Growing Auckland greener through sustainable design

Whether you are renovating, building a stand-alone house, or undertaking a more complex development, using sustainable processes may at first seem complicated, daunting or expensive.  

But when you consider your design decisions in a broader context (as part of the Auckland city landscape, as well as over the long-term life of the building) you may see the case for making your build more sustainable in a different light. 

In many cases, the most fundamental sustainability measures don’t necessarily mean you have to blow the budget. In fact, many can save money, especially over the longer term. The key is to start the process of designing with the big picture in mind.

Growing Ak greener Mt Eden view

The broader context your Auckland build or renovation fits into is a rapidly growing city. Another 716,000 people are expected to make Auckland their home by 2045.  This means Auckland needs to accommodate these new residents with homes, jobs and transport, which presents a massive challenge to how we design Auckland’s built environment.

Whatever the scale of your project, every dwelling in Auckland is part of this picture of growth.

The natural features of Auckland’s unique landscape and marine environments are a huge part of what makes Auckland such an attractive place to live. However, collectively our population has compromised our natural environment, reducing the quality of our air, soils and water.

Harmful contaminant levels are increasing in the waters and sediments of our waterways and harbours. Our native wildlife and their habitats have declined significantly.

Growing Ak greener flying bird

Growing Ak greener bush

The design and building practices used throughout Auckland historically have contributed considerably to these problems. According to a report by the US Green Building Council, the built environment is responsible for 14% of global water consumption, 41% of energy consumption and 40% raw material usage.  As our population grows, we need to change the way we design, build and live in our cities to alleviate the negative effects of our impact on the natural environment, which we love and depend on.

The big picture solution to this starts with sound city planning.

Auckland has historically sprawled into the ample green areas at its fringes, but this is an inefficient model for a city with the population Auckland has now, and will have in the future.

The solution to this is to create many suburban hubs throughout Auckland that serve all of the local community’s needs; compact, walkable communities connected to an efficient city-wide transport system. This way we can also preserve pockets of green space and nature for all to enjoy. This is the future we are moving towards as a city, and one that we need to embrace if we are to clean up our air and live in attractive, comfortable and healthy neighbourhoods.

Growing Ak greener walkway family

Growing Ak greener lanterns federal street

So what can home owners and developers do to contribute to this future of a more efficiently-functioning, environmentally sustainable city?

How can the decisions that we make for our renovations and buildings compliment and contribute to this vision?

The good news is that there’s an increasingly greater understanding of what constitutes best practice in sustainable design in the home designing and building sector. It does help to sound out your architects, designers and builders before you decide to work with them in order to make sure they are on board with your vision in general, including your approach to sustainability.

You may hit some roadblocks along the way. Contractors will sometimes tell you going the extra mile for environmental reasons is “not standard practice” or “too expensive”. However,   overcoming these obstacles is often a matter of taking a pragmatic, problem-solving approach, and being persistent. If enough people demand sustainable practices, these will then become “standard practice”.

Here are some steps you can take in collaboration with design professionals and contractors to contribute to a cleaner, more efficient Auckland cityscape.

If you are starting a new build, you will be doing some degree of excavating onsite.  Recycling the topsoil and any other remnants of what was there before (like concrete and other building materials) is one simple but significant way you can give back to the environment. You will have to pay to dispose of this waste anyway so it makes sense to put it to good use, and reduce landfill waste. There are several companies in Auckland offering this service.

A very important aspect of great design is ensuring the building remains a comfortable temperature all year round. There are many measures you can take when designing your home to keep the temperature optimal inside.  In combination these will significantly minimise your dependence on the grid (which helps decrease the need for more dams), and therefore save money on your energy bill.

Growing Ak greener Construkt 8

If you are building a new home or apartment complex it makes sense to work with nature to maximise the benefits of the sun for heating and air flow for cooling. You can do this by orienting the building layout to the site in the best possible way and making careful decisions about window placement and shading.

Investing in good quality materials and a high standard of workmanship will pay off exponentially over the life of the building, as the costs of heating and ventilation are much lower in well-constructed homes. Installing effective insulation correctly and double glazing are both highly cost-effective ways to retain heat.  Thermal models of your building can help you to estimate internal temperatures and energy usage.

For more information about how to work through the design process with your architects and other consultants, check out: Developing New Homes Concept and Preliminary Design 

For more information about designing your house for passive heating and cooling: Zero Energy House Passive Heating and Cooling

growing ak greener zero

Zero Energy House

The appliances you install for those months when additional heating is required are also critical to ensuring your dwelling is energy efficient. Choosing efficient heating appliances like radiant wall panels and heat pumps (and using them wisely) can have a huge impact on electricity use. So can maximising access to natural light through your design and using LED lights throughout your dwelling.

For more information about ways to efficiently heat and cool your home refer to the EECA website

The retrofit your home programme provides low interest loans to home owners with cold, damp and not well insulated homes, who want to install insulation and clean heating solutions: Retrofit your home

Consider ways that you could generate electricity onsite rather than relying on the grid. Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels and passive solar water heating are two options worth investigating. These need to be factored into the design from the outset as PV panels require adequate ceiling space and roof pitch.

Supplementing the town water supply with water you collect yourself in rainwater catchment systems is another step you can take to minimise pressure on our city’s natural resources.  Recycling your greywater (re-using water from showers, baths and sinks for flushing your toilet and/or watering your garden) is a further option to consider. This also reduces the amount of wastewater which requires treatment after it leaves your property.  There are an increasing amount of companies who design and install these systems.  Again, for the best possible outcome, you will need to incorporate these into your plans from the initial stages of the design process.

For more information on collecting rainwater and re-using greywater, read these pages on the Smarter Homes website: Collecting and using rainwater and re-using greywater

Also this page from the Zero Energy House website: Water System

When choosing your materials there are several things to consider in order to make your building as sustainable as possible.  Investing in good quality, long lasting materials will mean you don’t have to spend too much additional time, money, and energy on the building’s maintenance over its life span.

Also consider the life of the products you use before they become part of the building, and after they are disposed of.  What were the processes involved in manufacturing (or harvesting) these products and what impact did that have on the environment? What impact will the processes required for (and waste from) the build itself have? Choosing materials with low toxicity benefits the health of those who build and live in the building, as well as the environment. Designing your build for standard sizing and prefabricating elements of your design can help reduce the waste your build will generate.

The appliances you install for those months when additional heating is required are also critical to ensuring your dwelling is energy efficient. Choosing efficient heating appliances like radiant wall panels and heat pumps (and using them wisely) can have a huge impact on electricity use. So can maximising access to natural light through your design and using LED lights throughout your dwelling.

For more information on a variety of commonly used building and decorating materials and their impacts on your health and the environment read this page from the Smarter Homes website: Materials

Gowing Ak greener builder on site

Using recycled materials for your build can not only reduce pressure on resources, but also add character and another layer of history to your design. For example you can use recycled hardwood for floors and weight-bearing beams. Some materials, for example certain types of insulation, are made from fully recyclable materials which can also be recycled after their use.

How people live in their homes after they are constructed also has a major impact on the environment.

Turning off appliances when not in use is a simple way to reduce pressure on electricity consumption. Mulching your garden helps retain moisture in the soil (as well as keeping down weeds), and reduces the need for watering. Recycling your food waste in a compost or worm farm significantly reduces pressure on our landfills, which release harmful gases and leachates into our atmosphere and groundwater. (A kerbside collection system for organic waste will be rolled out Auckland-wide eventually, which will provide an easy option for apartment dwellers).

Using sustainable design practices can be really exciting and creative when you research all the options available to you. A bit of forethought at the outset can make it easy for your build to lighten its footprint throughout its construction, and into the future.

Resources and inspiration:

Sustainability approaches

The Commons – sustainable apartment building

Zero energy house

Living future


Article by Prue Cunningham

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