05.07.16

How to Build a Sustainable Home on a Budget

CHAMPAGNE TASTE ON A BEER BUDGET

Robert and Tracy McVicker’s home in Logan Village, Queensland has won several awards and received much praise over the past five years. And rightly so – they built the luxury family home to capitalise on the characteristics of the site, incorporated a number of sustainable features and left nothing to be desired on the design front.

But Robert explains that this recognition was never a goal of the project. Rather, they simply wanted to build a self-sufficient, affordable-to-operate home for themselves and their two children, and they’ve achieved this as owner-builders, which has afforded them flexibility in design, time and budget.

The House

  • 4 bedrooms
  • 2.5 bathrooms
  • Open-plan kitchen / lounge / dining
  • Theatre room
  • Children’s retreat
  • Library
  • Study
  • Outdoor kitchen / entertaining area

The Property

  • Land size: 20,590 sq m (5.08 acres)
  • Internal floor area: 354 sq m
  • Outdoor entertaining / entry: 60 sq m
  • Roof harvesting area: 493 sq m
  • Pool size: 90,000 litres

The Timeline

  • Design started: June 2005
  • Construction started: July 2008
  • Move-in date: October 2012

17 Family

Tell us a little bit about your background.

I spent 16 years in airport airline customer service. My only exposure to building was my first home: an inner city Queensland workers cottage renovation, which I restored to period style and quite enjoyed.

What were the motivating factors in your decision to build a sustainable home? 

In the beginning, the motivation was just more to be self-sufficient and mitigate running costs rather than be sustainable. It wasn’t until well after the home was finished we became aware of meaningful sustainable milestones.

Tell us about the site. What was your thought process when designing the house with respect to its environment?

It was certainly a challenging site. We were initially drawn to it because of its large natural black sandstone ridge traversing the property (east to west). It was a brownfield site with an abandoned unfinished home with significant site and ground contamination. The site has a restricted building envelope, bushfire covenants and numerous vegetation protection covenants.

The home orientation was critical. Facing the winter sun was more important than accommodating street appeal or the typical ‘squaring’ to the boundary. The house ended up having a slight NNE aspect, which perfectly parallels the existing natural rock ridgeline. We had to be very careful to work the house design with the rock topography. Ignoring this would mean extensive expensive jack hammering or adding vast amounts of fill, neither of which we wanted to do. So the ground was dumpy levelled before design and the home was split levelled at these measurements to work with the existing natural (yet eerily flat) rock levels.

We minimised tree-clearing by keeping our building envelope to the existing cleared area, and we located the building at the southern end of the building envelope to maximise solar passive benefit, which meant the home was perched on top of the sandstone ridge. Extensive rock at the surface meant the building would have little impact to an already nonporous footprint. And being perched on the ridgeline it maximised natural breeze capture.

8 Great Room 2

Why did you take on the bulk of this project yourself instead of hiring industry professionals?

We fundamentally had champagne tastes and a beer budget! Also, I wasn’t up for hearing what I wanted wasn’t possible. To get what I wanted I had to constantly filter many tradespeople and suppliers that couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do what we wanted. Builders often stick with set subcontractors and this would have been limiting and problematic for our construction.

For example, when I took our glass and aluminum joinery plans to one of the largest manufacturers in the industry, I was explicitly told our largest sliding door (into cavity) design was not possible. “We can’t do that, it won’t work, you shouldn’t do it and we recommend you don’t do it.” I still remember those exact words some 8 years on. But undeterred, I persisted on the search until I found a small business with a talented tradesman who could do it. He was rewarded with the entire glass work for the home.

I wanted the freedom to make changes throughout construction without being excessively penalised. On paper, a good design is one thing, yet as the building rises and you wander through it during construction, there will always be significant opportunities to correct and or improve missing detail. I wanted construction to be fluid. That is, if I found interesting secondhand materials that I could incorporate, I would want to do so without issue.

Essentially I needed control over the project. I also needed it to start and stop as and when I had sufficient funds or time available to be on-site supervising. I would have driven a project builder nuts with my attention to detail and it would have cost significantly more for a restricted, lesser quality finish.

Building a house is no easy task! Where did you start? What were the biggest challenges?

I would recommend starting with books on building and the internet. Warm House Cool House was one of my favourite books. Rather than rambling on with posh architectural language and etiquette, it translates complex principals in both simple terms and lots of pictures (my kind of book!). Being disciplined with these simplified principles was fundamental.

As for the biggest challenge, as owner-builders with only limited renovation experience, we had a steep learning curve about planning, approvals, construction and finishes. To be successful, you have to listen, understand, evaluate and learn quick if you want the best outcomes. For an inexperienced person it can be hard to know when to hold your ground or when you have pushed practical building limitations too far.

14 Outdoor Wing

Where did you source your building materials, fixtures and products?

They were mostly local. A builder may keep the same suppliers regardless of the location of the new build. Yet for us it had multiple benefits (environmental and financial) to keep most of the bulk building materials from local suppliers. We also exploited our own network with some suppliers being friends, family and even neighbours. However, we didn’t fixate on using local suppliers as some smaller items were sourced from all over the world, such as items that had superior functionality, durability and quality. For example, our home security deadbolts were imported from the US. Chosen products had to be fit for purpose and durable. We also incorporated recycled, surplus and secondhand building materials and furniture.

Can you tell us about the elements of the building performance? In the building of this house, was there an element that was more significant or influential or problematic than the rest? Which was the most difficult to negotiate?

Ensuring the building design is suited to the regional climate is the most significant factor. Ignoring or working against local climate conditions will increase energy demand and running costs. It’s that simple!

We found orientation and thermal mass design critical to our performance. Current building stock and land developments ignore this fundamental and currently most consumers are not aware just how important it is. With an acreage site, it is easy to negotiate as you have the space to rotate to the optimal orientation. Small lot developments, working with a view, neighbouring tall buildings, trees, terrain or poor land choice can make it very difficult, limiting and or even outright unworkable.

The winged roof to the outdoor entertaining was the most difficult element to negotiate.  Traditional solutions demand an exposing ceiling joist around the perimeter. This element took some debating (solving deflection issues) with the engineer and ruled out most of the framers in the market.

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Can you list the sustainable functionalities this home has?

Net Positive Energy – in simple terms, we export more (over 105%) renewable surplus electricity than we import from the grid.  

Net Positive Water – we use only a renewable source of water (rainwater captured from the home roof and stored on site). We capture and store more water than we use in the household. Stormwater from the building is managed onsite with most retained in rainwater tanks. Any rare overflow is directed over our own paddocks, not plumbed to the street. All wastewater is managed onsite. Both grey and blackwater is treated to a high standard without chemicals before being reused in irrigation, again onsite.

What are some of your favourite features or design elements?

Solar passive design – I absolutely love coming home on a cold winter’s evening to naturally warm house that has been heated for free by the winter sun throughout the day.  

Did members of your family have any specific requests?

Our children were too young for particular requests when we embarked the design process. There were simple challenges, such as how do we solve the need for their rooms to be close to us (for the ease of access whilst they are young) while also offering a comfortable separation to suit when they are older?

We loved simple open-plan designs that keep family members connected, but we wanted to go beyond just the open plan kitchen / lounge / dining. It also had to connect with clear vision to the outdoor entertaining, the swimming pool, the children’s playground, vegetable garden and my man shed.

We wanted the house to flow, yet have the ability to operate in defined separate zones. The first zone had to accommodate business visitors without invading the home privacy (study / library / powder room). The second zone had to accommodate entertaining whilst separating and distancing itself from the private bedroom zone of the home.

15 Pool with Slide

How much did the house cost?

We didn’t have a defined budget. As first-time owner-builders we knew our forecast wouldn’t be anywhere near accurate. Rather, the objective during the building process was simply to attack each stage as cost efficient as possible without compromising quality. Keeping in the cheaper non-architect category we were still below the average Australian construction cost per square metre.

The final cost is not reflective of a typical sustainable home. It incurred above average expenditure simply because it is a luxury home with significant attention to detail and high-end finishes. It’s also not easily replicable or reflective of real cost. My wife and I volunteered all the project management, approval submissions, researching, quoting, purchasing and were heavily involved on site assisting tradespeople, prepping and regular site cleaning to save money. I have no record of the accumulative time (over the years) or value that would be.

How much did choosing sustainable high-performance add to build final cost?

Less than 10%. This includes high-flow rainwater transfer system, rainwater tanks, variable speed house pump, wastewater treatment system, solar PV system, solar hot water system, indirect evaporative cooling system, dedicated off-peak tariff wiring and all related labour and fitting.

Are there any things you wish you did differently?

I wished I chosen a larger solar PV inverter. But back in 2009, a 3.8kW inverter residentially was big and expensive. However, I have to stick with the one I have if I wish to retain my solar feed-in tariff.

I could have made use of larger or more rainwater tanks. Whilst 80,000 litres seems excessive, our area has typically dry winters where captured summer rain must carry the household to the next summer. Larger tanks would give me greater landscaping water throughout winter and longer drought resilience overall.

As well, little details such as thicker walkable corrugated roof sheets, not the thin stuff the building industry believes is acceptable. I would also have incorporated our indirect cooling system into the floor and not used any concrete at the external solar passive northern apron.

Were net zero energy and net zero water goals you had in mind from the start?

Not at all! I wasn’t even aware of these principles when we started designing the home. We won sustainability awards in 2013 and 2014, but at the time we did not recognise the home’s performance was actually not sustainable.  Like a lot of people in the green and building industries, we had mistaken ‘less bad’ for being sustainable. 2014 was our epiphany and we altered course from ‘less bad’ to meaningful sustainability with our own double net zero challenge.

How did you feel when you were awarded winner of the Built Environment category prize at the 2015 Queensland Premier’s Sustainability Awards?

Shocked. Months earlier we had entered an industry design awards with no awareness of the significance of our project. I was completely naive as to how these industry awards work, but I was determined and passionate that we were hitting meaningful sustainable milestones where the building industry had either not attempted or had failed.

Although competing against industry giants with over $100 million buildings with architects, professional builders and ‘green’ endorsements, I felt more comfortable with the State awards as we were judged by an independent panel with a mix of backgrounds. It turned out to be an epic David versus Goliath win. I was later advised it was a unanimous decision from the judges and I was the first owner-builder in the State Award’s history to have even made it as a finalist in the Built Environment category. I guess it’s the knock downs and knock backs that make the wins sweeter.

What was your key to success?

Many building industry professionals haven’t been engaged or have rarely been interested in a building’s actual performance or often even concerned with running costs after finishing the building. I never saw the finish line, and probably still don’t. I’m still learning how the building reacts to the climate and continuously seeking opportunities to improve the performance. We have over three years’ worth of water and energy use data that is incredibly valuable when we experiment with modifications. As the owner and bill payer and receiver of solar feed-in credits, I am heavily invested and rewarded in how well the building performs.

Having successfully built a ‘Net Positive Energy, Net Positive Water, high-performance home’ and won an award for it to boot, what is the one thing throughout the journey that you’re proudest of?

Most recently it is being used as a case study in the 2016 Queensland Government Climate Change Discussion Paper.  We are most proud to know that our home represents current best practice in the built environment and demonstrates how individuals can effect local change with global impact.

What is your sustainable built environment message?

If we are not careful, ‘sustainability’ will continue to be hijacked, distorted, censored and corporatised. We hope we have contributed to the awakening of meaningful sustainability in Australia.

A sustainable building is not one that is ‘less bad’ – a sustainable building is one that can survive and operate on its own renewable site resources without polluting and damaging the environment it resides. We just need the public and the media to recognise when the industry is selling out on sustainability.

To keep up-to-date with the performance of The Vicker Ridge home, or if you have any questions for Robert, head over to their Facebook page.