As the federal government is slow to legislate to reduce carbon emissions, many Australians are reducing their individual carbon footprints, changing their lifestyles and even their homes to become more sustainable.
Installing solar panels, solar water heating systems and rain tanks is relatively straightforward on single-family homes, but the growing number of apartment dwellers poses new challenges for a sustainable lifestyle.
Peter Newman, professor of sustainability at Curtin University, says that making apartment buildings sustainable is now “a question of how, rather than why… It’s something we have to do. It is no longer a choice.
Residents of individual apartments could use more energy-efficient appliances and heat-reflecting window films to reduce their environmental footprint, Newman says, but the biggest changes would come from modifying the building to add solar power or insulation.
“Both of these things need the strata title group to work on as a decision shared by the whole community rather than individuals. They are fundamental to be more sustainable and depend on the collaboration of the group.
Newman says now is the time for apartment owners to think about the big picture. “They must see that their money is being used not only for them but … for the whole planet.”
In Western Australia, a group of unit owners are retrofitting solar panels in their 21-year-old apartment complex and setting up a renewable energy trading system.
Owner David Beard, along with fellow owner Henry Christie, convinced the corporation to install solar panels on the four-story building in West Perth.
Christie had wanted to install solar power for years, but said he put it too hard until Beard joined his campaign. Together, they looked at the utility bills for using common equipment such as elevators and pool pumps and calculated the likely solar savings.
Beard says that with 14 apartments and two commercial offices in the complex, he had to convince the owners of the perks: stacking.
The owners had a lump sum ready to spend on the project, diverting their reserve fund from a new elevator to install 30KW of solar power. “We determined that the savings to individuals and to the Strata Company itself would help bring the reserve fund back to the amount required by law… it was going to pay for itself in five years,” Beard said.
Using a blockchain system developed by energy trading software company Powerledger, the strata receive 10% of the electricity generated to run the common property, while the owners are allocated a share of solar energy according to their investment in the stratum and can exchange unused energy between them. .
Beard says the project took about 12 months to research and set up, despite delays related to the pandemic. Now that permission has been granted to switch from individual meters to a single shared meter, the panels are expected to be installed next month. Her advice: “Do your homework and think of all the things people might object to… We were lucky to already have the money in our strata, so there was no upfront bill… The fact that we have the money made it painless for us.
Some councils, including the City of Melbourne and Waverley in Sydney, now offer rebate and incentive programs to renovate apartment buildings with solar panels. Researching and learning about the programs available in your area could be a good way to start conversations with other members of the owner society.
However, the path to a more sustainable apartment complex is not always straightforward. Mark Skrzypek has been trying for years to create a rooftop garden for his small apartment complex in Melbourne’s South Yarra district. He says the green roof was the final blossoming of a campaign to make the resort more community-focused and more environmentally friendly.
“We had done everything we could. We had redone the gardens. We made them more common and more attractive. We set up a worm farm in the back… We held workshops and taught everyone how to use them.
Skrzypek’s three-story art deco double-brick apartment building has 12 units and sensational river views from the unused rooftop. Over the past six years, he has worked with several other homeowners to research how to add a green roof and convince every homeowner to go ahead with the project.
The process was complicated. “It’s all of that stuff about weight and lift: the weight of the soil and the types of plants that will survive,” Skrzypek explains. “We have mirrored walls from neighboring buildings and it’s astronomically hot in here.”
Inspired by a similar project at 38 Westbury Street in East St Kilda, Skrzypek designed the South Yarra project as a true green roof, with grass and plantings to reduce the heat island effect.
He says the engineering involved meant the project wasn’t cheap. “It’s a hell of a lot of money – over $ 100,000 – and we realize that we are playing with other people’s money, so you want it to be fair and to be successful… There is had a lot of meetings, a lot of discussion over several AGMs about what this would mean for their tenants and their investment.
With homeowners reluctant to raise a tax, Skrzypek says they have made a long-term plan to save the funds. However, pandemic closures and inflated construction costs have added complications. “Especially with the second foreclosure, prices have skyrocketed. I think it has increased by 30%. We realized we didn’t have the money to do it anymore.
Instead, the original concept was traded in for shared planters, but even that got complicated. “No one is an expert in the field, so we found it full of surprises,” Skrzypek said. With the lockdown deadlines permitting, he is hoping for a garden by Christmas.
Despite all the obstacles, he said he would do it again. “We all want to be more connected with nature… I think this is the way for cities to go.”