Patrick Walker talks with Otter about how he created his dream sustainable home by renovating an older property. Views of Sydney harbour and the bridge a bonus.
Why did you decide to renovate an older home?
My wife and I love older houses and wanted to renew one, bringing it up to the highest environmental standards, but retaining the essential period feel and character. The fashion to “knock down/rebuild” a perfectly serviceable old house and replace it with a new one because it’s “cheaper” is the height of wastefulness. That cheapness, like many other things, does not take into account the environmental impact of not using what is already there.
When choosing products and services, what are the issues that you care about most?
My interest in sustainability started when my father took my family on a “tree change”, moving us from London to a 250 year-old farm in West Wales back in 1970. He left his city job to become an inventor, specialising in renewable energy. We were, I’m certain, the only house locally with both solar panels and a wind turbine.
These days I look at all the normal things, like whether a product was ethically produced and how far it has travelled – we are passionate advocates of local farmers markets, and try to source as much of our fruit and veg from these as possible. We also like buying vintage or “pre-loved” items and consider and avoid wasteful packaging and use of plastic bags. And we always prefer small, independent local businesses to the big names.
What were the specific priorities for your renovation?
We wanted to ensure the home worked with its environment rather than against it. We wanted it to be comfortable and low maintenance – a pleasurable place for us to live – but without “costing the earth”. Not surprisingly, energy efficiency and water efficiency were high priorities. In the garden, we wanted Australian native plants to actively attract wildlife.
What were some of the key design decisions you made?
First, we “inverted” the house . We moved the bedrooms downstairs and the living areas upstairs. We wanted to maximise the view, of course, but the fact that heat rises was a very practical consideration. We didn’t want to install an energy-guzzling air conditioning, and having the bedrooms downstairs means they are always a few degrees cooler, even in the hottest conditions. We put in ceiling fans and find that we only need to have these on about 10 or 15 days a summer.
Second, we got serious about insulation, as much to keep the house cool in summer as keeping it warm in winter. In addition to underfloor, roof and ceiling insulation, we injected the cavity brick walls with foam insulation. On top of that, we fitted double glazing to all windows – much to the amusement of our builder, who insisted “you don’t need double glazing in Sydney”!
Third, we installed extremely efficient energy systems – solar electric and water heating panels, the water boosted by an instant gas top-up system when needed. Instead of heating our swimming pool we installed a “solar blanket” which keeps the pool at a very comfortable 24-28 degrees from October to April with no heating bill. On top of that we’re saving water: in the last 3 years we’ve never once had to add water to the pool which is fantastic considering how much water is lost from uncovered pools through evaporation.
That brings us to water efficiency (our fourth decision). We installed 10,000 litre rainwater tanks, capturing run-off from the roof. These feed the pool itself and the watering system for the garden, as well as the washing machine and toilets in the house.
Finally, the overall sustainability of the fittings, appliances and finishes was important to us. We went for locally-sourced products where possible, low VOC paints, LED or low-energy lighting systems and so on.
What were some of the challenges you faced?
We had to argue with our decorators who insisted that our low VOC water-based paints for our doors and skirtings would never be hard wearing enough and that we needed more traditional chemical-based gloss paints. We persisted and have been proved right, we’re very happy with the paints’ ability to withstand knocks and to be wiped clean.
The wooden flooring was a big issue. We initially wanted to obtain recycled timber, but ended up using FSC certified spotted gum from sustainably managed forests.
We had a dilemma with some appliances. For example, we ultimately went for a Miele washing machine and tumble dryer from their eco-comfort honeycomb range. Although we only use the dryer for “emergencies” (the sun and wind do a great job 95% of the time!), these have some of the highest efficiency ratings in terms of water and power usage. While they are obviously imported products – which goes against our “locally sourced” philosophy – we considered that the energy and water benefits would outweigh this in the long run.
We’re delighted! Unlike previous Sydney houses we’ve lived in, there are no draughts. The house is cosy in winter, and cool in summer and has very low power and water bills.
We also love the garden. The native plants have attracted a myriad of skinks and other lizards and insects, which in turn mean we are regularly surrounded by lorikeets, kookaburras and other birds. We also have plenty of fruitbats in our olive tree, and sulphur crested cockatoos. We even have a visit from the odd heron, checking out what’s in the pond.
What kind of information or other tools can help consumers like you make sustainable decisions?
The more information available, and the more accessible it is, the better. For example, we invested a lot of time in trying to find sustainable paint options. At the time this information did not seem to be readily available. There does seem to be more information about low VOCs available now (see “Useful Links” below).
We sometimes ended up making decisions based on “gut feel” in the absence of hard facts. I have already mentioned the Miele washing machine and the sourcing of our wooden floors. I do not know whether we ended up making the “right” decisions, as it was almost impossible (at the time) to find hard data to compare the impact of the alternative options.
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After Patrick Walker left university he ran a business to manufacture the solar panels and wind turbines designed by his inventor father for five year before deciding he owed it to his young family to do something a little more financially stable!
After 25 years in the accounting profession, Patrick retired last year to pursue his interests and passions – including sustainability he is a director of the non profit eco label Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) – and advises charities and social enterprises through an organisation called Good Foundations.
Green Lifestyle magazine’s Guide to Renovation Materials
Good Environmental Choice Australia has a database of certified products including sustainable paints, textiles, furniture, flooring and panel boards.