Why net-zero housing is the way of the future

The promise of financial savings and improved well-being could fuel a net-zero building boom in Australia.

Passive homes. Net-zero homes. Energy-neutral homes. The names may vary, but the concept is the same: to build houses that take zero net energy from the grid. That is, houses that produce as much energy as they consume. What seemed like a far-fetched idea just a few years ago is now within the grasp of ordinary Australians — and the benefits of ‘reaching zero’ have never been more apparent.

Change is in the air 

In terms of sustainable housing, the Australian building industry has historically lagged behind its counterparts in other developed nations. In fact, a study conducted last year by Dr Trivess Moore, a research fellow at RMIT University, found that more than 80 per cent of all new Australian housing was only meeting the minimum NatHERS (Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme) requirements.

“The good news is that we’re now seeing an increasing number of housing developments go beyond those requirements,” Moore says.

He cites The Cape, a development at Cape Paterson on the Victorian coast, as leading the way — and saving residents serious money in the process. “A number of households there have either eliminated their energy bills altogether or are very close to having a $0 energy bill across the year,” he says.

But net-zero housing isn’t just about financial savings. “It’s also about improved health and well-being,” Moore says. “Things like natural light and controlled temperatures can make a big difference. For example, it’s recently been demonstrated that children can have improved learning outcomes in sustainable buildings, and people can recover quicker in hospitals that have been built to a higher standard.”

Modern solutions

So, what features are developers incorporating in their builds to help residents reach net zero? For starters, says Moore, they’re going all-electric in order to take advantage of the latest ultra-efficient appliances.

“For example, there’s a range of reverse-cycle air conditioners now that are very energy-efficient compared with previous generations,” he says. “They include smart technologies: for instance, the system can be programmed to switch on and off at certain times or when certain environmental conditions are met.”

The centrepiece of any net-zero home is the rooftop solar system, comprising a dozen or so solar panels, a device called an inverter, and a battery, so energy can be deployed when the sun isn’t shining.

Not only are solar panels becoming cheaper, but also more efficient, Moore says. He adds: “Batteries are beginning to come down in price, too. Batteries are probably not cost-effective for most households right now, but within the next few years, if they follow the cost curve of solar panels, it’s likely that we’ll start to see a rapid uptake of solar batteries. That would be a game-changer in terms of collectively moving towards net-zero living.”

Easy fixes

Many of the things that make a house sustainable — such as the direction it faces and the materials with which it’s constructed— are difficult to alter once the home has been built. But there are simple steps home-owners can take to improve the sustainability of existing buildings.

“In terms of low-cost retrofit options, it’s about making sure you’ve got the gaps and the cracks sealed up around your home, and that’s something you can do yourself without too much trouble,” Moore says.

“Double glazing can be expensive to retrofit, but window films can be applied to existing windows to give a performance somewhere between single and double glazing,” he adds.

“It’s also about making sure you’ve got insulation in your ceilings, and where possible under-floor. Those are the best bang-for-buck things that Australian households should look into.”

Make sure you’re covered

If you make improvements to your home, such as solar panels and new appliances, you should ensure that the sum insured on your home insurance policy is up to date. That is, that the maximum amount we’ll pay in the event of a successful claim reflects how much it would costs to rebuild your house as it was, upgrades included.

If you’re building a new home, or the policy on your existing home is up for renewal, you may be shopping around for insurance providers. GIO can help.

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Insurance issued by AAI Limited ABN 48 005 297 807 trading as GIO. Consider the Product Disclosure Statement before buying this insurance.

This advice has been prepared without taking into account your particular objectives, financial situations or needs, so you should consider whether it is appropriate for you before acting on it.