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Sustainable House Day: Comfort doesn’t have to come at a big cost
In short: the more the better:
The Building Code of Australia (BCA) identifies eight different climate zones for Australia, but within a zone, there are some locations with slightly different temperature ranges. There can be significant differences between maximum and minimum temperatures in summer and winter and in length and intensity of heating and cooling periods. The house design, the insulation and construction must respond to these variations in order to be able to perform energy efficient.
For simplicity, Victoria is divided in five climate zones, with winter heating as the predominant concern especially in the Temperate Coastal and Cool Inland Zones. Summer cooling is variable but generally less significant. House design in these zones requires attention to better performing insulation, draught proofing, window protection in winter and shading in summer. Likewise, in warmer cities and areas like Mildura supplementary heating is obligatory for thermal comfort. In these regions, it’s advisable to include extra thermal mass, cross ventilation and summer shading, whereas alpine areas may require constant heating for most of the year and cooling requirements are negligible. Consequently, a 6-star home in Mildura wouldn’t comply with the minimum requirements for a 6-star home in Ballarat.
The higher the R-value the better the performance. Consider what insulation is needed in order to build an energy efficient home in a certain climate zone early in the design process. In particular, it’s important to think about the roof insulation. For example, it would be cheaper to use larger rafters in order to fit in sufficient glasswool to fulfil the desired R-value, instead of using thinner expensive extruded polystyrene. Larger rafters would mean that the overall height of the building rises slightly. This is no problem, if the amendments are done early in the design. However, if a town planning permit has already been granted, it’s not that easy any more. It’s necessary to go back to the council with the changes, which can cost a lot of time and money, therefore in most cases, people choose to use the thinner, more expensive insulation instead.
Adding R1.0 insulation can significantly improve the energy efficiency. For example in Melbourne, adding insulation with a R-value of R3.0 to the ceilings and R1.5 insulation to walls can save 12% on energy bills each year and can ensure a higher level of comfort.
One important thing to consider is that the energy requirements as listed in the BCA are minimum requirements only, not best practice. So if someone is telling you to not put any more insulation in as the regulations call for: don’t listen to them. They don’t have a clue.
If you put in anything less, your building would not comply, so if you are after an energy efficient home, why would you be happy to only have the legally required minimum? Rather put in as much insulation as fits into the wall/roof/ or wall and as much as your budget allows.
Keep in mind, while it is quite easy and common to upgrade bathrooms and kitchens every 10-20 years, you will typically not touch the insulation again. So make sure you make your home future proof!
Ventilation is the active process of “changing” or replacing air to regulate temperature and moisture. It should always occur under controlled conditions, by opening windows or with ceiling or exhaust fans, NOT through gaps and air-leakage.
Exhaust fans should always be self-closing, so that the replacement of air is controlled and not accidental. With out a self closing mechanism they are one of the main contributor of air leakage.
However, if they are self-closing they are an effective way to replace air, especially in rooms where no natural ventilation is available, or where natural ventilation might not be sufficient, such as kitchens or bathrooms.
Ceiling fans are an easy and cost effective way to improve the indoor air quality in summer and also to gain points towards the desired energy rating stars.
Ceiling fans provide additional air movement/wind, increasing the Relative Air Velocity (‘wind chill factor’) resulting in the apparent temperature felt on exposed skin to be 3 °C colder than the actual air temperature, thereby reducing the need for additional cooling.
Nowadays there are so many efficient fans available on the market.
If choosing a ceiling fan make sure you get one with at least 3 speeds, with the lowest speed being slow enough to still move air, but not to create a cool feeling draught, so that you can use them in winter mode)
Imagine it is winter. You wake up in the morning, put on your favourite hand-knitted wool socks and walk to the kitchen to have breakfast. But something is different today, your left toes are cold, you start to shiver and feel uncomfortable. What happened? The fabric on the toes has worn-out, there is even a little gap. The socks that used to keep your feet warm and cosy have a leakage and they are not able to keep you warm any more.
The same principle applies to a house. The building envelope’s task is to protect its occupants from the environment and to keep them warm. The building envelope needs to be a continuous shell, each little breach will negatively influence the overall performance and reduce the insulation’s potential benefits.
The following will explain where air-leakages in a building usually occur and how to prevent them.
Air-Leakage And Thermal Bridges
Thermal bridges and air leakages will increase the need of supplementary mechanical cooling and heating, but they will also increase the Relative Air Velocity and the Mean Radiant Temperature which will negatively influence the well-being and the comfort of the residents. By applying the right design features, natural ventilation and cross ventilation can be used to control indoor temperature and therefore reduce energy bills significantly. For these reasons, controlling the air movement is essential.
Read our next article if you want to know more about where air-leakage and thermal bridges typically can occur.
In most European countries, thermal mass is used as a matter of course. Although it takes longer to heat up a house which contains a lot of thermal mass, it also takes a long time to cool down again. The thermal mass releases constant heat to the rooms and therefore heaters only need to be on a low setting or turned off completely.
Unlike in Australia, split systems and ducted heating are rarely used overseas as they use only convective heat. The main focus lies on radiant heaters as they heat thermal mass. The main form of heating in Europe is hydronic heating, mostly in form of hydronic heating panels, but also as in slab heating. Other sources of radiant heat are wood or gas fire places. Hydronic heating is also way more allergy friendly than ducted heating or split systems. But this is more the subject for a separate blog post.
If thermal mass is combined with effective insulation and has good solar access, the interior is perceived to be comfortable, without the need for additional heating, even if the external temperature is well below 20°C. The combination of thermal mass and well performing insulation is a condition of passive solar design, as well as low and zero-energy housing.
Thermal mass is an effective way to reduce the need for mechanical heating and cooling and to increase the comfort and well-being of the occupants. In order to perform at its best, it needs to be located appropriately and sized adequately, with a careful eye on insulation and thermal bridges.
Material and colour selection
Generally speaking, the more thermal mass the better and the heavier a material, the better its ability to store heat. The optimum would be a masonry home with a reverse brick veneer construction and concrete floors. Or using something like concrete block walls and insulate at the outside, with isolation boards.
If this option is too expensive use as much thermal mass as possible, concrete slab is preferable. In warmer climates the ground is colder and can help to cool the concrete. Therefore the indoor air temperature will be reduced. In colder climates, however, the concrete slab needs to be insulated from the ground in order to minimise heat loss in winter. When looking a the energy start rating, insulating the slab on ground can add up to 1 star to your star rating.
If a timber subfloor is requested or required, the focus should be at least on internal brick walls to the north which need to be exposed to the winter sun and are therefore able to absorb and release heat. Other materials that have a good thermal conductivity are water, sandstone, rammed earth and earth blocks, mud brick etc.
Moreover, colours and coverings can influence the performance of thermal mass. For example carpets and timber floors will minimise the ability of thermal mass to absorb and release heat as they work as additional insulation. This can lower the required heating in winter, but it will increase the need of additional cooling in summer, as the thermal mass can absorb less heat. On the other hand, hard floor finishes such as tiles, stone or slate on concrete slab can increase the ability to store heat. Dark colours or dark materials also tend to absorb more heat, however, light-coloured walls are more desirable as they maximise natural daylight. Dark walls will increase the need of artificial lighting, as they absorb light and can make rooms appear smaller. In short, material and colour selection can promote or adversely affect the performance of thermal mass.
One alternative to adding thermal mass as a actual building material is to add something that acts as thermal mass, but is light weight. There is one product on the Australian market, calle BioPCM. This phase change material acts as thermal mass, without the weight actual thermal mass has, and hence standard light weight construction and footings are sufficient, which are usually significantly cheaper than if you are building with brick and or block work.
“BioPCM™ is a lightweight smart thermal mass, providing design flexibility and easy installation for a cost effective and simple approach to integrating sustainable technology into buildings.
BioPCM™ absorbs excess heat during the day and releases this energy back in the evening as buildings cool.”
We have used the BioPCM to line the walls of a pantry, to keep it cooler and create some sort of cool – room. And the result was really great. The room always stays much colder then the rest of the well insulated weatherboard home.
When deciding on what materials to use for your house many only think about factors such as cost and aesthetics. But when it comes to creating an energy efficient home the performance of a material and its ability to store heat needs to be taken into consideration. Thermal mass will help regulate the indoor temperature in summer as well as in winter and will reduce the need of mechanical heating and cooling.
In winter, thermal mass works like a heater: it absorbs radiant heat from the sun through north, east and west-facing windows, and also stores heat from mechanical heating. The thermal mass will slowly release the heat which reduces the need for heating. Even when the heaters are turned off, the house will stay warmer for longer. Furthermore, the air and the exposed surfaces have the same temperature (Mean Radiant Temperature), which means there are no unwanted draughts, and the Relative Air Velocity is low; these will increase the thermal comfort of the occupants.
Materials such as concrete and brick are cooler in summer than the surrounding air temperature, so they are able to absorb heat, which consequently lowers the room temperature and the need for additional cooling. At night the thermal mass will slowly release stored heat. Natural ventilation, via open windows, ceiling or exhaust fans, are an effective way to let cool air in and to let heat – collected during the day – out. In extreme hot periods, when it doesn’t cool down at night, air conditioning may be required to regulate the room temperature. The greater the difference between day and night temperature, the more beneficial the thermal.
Please be aware, that a standard brick veneer home will not give you any benefits for your indoor temperature, as the thermal mass is located externally, and separated from the indoor climate via insulation
Although the term ‘thermal mass’ is not commonly used, there are many examples where we experience it and appreciate its benefits. The most impressive is the ocean: in winter, when there is less sunshine and the average air temperature is low, the water is chilly and only the tough ones might enjoy a swim! In spring, the sun will slowly heat up the water so that finally in summer it will have a comfortable warm temperature. Water has a great capacity of storing heat – it will stay constantly warm during day and night, and even in winter, it can be significantly warmer than its surrounding air temperature due to its ability to absorb solar energy. Water demonstrates the principle of thermal mass. How does it apply to construction?
Thermal Mass, Why Is It So Important for Construction?
Thermal mass is the ability of storing and releasing heat to help retain a constant indoor temperature. It is an effective way to improve thermal comfort in a building and plays an essential role in saving energy. Thermal mass inside a building will absorb heat when the surroundings are warmer than the mass, will store the heat and radiate it slowly when the surroundings are cooler. It can actively be used to regulate temperature, therefore, reducing the need for mechanical heating and cooling. Heavy materials, such as concrete and brick have great thermal storage capacity, whereas lightweight construction materials, such as timber and insulation cannot store heat. Generally speaking, the heavier a material the better its ability to store heat.
If you want to know more about thermal mass please also read our further articles about this subject.
The Window Energy Rating Scheme (WERS) is a program implemented by the Australian Window Council Inc. (AWC) with the support of the Australian Greenhouse Office. The windows are evaluated with stars, the more stars, the better the performance. If buying windows, always check the label before making a decision.
A single-glazed window with a typical aluminium frame has U-values ranging from 7.9 W/m²K to 5.5 W/m²K (according to the indicative ranges of whole glazing element performance values in the BCA). These U-values will make it hard to reach a good energy rating for a building/ built an energy efficient home.
Keep in mind, the lower the U-value the better performing a window. Double glazing windows with timber framing in Australia usually range between a U-value of 3.8 W/m²K and 2.5 W/m²K.
Sealing and weather-stripping
However, a good U-value is no guarantee for a well performing window. The installation of doors and windows needs to be done according to the manufactures guidelines. All gaps must be sealed and weather-stripped carefully in order to perform to the specified U-value. Unfortunately, the energy rating just states the material U-value of the window and not the end product and common practice often shows incorrect installation leading to thermal bridges around the windows.
Windows And Double Glazing Overseas
Whereas most countries in Europe require double glazing and even recommend triple glazing, it is not standard in Australia yet. Unfortunately, double glazing is still more expensive than single glazing in Australia, in Europe it’s actually the other way around. Due to the fact that single glazing is not allowed any more, no one is producing it on a large scale making it quite expensive. Double-glazing on the other hand is a standard, and although better performing than common double-glazed windows in Australia, they are available for about a quarter of the price. For instance, the minimum required U-value for windows in Germany is currently 1.1 W/m²K. I trust that with time, double glazing will become more affordable and will become mandatory in Australia to achieve good passive solar design.
Up until then, you, as the client, has to make informed decisions about what glazing you are buying. You can’t just trust a manufacturer stating their glazing is energy efficient. They have to prove the performance to you by showing you the actual u-value of the window system.
What to look for when buying windows?
YES, double glazing is worth its money. It is the best method to reduce heat loss in winter, as long as it is applied, installed and used properly. The window size should respond to the location and the climate, the insulation around the window needs to be snug fit, in order to prevent thermal bridges. Appropriate window frames need to be used and furthermore, adequate internal and or external covers needs to be applied. All these measurements need to work together, otherwise a window is nothing more than a hole in the wall and will be the major contributor for unwanted heat gain and loss, therefore preventing energy efficiency.
Unprotected glazing and single glazing in particular means the surface of the glass is noticeable colder than the warm air in the room. This lowers the room temperature and produces draughts. The Relative Air Velocity ends up too high and occupants will feel winter discomfort. For this reason, all windows require protection from heat loss in winter. To minimise winter heat loss, it is important to trap a layer of insulation still air between the window and the room. This can be achieved for instance by using internal coverings, such as drapes, Holland blinds, Roman blinds or Australian blinds, and thin or lace curtains combined with pelmets.
Effect of window treatments on winter heat loss
(According to Sustainable Energy Authority Victoria 2002)
The most effective way to protect windows against heat loss in winter is a combination of double glazing and internal window coverings. However, if internal coverings are inappropriate or not desired, for instance in highlight or clerestory windows, in kitchens or simply where unobstructed views are wanted, double glazing is an indispensable measurement in order to prevent heat loss in winter. Yet double glazing won’t prevent sun coming into the building, which means that the windows need to be protected from harsh summer sun by means of external shading.
Another, often underestimated roll in the energy efficiency of a window, is the frame itself, as it can effect negatively on the overall performance. As we talked about in the blog “Adequate Insulation”, some materials, such as metal, glass or aluminium, allow heat to pass through them more easily, therefore they shouldn’t be used for windows frames if at all possible. If metal frames are used, such as aluminium, they should have thermal breaks to reduce the heat transfer. Generally speaking, PVC and timber frames perform better than metal frames.