There’s a common misconception that apartment blocks must be more environmentally efficient than stand-alone housing. Having all those people living in a building with the same physical footprint as a couple of quarter-acre blocks must be more efficient, right?
Wrong. For a start, it takes a lot more energy to build an apartment block than the equivalent number of free-standing homes. Not only are you digging down into solid rock for car parks and foundations, you are then literally pumping truckloads of concrete up into the air.
The higher you go, the further you stray from your green ideals, and building storey upon storey isn’t the half of it.
You have the additional costs of everything from lighting to lifts, pumping water to the higher floors and pulling stale air and steam out of the bathrooms. Then there’s air-conditioning, essential in many units where the home is basically just a three-sided box with windows at the front.
And don’t be fooled by exaggerated claims of cross-flow ventilation. One prominent building in Sydney won environment awards for its plans, with by-laws banning air-conditioning.
Sadly, the developer then increased the number of small apartments, blocking natural ventilation to about one-third of them.
Still, there’s a lot residents can do to dial down their carbon footprint. Changing to motion-activated, low emission lighting in common areas like car parks can drastically cut down on power consumption.
And you should check the building for water leaks. Water dripping from pipes has to be pumped there in the first place, so that’s double wastage.
Even the installation of individual water meters for each unit can cut down overall usage. Nothing sharpens the focus on waste quite like a hit to the wallet. Rooftop gardens are another benefit, environmentally, financially and socially.
There are a couple of websites that are a great source of advice for making your block less environmentally intrusive – and a lot cheaper to run.
Both of these websites have links to specific programs that your building might want to explore.
One vexed question concerns solar panels. With large white expanses of apartment block roofs that suck up heat which then has to be dealt with by energy hungry air-conditioning, it seems to be a no-brainer.
But complicated questions of grants, by-laws, planning permissions and taxation has allowed nay-sayers to bog the issue down in their muddy thinking.
I’ve heard arguments for not installing solar range from “it would cost more to pump the water on to the roof” – and we were talking about photovoltaic cells, not domestic water heating – to “the panels might blow off in high winds” to “the fixtures would damage the roof membrane”.
A favourite among climate deniers is that the perfect system requires batteries and, since they haven’t been perfected yet, we should do nothing.
This is one area where state governments could and should be looking at simplifying laws, and instituting grants and education programs, to encourage us to make better use of our natural assets.
The technology is evolving faster than the thinking, and we should never let “perfect” be the enemy of “good”.
This column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.