Retro wins out in high-tech housing contest

Space-age gadgetry is out and 1960s simplicity appears to be back in favour when it comes to low-emissions living.

A team of Australian university students has won first prize in an international “energy Olympics”, basing their housing design on a standard “fibro” home once common across the country.

The students, from the University of Wollongong and TAFE Illawarra, deliberately chose an existing design for the Solar Decathlon in China because retrofitting many of Australia’s 8 million-plus homes can cut carbon emissions much faster than rolling out newly built ones.

“We were the only team in any decathlon to date to try to demonstrate a retrofit,” said Jack Breen, a member and spokesman of Team UoW. “The jury saw the need for this. We see the need for this.”

More than 50 students worked for two years on the design, construction and disassembly of the winning Illawarra Flame House, and beat strong competition from 19 other finalists including Chinese, Swedish and Iranian entries. It was also the first time an Australian team had made it to the finals of the event, which started in 2002.

The original home’s energy rating was lifted from 2.2 stars to 7.4 stars, while total energy use dropped about 80 per cent after the retrofit, according to modelling.

‘On the map’

As many as half a million people are expected to tour the display site in Datong, a former capital and now grimy industrial city 300 kilometres west of Beijing.

“This is going to put [the university] on the map a bit,” Mr Breen said, adding the long queues over the weekend may even lengthen in the remaining days of the exhibition as interest builds. “We expect that it will be absolutely crazy.”

While the entry won first place for engineering and application, the house also ranked highly for targeting couples about to retire, a market often overlooked by those developing highly energy-efficient houses.

“With baby boomers reaching retirement age, there’s potentially a big market out there,” Mr Breen said.

Design tweaks to meet that market included reducing the number of bedrooms in a typical 80-square-metre home of that era to just one, with a second bedroom doubling as a study. The students also widened doors, lowered the level of light fittings and removed all steps to ease access for the occupants.

The students installed enough solar panels to generate more power than the household would use, and added reed gardens and sand beds to enable all grey water produced by the washing machine and sinks to be recycled. Waste from a fish pond can also be used as a fertiliser for plants.

“Plants can grow up to four times as fast because of that fertiliser,” Mr Breen said.

History preserved

Part of the house’s appeal for the judges was the use of recycled materials and refurbishing of 1960s furniture.

“We wanted to preserve the history,” he said. “It’s a house that celebrates human life rather than the house itself.”

The redesign and retrofit cost about $300,000, a figure that is likely to shrink as design components are commercialised.

“That’s a conversation we’ll all be having when we get back to Australia,” Mr Breen said.

Once disassembled, the house will be rebuilt at the University of Wollongong, where students – and possibly retired couples – will get a chance to reside in it and study how it performs.

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