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Preliminary research

Preliminary research [pdf 2.9 MB]

Choosing or creating your next home is a complex and often exhausting process. Where do you start and what do you need to do before you buy, renovate or build a home? Breaking your decision making into stages provides clarity, reduces repetition and allows for more creative and effective problem solving at each stage. For an overview of the entire process from beginning to end, see also The design process and The construction process.

Where do you start and what do you need to do before you buy, renovate or build a home?

Overview of the preliminary research process

To decide what you want from your new home and plan a course of action for delivering it, explore such issues as:

  • future trends in housing, and why you would want a sustainable home
  • where you want to live and why
  • whether you’ll build a new home, renovate or buy off the plan
  • goals and sustainability targets for your new home or renovation
  • your needs and your prioritised ‘wish list’
  • what you can learn from analysing your current home and lifestyle
  • your baseline budget
  • likely sources of professional advice
  • building regulations, including sustainability requirements
  • what’s involved in the process of designing and building.

Based on this investigation, develop a brief of your requirements, including your ‘must haves’ and ‘wish list’.

Some tips on preliminary research

Do your homework. Look through magazines, particularly those that focus on sustainability like Sanctuary, ReNew or GreenSmart, search the internet, visit display villages, talk to friends who have recently been through the process, attend open houses (particularly on Sustainable House Day), and window shop in real estate agency windows.

Two magazines, with a notepad and pencil being used to take notes about ideas seen within.

Photo: Susan Schuller

Look through magazines, internet sites and books, and note relevant sustainability features.

Create a scrap book to communicate your ideas to your designer. Designers want to see features you really dislike as well, because it helps them to align their focus with yours.

Seek expert advice early and often. Research brings up a range of (often competing) ideas, technologies and advice. Sound research and impartial advice are essential to clear decision making, so choose an expert you trust early in the process and discuss your progress often.

Seek expert advice early and often.

Allow your brief to evolve. You will likely need to revisit decisions made in earlier stages to take into account ideas and information you discover later in the process. Update your brief frequently and note why decisions were made or changed.

Be aware of the influence of preconceptions of what your house should be. We all have them but at this early stage, while you have flexibility, briefly step outside them to evaluate all available options.

Preliminary research step-by-step

This step-by-step guide covers the research you need to do.

Step 1: Consider the long term

A number of pressing environmental issues, including climate change, are shaping the housing of the future. For example, the carbon emissions embodied in every aspect of our lifestyles (e.g. heating, cooling, hot water, lighting, transport, food) will become increasingly costly. These challenges give notice to reduce environmental impact, save money and ‘future proof’ your home. Demographic changes such as an ageing population and changing household structures are also influencing our future housing needs (see Housing).

A house on stilts, with a verandah area under expansive eaves.

Photo: Environa Studio

How big a home do you really need?

To ensure your home remains relevant to your needs and retains its market appeal, now and into the future, consider these specific issues:

  • How can your home achieve carbon neutrality (or better)? How can this be done cost effectively by reducing energy demand first?
  • Is there a chance of overheating during increasingly warm summers?
  • Could sea level rise affect your property? Does the local council have any development controls for increased flooding and/or sea level rise?
  • How do climate change risks affect your home insurance?
  • How big a home do you really need? Would a smaller home mean you could afford a better location and better sustainability performance?
  • Could your home be easily modified to suit changes in lifestyle when required (e.g. children, downsizing as you get older)?

Step 2: Think about where you want to live

If you’re buying or building a new home, one of the most important decisions is choosing the best location. A home that’s close to everything you need, including public transport, saves on fuel costs and helps to reduce your carbon footprint (see Transport).

Choosing the right site or ‘block’ is also important. Look out for good orientation for the local climate, and shape and topography that suit the type of house you want to build (see Choosing a site; Challenging sites; Orientation).

Many townhouses in a row; all are slightly different in design, colour or both.

Photo: Mirvac Lend Lease Village Consortium

A village-style development may suit your needs.

Step 3: Think about the best home for your needs

Will you design and build a new home, buy off the plan or upgrade your existing home? Each type of home has advantages and disadvantages that affect your household’s lifestyle and future.

Choosing a home type that best meets your current needs can reduce both your mortgage and environmental impact. Sometimes a series of homes will suit your life path better than a single choice for life.

An apartment building has apartments with wide balconies that are also well shaded. A water feature is seen in the foreground.

Photo: TVS architects

Medium density living may be right for your lifestyle.

Many people have already decided on the type of home that best suits them before they begin. However, here are some issues you may wish to consider:

  • Upgrading or renovating an existing home can be a great way to achieve sustainability outcomes. By retaining much of the existing building fabric the need for new construction materials is reduced, saving on precious resources (see Planning home improvements; Renovations and additions).

    Upgrading or renovating an existing home can be a great way to achieve sustainability outcomes.

  • Many people choose to design and build a new home because they feel it has the best potential to create a comfortable, sustainable home customised to their needs. If you want to build a new home, choose a site without an existing home or where the existing structure is at the end of its life span. Choose a company that demonstrates best practice reuse and recycling of materials.
  • Buying off the plan can be a cost effective option and you can usually visit a display centre to get a feel for the spaces and qualities of the home. Where possible, visit in seasonal extremes to see how well it retains thermal comfort. It’s critical to choose a plan that suits your block, and it’s often possible to make modifications to the plan and specification to improve sustainability performance (see Buying a home off the plan).
  • Apartments can be an affordable and sustainable option but the scope for alterations and renovations can be limited by body corporate rules. That said, progressive bodies corporate across Australia are undertaking innovative upgrades to reduce their environmental footprint (see Buying and renovating an apartment).

Step 4: Set your goals and sustainability targets

Now is the time to be clear about what you want from your new home. This step can be done in tandem with creating your wish list (step 5).

While the perfect ‘sustainable’ home is yet to be built, setting targets can help you quickly choose between home options or identify unsatisfactory performance and investigate the cost of rectification.

Setting targets can help you quickly choose between home options or identify unsatisfactory performance.

There are important links between the environmental, economic and social performance — the ‘triple bottom line’ — of the home you choose.

The following goals and targets are a simple overview of what a sustainable home should strive for. They are intended to inform your brief, and help you identify suitable properties and/or establish design targets to achieve the best outcomes.

Environmental goals and targets

Minimise energy use and greenhouse gas emissions
  • Aim for carbon neutrality or better (see Carbon zero, carbon positive).
  • Specify a minimum 7 star NatHERS (Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme; www.nathers.gov.au) rating for thermal performance. Even higher ratings are desirable in cooler climates like Canberra and Melbourne where heating is the predominant need (see Design for climate).
  • If you’re buying an existing home in the ACT, check the Energy Efficiency Rating provided at point of sale. If it is less than 5 stars, have a consultant estimate the cost of upgrading and factor this into your negotiations.
  • Choose or retrofit energy efficient products for:
    • heating and cooling (see Heating and cooling)
    • hot water (see Hot water service)
    • refrigerator (see Appliances)
    • lighting (see Lighting)
    • TV and home entertainment (see Home entertainment and home office equipment).
  • Ensure the home you choose or your design has adequate unshaded north-facing roof area to mount solar panels for hot water and renewable electricity (see Photovoltaic systems).
Minimise mains water consumption
  • Choose or retrofit efficient:
    • showerheads, toilets and taps (see Reducing water demand)
    • washing machine, dishwasher (see Appliances).
  • Ensure gardens are water efficient (see Outdoor water use).
  • Further reduce mains water consumption by rainwater harvesting and wastewater reuse (see Rainwater; Wastewater reuse).
Reduce the environmental and health impact of the materials you use
  • Choose construction materials and finishes that are low in life cycle environmental impact (see Materials).
  • Choose finishes and furnishings that don’t compromise indoor air quality (see the appendix The healthy home).

Economic (cost) and social (lifestyle) goals

Maximise affordability, both up-front and in the long term
  • What kind of home can you afford where you have chosen to live, while meeting your environmental goals? Would a smaller home in your preferred location be the best option?
  • A compact, well-designed home with ample storage, good outdoor living areas and multi-function spaces is less expensive to buy and operate, while providing similar amenity to a bigger home. The environmental outcomes are improved by reducing material and energy use.

    A compact, well-designed home is less expensive to buy and operate, while providing similar amenity to a bigger home.

Build in the flexibility to suit changing lifestyles
  • Can your home be easily modified to meet potential changes in your lifestyle (e.g. children, downsizing as you get older) (see The livable and adaptable house)?
  • Plan future additions to accommodate future needs but build them only as they become necessary. Live with a smaller mortgage in the knowledge that you can modify your home later.
  • Moving house as your needs change can yield better triple bottom line outcomes than buying or building a larger house than you currently need.

A house with a raised deck has an adjoining room with windows that can be fully opened to allow in fresh air and breezes.

Photo: Dick Clarke

New rooms can be added to suit changing lifestyles.

Step 5: Start your wish list or ‘brief’

After developing a sound understanding of the housing options available that appeal to you, start to focus your investigation on identifying and listing your needs.

Your wish list, or brief to the designers, should be an evolving document that records your not-negotiable items, wishes, preferences and ‘must avoids’. A good way to start your brief is to think about your overall goals, including your sustainability goals and targets (step 4). In the brief, note how you intend to achieve your goals. This exercise clarifies your thinking and streamlines the process of communicating your needs and wishes to a consultant or designer if and when you appoint one. Give high priority at the purchase/design stage to important features on your wish list that are difficult or expensive to add later.

Give high priority early on to sustainability features that are difficult or expensive to add later.

People usually find it impossible to find or afford a home that satisfies all the items in their wish list. During the inevitable trade-off process that follows this discovery, decision making requires extra vigilance. Often, at this time, important thermal comfort, energy and water efficiency features are traded for less important ones like rarely used rooms or cosmetic touches. Sales and marketing agents are aware of this and may provide advice that steers you away from your brief and towards their product.

Revisit the priorities listed in your brief every time you want to make a trade-off and seek impartial, professional advice on the life cycle implications.

This is the time to be attending a housing expo and discussing your housing needs with architects, building designers and sustainability experts.

A living room with a four-seater couch and coffee table receives extensive direct sunlight.

Photo: Dick Clarke

Some rooms can be put to a new use with renovations.

Step 6: Examine your current home and lifestyle

Your existing home and lifestyle are usually the most productive and relevant source of information for your like/dislike wish list. Use them as the means to test and refine your brief. Analyse your current home to get a clear picture of how each member of your household lives in each space and how this might be improved in your new home. Note likes, dislikes and reasons why.

Ask these questions

Which rooms do you use a lot, and how might they be improved?

  • Warmer or cooler (better winter sun, summer breezes)?
  • Increased natural light?
  • Additional or improved storage?
  • Improved access to outdoor areas or views?

Which rooms do you rarely use, and why?

  • Too hot or cold? Too noisy?
  • Unable to fit furniture well?
  • Could you make them more usable?
  • Could you delete them from your wish list?

Could you consider multi-function spaces?

  • Which rooms work well together (e.g. kitchen–living)?
  • Which rooms need to be separated (e.g. living–bedroom)?
  • Could you combine compatible activities within one room using purpose built concealable cupboards or nooks?

More tips

Analyse your household’s current lifestyle for energy and water use with an online NABERS (National Australian Built Environment Rating System; www.nabers.gov.au) assessment using your energy bills. Assess your building design for anticipated water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and thermal performance with BASIX (Building Sustainability Index, applicable only in NSW; www.basix.nsw.gov.au). A building sustainability assessor can conduct a NatHERS assessment which gives your home an energy star rating — it does not consider your energy consumption (www.nathers.gov.au).

Find an accredited assessor through the Association of Building Sustainability Assessors at www.absa.net.au or Building Designers Association Victoria at www.bdav.org.au.

Calculate your current carbon emissions using one of the many available online household carbon footprint or carbon emissions calculators.

Which household members travel the most each week and whose transport mode is the most carbon intensive? Paying a little more for a home that is close to local amenities and public transport can pay for itself in reduced fuel costs or by eliminating the need for a second car.

Conduct a storage audit, making a list of the items that require storage in your new home and the space required, best location and type of storage.

Observe how people move around in your house to identify conflicts that could be avoided in your new home. They are often around and between kitchens, cooking appliances, refrigerators and dining areas. They are also common in bathrooms and children’s play areas.

Make sure your furniture fits without wasting space or impeding circulation.

Make sure your furniture fits without wasting space or impeding circulation. Measure and list all furniture you will take to your new home or intend to buy. This helps to identify how slight changes in room shape might allow a more space efficient layout.

Consider using well-designed outdoor living spaces to expand your living areas and reduce more expensive internal space requirements. Outdoor areas are ideally located off your main living area and close to the kitchen. Consider issues like summer shade, winter sun access, protection from cold or hot winds and insect proofing.

An outdoor patio space complete with pot plants and outdoor table setting meets the bi-fold doors of a home that can be opened up to create a single indoor–outdoor space.

Photo: TVS architects

Outdoor areas can flow into indoor areas.

Get advice from a designer or sustainability consultant on how you might best design, choose or adapt your new home to enhance positives and overcome the problems that underpin your dislikes.

Step 7: Develop a baseline budget

Cost and affordability are primary considerations that influence all subsequent decisions. Most people start with a set budget. Allocate a portion of that budget for sustainable features from the outset. How much of your budget you choose to devote to sustainable features influences every aspect of your home including its thermal comfort, energy, carbon, water and resource efficiency.

Under-budgeting for sustainable features is a common reason for their ultimate omission.

Under-budgeting for sustainable features is a common reason for their ultimate omission. Extra rooms and square metres won’t pay your bills or keep you warm in winter and cool in summer. While many sustainable features are free, others add up-front costs which need to be balanced against the savings they will deliver over the life cycle of the home or appliance.

For more on this life cycle costing (LCC) see Affordability, which explains LCC and how to apply it to your project. It also includes some indicative ‘rule of thumb’ allowances for various sustainable features that can be helpful at the preliminary budget planning stage.

The cost of improved sustainability performance varies considerably due to:

  • climate zone and thermal performance needs (see Design for climate)
  • lifestyle, household size and needs
  • the sustainability benchmark you aspire to
  • the skill and innovation of your designer or consultants.

The cost of renovating, altering or retrofitting to improve performance is generally higher than incorporating it in a new build. Buyers of existing homes should thus carefully scrutinise any sustainability rating or information provided at point of sale and factor it into their offer or negotiations.

If you are unsure of your budget, visit your bank or use an online calculator (offered free by most banks) to establish the limit of your borrowings. Always allow for contingencies and hidden costs like stamp duty, bank fees, consultant and council fees. Some banks offer discounted mortgage rates for sustainable homes and may be prepared to lend more for sustainable features with proven LCC benefits.

Step 8: Get timely professional advice

Consumers often make decisions at the outset of their quest to purchase or create a new and more sustainable home with little or no professional advice. These decisions often limit their ability or that of their consultants to deliver the most sustainable outcome cost effectively.

It is never too early to seek professional advice. In the early stages of research, you might make contact with a practitioner you have read about or who is recommended by friends or colleagues (e.g. architect, building designer, builder, sustainability consultant/assessor or property consultant).

Initial consultations are often free but this type of arrangement probably limits the advice provided. Paid consultations (agreed fee or hourly rate) usually yield more detailed advice and information. Many practitioners deduct the cost of such consultations from their fees if/when you contract them for further services. In the initial consultation, you can also assess your compatibility with the consultant (and vice versa) (see The design process).

Step 9: Check building regulations, including sustainability regulations

Make sure you’re aware of planning and building regulations for homes at your chosen location. Your designer or consultant should be able to help, or you can check with your local council. These regulations cover a range of objectives such as enhancing neighbourhood character, protecting the amenity of neighbours and ensuring the home meets minimum sustainability requirements. If you’re buying into an estate, you may need to follow additional estate design guidelines.

Sustainability regulations are focused on achieving a minimum level of performance and there is plenty of scope to improve on them.

Step 10: Find out about the process of designing and building

Before you plan your project, it helps to have an overview of the process and what’s involved (see The design process; The construction process).

Step 11: Read plenty of background material

Familiarise yourself with the content of Your Home before proceeding with your decision making process. Make notes of chapters and articles that you will refer back to at later stages, and browse the case studies (see How to use Your Home).

References and additional reading

Greenhouse gas emissions. www.environment.gov.au

HIA GreenSmart Magazine. At your local newsagent or http://housinglocal.com.au

HIA Housing Local. http://housinglocal.com.au

Your Energy Savings. www.yourenergysavings.gov.au

LJ Hooker. Liveability: live the life you want, sustainably. www.liveability.com.au [additional reading now found on www.ljhooker.com.au]

Queensland Department of Public Works and Housing. 2005. Design decision making process. [additional reading now found on www.hpw.qld.gov.au]

ReNew. http://renew.org.au

Sanctuary. www.sanctuarymagazine.org.au

Townsville City Council. Sustainable housing information kit. www.townsville.qld.gov.au

Wright, J, Osman, P and Ashworth P. 2009. The CSIRO Home energy saving handbook. Macmillan Australia.

Authors

Chris Reardon, 2013