A builder shows a way to warmer, cheaper homes

A Tasmanian builder has shown that energy-efficient housing does’t have to cost the earth. [ 17 July 2012 | Peter Boyer]

Rick Leighton in his 8.2-star, $230,000 home at New Norfolk

It was England, home of the class system, that spawned the notion of “chattering classes” — people who spend their lives talking about what should be done rather than doing it.

We’re supposed not to have a class system here, but the chattering classes are alive and thriving, and I should know. With some trepidation (it’s not meant as a flattering term) I admit to being one of them.

There’s so much to talk about. With the world economy teetering on the brink, governments under the hammer as never before, boat people disturbing our peace and global warming, that hoary chestnut, refusing to go away, we chatterers have never been so busy.

On and on we go, sticking our noses into this problem and that, offering “solutions” and complaining when they’re not taken up, telling all who’ll listen what’s wrong with our politicians. Chattering away while the world falls to pieces.

Climate is an especially fertile field for chatter. I’ve managed to keep this column going for close to five years, and what can I claim to have achieved? Look at the mileage Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones have got out of it. (They may object to being called chatterers, but I think the cap fits.)

But why stop at media people? Government and bureaucracy are pretty good chatterers. For instance, the Gillard government says saving home energy is one of three main pillars of its climate strategy, yet its “National Energy Saving Initiative” remains little more than an idea.

Though he shares my concern about man-made climate change, Rick Leighton is clearly not a chatterer. Long ago he tired of pointless talk about how “they” weren’t doing enough about saving energy in the home, and decided to stand up and do something.

Glenorchy-based Leighton is no ordinary home builder. Besides a building and construction certificate, he has bachelor’s degrees in law and business management and a post-graduate finance and investment diploma. And he’s a certified assessor of the thermal performance of buildings.

Working for a Melbourne building firm a decade or so ago, Leighton came to wonder why most builders, using “tried and true” Australian techniques and materials, didn’t seem to care whether their homes actually did what they were supposed to — shelter people from cold and heat.

Noticing how many such homes seemed uncomfortably cold, he took up a training course in assessing energy-efficiency, using “AccuRate” software developed in the 1990s by CSIRO.

And then, he says, “the penny really dropped. Working with this software I could literally ‘feel’ a home before it was built and know what its temperature would be room by room. That was the power of information.”

But it was also a tribute to Leighton’s determination to produce a house that wouldn’t just meet Australian best-practice in thermal performance, but exceed it by orders of magnitude — at a cost no higher than your average family home. Within a few years he was doing just that.

Four years ago Leighton crossed Bass Strait to wind up a local company. He met and married a Tasmanian and decided to settle here.

It didn’t take him long to discover that new homes in this cooler state, far from best-practice, don’t even meet the six-star standard that applied in Victoria. It seems we don’t realise that houses don’t have to be cold, or that high heating bills aren’t an inevitable part of living here.

With power prices going through the roof, something needed to be done, and soon. Using knowledge acquired on the job in Victoria, Leighton decided to show Tasmanians that a high star rating — warm in winter, cool in summer — didn’t mean a high price tag.

There was only one way to do that, which was to build houses with a thermal capacity far exceeding the standard being applied in even the most expensive new homes, giving owners the luxury of low heating costs without paying a premium for the building itself.

To put this in context, under the CSIRO-developed House Energy Rating Scheme homes are rated their energy efficiency from 0 to 10 stars. The higher the star the better the home’s insulation. The current Australian standard is six stars. After some debate, Tasmania has agreed to comply with this next year.

In terms of electricity charges, it costs around $6500 each year to heat and cool a one-star Tasmanian house of 100 sq metres, compared to about $1900 for a five-star home and less than $300 for a nine-star home. With those price comparisons in mind, star ratings really matter.

About the time Leighton came to Tasmania, the state’s housing industry was lobbying the government not to force compliance with the national six-star rating because the cost would be too high. Such a draconian step would prevent homes being built and force builders out of business, the argument went.

Not so, said Leighton, and went about proving it. Investigations on the internet to find the best materials for floors, walls, windows and ceilings took him to suppliers in Europe, North America, China and Japan, negotiating special deals for large orders.

Measured against Tasmania’s past poor thermal performance, the results are spectacular. In New Norfolk he has built an 8.2-star home, with thermal capacity about 100 times that of the current five-star standard, at a cost to the buyer of $230,000 (house and land).

Leighton isn’t sitting still. On his drawing board is a home that when built will rate close to 10 stars, 1000 times more energy-efficient than our current standard, and he’s now looking into how his new-home know-how can be applied for retrofitting existing homes. May he prosper.

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