A few weeks ago I made the somewhat bold assertion that apartments were less environmentally sustainable than free-standing houses.
That was challenged by at least one reader, who believed that a fully greened-up apartment was likely to be more sustainable than many if not most houses.
So I set about trying to find some sort of metric by which their relative sustainability could easily be measured.
There is none that I could find, mainly because there are so many variables in play on both sides of the argument.
Firstly there’s the building process. Digging out underground car parks, then building 10, 20 or 30 storeys up from there consumes a lot of energy, much of it coming from fossil fuels.
That carbon cost is locked into the building forever and needs to be offset by other sustainable measures for the block to be fully “green”.
Then there’s the ongoing costs of running the building. Lifts and interior lighting of common spaces burn energy all day and every day, plus there’s having to pump every litre of water to the roof to let gravity draw it down again.
Also there’s the energy consumed by the massive extractor fans needed to keep the air flowing in living areas and garages. Add to that the air-conditioning required to keep some apartments habitable and it all starts to mount up.
But that’s also where we can start to consider the plus side of apartments. As I learned only recently, reverse cycle aircon is one of the most efficient ways of heating homes, due to their use of heat exchangers.
Low power common area lighting on motion sensor switches can save a mountain of cash and carbon. However, if your committee calculates that using both means that it takes longer to pay off the cost of installation, they may be missing the point.
The same goes for solar panels. If your strata committee refuses to consider them because it would take too long for them to pay for themselves, they are looking at the wrong ledger.
It’s one thing to run a block in a business-like manner; another entirely to run it like a business. Sustainability is not just about money, although financial savings can be an extra incentive to get owners on side.
Water wastage is another issue. Whether it’s leaky pipes or overflowing cisterns and inefficient pumps, each drop lost is a drain on resources.
All of this can be easily fixed and there are agencies like Wattblock dedicated to helping you do so.
Getting deep into the sustainability weeds, you could also add the proximity to schools, shops and public transport into the calculation. The further you have to drive to carry out the basic tasks of your day, the bigger your individual carbon footprint.
So, if you are comparing an apartment in a water and energy efficient block near a local centre with an uninsulated house in a suburb far from shops, schools and railway stations, the apartment probably wins hands down.
Luckily many local authorities – including, notably, City of Sydney – are running programs to help the high-rises in their areas to become more environmentally efficient.
For investor owners this means lower levies from less wastage. If that doesn’t don’t tickle your hip pocket nerve, then consider the growing evidence that potential purchasers and renters are looking at sustainability as a significant factor in their choices.
It may not be the main attraction or even a deal-breaker, but it could be the difference between choosing your flat over one in the back-sliding block next door.