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in focus

greener apartments

in focus

Greener apartments

Once you’re there, Byrne suggests commissioning an environmental audit of the building. At the very least, make sure you’re actually seeing your bills, not just paying them automatically. “Start to make a list of what’s happening in your building and work through the options,” she says. “The bigger your building, the more you can do because the greater your water and energy consumption. With smaller buildings the options might be things like double glazing, waste and composting.”

Despite the numerous hurdles, it is possible to make apartment buildings more environmentally friendly. Words michael green

You would think apartments have smaller eco-footprints than houses – after all, they’re usually smaller and stacked up, not sprawling. But are high-rise inhabitants really justified in looking down upon energy guzzling suburbanites? In 2005 Paul Myors, from Energy Australia, investigated the carbon emissions of different kinds of housing for the NSW Department of Planning. Surprisingly, he found that apartment dwellers emit more greenhouse gas than residents in detached housing (not including transportation). Myors blamed energy consumption in common areas, together with lower occupancy rates in apartments. Michael Buxton, professor of environment and planning at RMIT, confirms that high-rise residential buildings – above about nine storeys – tend to be very poor energy performers. “That’s partly because they often use a lot of glass in construction,” he says. “But they also have lifts, big foyers and lots of large spaces that have to be heated, as well as other facilities like gyms and pools. “The best energy performance comes from attached buildings such as townhouses and villas – your classic medium density,” Buxton says. According to Myors’ research, a typical townhouse produces about half the carbon emissions of a high-rise apartment. So what can eco-minded apartment dwellers do to lift their game? In this article, Sanctuary will explore the ways you can go green in common. We’ll bypass the standard steps individuals can take within their own walls, and focus on the measures that transform the building as a whole. 66



D Owners’ corporations

If retrofitting your own home seems confusing, the added challenge of common property can be mindboggling. “With collective decision making and volunteer committees, there’s a whole layer of complexity that gets in the way of change,” says Christine Byrne, founder of eco-website Green Strata. As a first step, she suggests green-minded strata title owners join the management committee of their building. “If you’re on the committee, it’s easier to get access to information and put items on agendas,” she says. (The task is harder for renters; unfortunately you’ll have to convince owners to take up the case for you.)

Nexus apartments in St Leonards, Sydney, has 11 levels with 88 residential apartments and three levels of commercial suites. With the help of an effective building management committee over the last three years they have implemented a suite of initiatives, from lighting upgrades and the installation of a Building Management System (BMS) to upgrading the water heating to solar. Photo by Nexus

As in any existing home or office, improving lighting efficiency is easiest – and some changes will cost nothing at all. In a case study detailed on the Green Strata website, at Nexus apartments in St Leonards, Sydney, it was found that the fluorescent tubes in the car park were illuminating the space well beyond what was necessary. So the building manager simply removed almost half the tubes. “Walk around your building and look at every light,” suggests Byrne. “Can outdoor lights be solar lights? Consider timers, motion sensors and LEDs – for every space there’s a different solution. De-lamping is an easy step, but you have to make sure the level of lighting still complies with Australian standards.” Nexus also installed day/night detectors for the lamps under its awnings, as well as motion sensors in the plant and utility rooms. Both measures meant that the lights no longer ran 24 hours a day. The cost is expected to be recouped in savings within 12 months. Water

In buildings taller than three storeys, water consumption packs a double-whammy. Each drop has an associated energy cost for pumping (as well as the energy cost for heating in the case of hot water). And if that’s not concern enough, in most apartments residents don’t have separate water meters. “People aren’t paying for water based on their own consumption,” says Byrne. “The water use of some of these big buildings is quite horrific and it can be very poor in the older ones as well.”

While this is a problem, it’s also an opportunity for serious savings. Miramar Apartments, a 38-storey building in the Sydney CBD, commissioned an audit by Sydney Water. The assessment identified major leaks and found that most tap fittings and showerheads were inefficient. Each apartment was retrofitted by the utility under its WaterFix program (which cost as little as $22 per dwelling). For measures that totalled about $7000, the building cut its water use by one fifth. It saves about $64,000 each year on water and energy bills combined. “We’re starting to see owners’ corporations agreeing to pay for the WaterFix,” Byrne says. “You have to do annual fire inspections, so at the same time why not do an annual water inspection?” Hot water

If you have to wait a long time for hot water, it’s likely there is something amiss in the pipes. Many large buildings have centralised hot water that uses a ring main system – a pipe that loops from the boiler, past all levels and back again. Ring mains are very wasteful unless all the pipes and fittings are very well insulated. Instantaneous hot water systems are much more effective and will usually save energy, especially gas units. The Sustainable Living in the City trial, run by the Melbourne City Council in 2008, found that some residents in high rise apartment buildings were waiting up to 10 minutes for their hot water to flow. Dorothy LeClaire oversees the owners’ corporation department at Melbourne in the City Management, which manages three of the buildings that took part in the trial. One of the key recommendations was that plumbers assess the ring main system, checking for broken valves, cross connections and poor pipe insulation. And for some residents there was an instant benefit – immediate hot water. “When you do ring main balancing, the hot water comes a lot quicker,” she says. “It saves water, obviously – there’s less cold water going down the drain. But it also saves energy because you have to heat less water.”

greener apartments


When Melbourne councillor Cathy Oke moved into her CBD apartment, she found there was no recycling collection at all. “Residential recycling rates in the city are terrible,” she says. But it’s not just city apartments that don’t get it right. In most multi-dwelling blocks, recycling is less convenient than in stand-alone homes. Without dedicated areas and separate chute systems, bins usually become a jumble of rubbish and recyclables. In Oke’s building, recycling bins have been moved off each floor and she uses a special container, supplied by the council, to sort and transport her recyclables. “It’s like a funky yellow shopping basket that’s easily tipable. It fits neatly in my small kitchen,” she says. “If you move the recycle bins to reduce contamination, you have to make it easy to go to those locations.” The best method will vary from building to building, depending on the space – the key is to make the chore as convenient as possible. Good signage, with colour coding and clear instructions, can help focus the most absentminded residents, so try asking your local council for education material. Composting is always tricky in apartments, but to encourage residents, owners’ corporations can organise bulk purchase of worm farms or Bokashi Buckets, together with a workshop to get people started. In some buildings, enthusiastic residents have established communal composting on shared garden space. MORE INFORMATION

Includes case studies, information, rebates and incentives.

Information about “The most energy efficient and sustainable strata building in Sydney!” WhatCanIDo

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in focus

greener apartments



The roof garden at Signature Apartments. Photo by Robert Goodall

Signature Apartments opened a bike room which can accommodate 27 bikes, and can be expanded to house 75 bikes as demand increases. Photo by Robert Goodall

Case study

At the suggestion of a resident, Signature Apartments turned to technology to create a sense of community. The building, in Redfern, Sydney, has created its own Facebook page. Robert Goodall, an apartment owner and the chairperson of Signature’s management committee, is one of two people who moderate the page. “There are 100 units in our building. A lot of us felt that within apartment buildings nobody ever knows their neighbours,” he says. “We thought Facebook would be a way to get feedback on how the building was going. And for greening the apartments, we could post ideas and get comments. We were looking at installing a communal compost bin to reduce our waste and when we posted that we got lots of positive responses.” For now, about 50 people “like” the page and Goodall says many more visit it regularly. Among other things, residents have used it for borrowing and lending, and to recycle unwanted furniture.



He has also used Facebook to promote the building’s bike room. Low-impact transportation is one clear advantage apartment dwellers have over suburban householders – they’re usually much closer to shops, workplaces and public transport. But when it comes to bike friendly infrastructure, most buildings still don’t provide the goods. A bike room had been planned for Signature Apartments, but when residents moved in, it hadn’t been fitted out. The committee conducted research on racks, layout and costs. “There are a lot of options out there. The internet is a good place to do a general browse and see what you can find,” Goodall says. “Having the room is good because it takes the bikes out of all the common areas where people were locking them. And for riders, it gives us a safe place to store our bikes.”

D Miramar apartments used Sydney Water’s WaterFix program to save $49,000 a year on cold water use and $15,000 a year on energy use through water efficiency improvements alone. Water use for the building is down 21 per cent. Photo by Christine Byrne (

Greener apartments  

Article on how apartment dwellers can go green in common