of a unit, unless there is a short term cost-saving.

Armed with this new wisdom, I returned to the AGM this year with new suggestions. Instead of calling them sustainability initiatives, I introduced them as potential cost-saving or cost neutral items that could improve the sustainability of the complex. The atmosphere was more receptive as the body corporate manager had just been to a sustainability seminar and warned the AGM of massive upcoming hikes in electricity and water charges.
  • Yes we can look at motion detection and voltage reduction units for the 24/7 lighting of the common areas and car parks.
  • Yes we could request VOC paints for this year’s $37,000 painting contract if the cost difference is negligible.
This year I was accepted onto the owners corporation committee. If you can't beat them, join them.

Back to that poll. 55% of Queensland home owners want solar power and don't have it. 8% already have it. That's 2.9M(2) homes Australia-wide eager to catch rays. How many can get it? 95% of owner occupiers are free to install solar goodness to their heart's delight.

But that leaves 145,000 owner occupied flats, and 2.1M rented houses and flats where we are having to make do with green power and door snakes(3). That's almost a third of all abodes in Australia. Assuming renters are at least as eager for solar power as homeowners, over a million households would like solar but can't get it anytime soon. These are the households for which the government solar power and insulation rebates are out of bounds for the foreseeable future.

Flats are a good thing. They are compact, reduce commuting times for all, have party walls and ceilings which act as insulation, and let the grasslands at the city edge hang on a few years longer. But a building owned by many people, most who don't live in it, is stuck in time. Investors will pay to upgrade it when they absolutely have to. Last year our complex spent $30,000 on roof anchor points, because we had to. The government has stringent new regulations for keeping people who walk on roofs safe. One day the government might decide that safety extends to the people living in the buildings too. Safety from species extinction.

One of the more progressive local councils in Melbourne, the city of Moreland, recently surveyed over 500 households for energy efficiency.(4) They had to reframe the survey after realising that many people had little control over their home's sustainability because they were within body corporates or renting.

“the project found that the barriers to retrofitting Class 2 buildings (that is, flats, apartments and units) were so great that solar hot water systems could not, literally, be given away....Greater focus is needed on the technical and administrative barriers to installing solar hot water systems and other energy efficiency options in Class 2 buildings”

Renting in Australia is still viewed as a short-term relationship between a tenant and a landlord they may never have met. Rental contracts tend to either be one year long, or month by month. There is no incentive for the tenant or landlord to make any improvements until the unit is to be sold on. Under Victorian law, so much as changing a showerhead (or even a lightbulb) can be deemed illegal as they are fixtures.(3) Under Victorian law, even if improvements are made with the landlord's consent, the landlord can insist that their property be returned to its original state at the end of the lease, or be reimbursed for the cost of doing so.

The number of apartments is increasing relative to detached housing, and the proportion of renters is slowly increasing. Legal frameworks need to take into account the sustainable retrofitting of these apartments by empowering tenants, encouraging landlords, and reviewing body corporate law. Sadly the new Owners Corporation Act in Victoria (2007) makes no mention of sustainability.(6)

Queensland is leading the way this year with new regulations requiring sustainability declarations at the sale of flats, and preventing body corporates from automatically rejecting owner sustainability initiatives.(5) This law acknowledges that sustainability improvements may add value to an apartment, so can be in everyone's best interests.

1. October 26th Fifth Estate, “Solar hot water is go, says new poll”
2. Australian census 2006, ABS Yearbook 2008,
3. While the options are fewer and have less impact, there are things apartment dwellers can do – from cleaning down the coils on the back of fridges, to indoor composting. More information is available in Environment Victoria's Green Renters' Guide.
4. Sustainability Victoria and Moreland Energy Foundation: 'Take Action on Electric Hot Water and Air-Conditioning' (Take Action) Survey 2007-2009.
5. Summary of 2009 law changes for bodies corporate in Queensland. Allens Arthur Robinson, 4/11/09.
6. Owner's Corporations Act (2006). Summary at Consumer Affairs Victoria.

Peter Johns
Architects for Peace, November 2009


Ceridwen said...

Thanks for your recent editorial Peter. It highlights an issue that has always been of great concern to me – that the barriers to sustainability are not so much technical as socio-political.
Your initial reaction from the body corporate reminded me of my early days in architectural practice when I had to convince the developers to shift the multi-residential units to face the sun by arguing that it gave greater visual presence to the street (individual identity = selling point = more $$$). Years on in my own practice I am lucky enough to work with more enlightened clients. This can have the effect of lulling me into the belief that this is the norm rather than the exception and your editorial is a stunning reminder that we have a very very long way to go.

beatriz said...

Peter, great humorous take on a serious matter. Your editorial paints a very accurate picture of what some have called an "insane society". It takes courage and energy to make fossils like the "owners corporate" to acknowledge reason--congratulations!

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