Solar Energy and the Built Environment

Solar energy  passive design considerations have not yet become mainstream building industry practice  in Australia, despite its many positive advances in the built environment.

In my opinion, conservative forces in the building industry are still going out of their way to stifle progress by lobbying government for negligible changes to the building code compliance system and even pushing to water down the debate,  so that the long established building industry approach to land subdivision and the building of  packaged  ‘project’ homes remains largely unchanged.

Built Environment Solar Passive Design Saves 80-90% Energy

The Built Environment solar passive house South Beach Image

Built Environment South Beach House

Image: 2010  Residence located at South Beach, Western Australia Designed by Ecotect-Architects

This design is passive solar with solar water heating, photovoltaic and water conservation technologies which will save 80 – 90% energy and up to 60% water usage, when compared to the average luxury home or “Mac-Mansion”!  A 2005 award-winning solar passive house also designed by Ecotect-Architects is featured in the Swanbourne Centre blog.

The image shows the western façade with the north solar collection façade running down the block to create maximum privacy. (Note: for buildings in the northern hemisphere the aspect would be to the south rather than north.)

As specialists in master planning, environmentally sensible design [“ESD”]  architecture, project management and energy use analysis, Ecotect-Architects understand that the main challenge economically and environmentally is to institute successful energy and water conservation strategies in our built environment.

We need to reduce our emissions by 50-60%

Apart from placing a realistic and ecologically sensible cap on global population, we need to reduce our emissions from this sector by 50 to 60% by the year 2050.  It is and always has been the elephant in the room.

The built environment in USA accounts for  65% of its total electricity consumption.  In Australia and Canada the built environment accounts for  over 50% of all electricity consumption.  These figures cannot be ignored if we are to solve the catastrophic Climate Change problems once and for all.

Built Environment is taking 50% of coal power stations’ output

Chart of building sector electricity consumption

Electricity Consumption in Building Sector

This histogram shows that the Australian built environment is taking 50% of their coal fired power station capacity.

Australia, as a consequence, is one of the world’s worst polluters.

Of course small and large scale power generation strategies are extremely important.  It is unlikely that passive solar energy and smart building services and appliances alone can deliver the necessary 50 – 60% scale of conservation required in 40 years. In a hundred years it could be possible –  but that does not mean that we should not try.

Retro-fitting will create building industry jobs

The most economic approach, albeit the most difficult tactically, should be vehemently attempted.  The upside is that retro-fitting and developing new -state-of-the-art buildings for the 21st century will create an enormous number of skilled and semi skilled jobs.

My estimates are that over 40 years the retro-fitting industry will create an extra 300,000 jobs over and above currently employed in the building industry.  Also, it is not commonly realized that it will take all of this 40 years for these new building workers and industry contributors to get through the task in hand, to deliver 50% savings in energy and water

Economically, this combined strategy realistically acknowledges that there is no ‘silver bullet’ solution.

As my colleague Ian Parker, has strongly portrayed many times, [often without any adequate response at government level]  we need a ‘failure is not an option’ approach if we are, as a human race, going to solve the biggest threat ever to mankind: Climate Change.

Shape our cities according to the sun

Q: What do we need to do to eventually have  ecologically sustainable development as mainstream ?

A: The starting point is to shape our developments according to the sun.

Images of solar skyline policies Perth and Mandurah

Solar Skyline Models

Two solar skylines policies drafted for Mandurah and Perth in Western Australia

As a stating point we need to shape our cities using the sun,  otherwise the opportunity for solar collection and trapping breezes to reduce energy dependence, is no more than a dream.  It can be done effectively with most cities in the world – but it needs intelligent leadership and commitment by governments and controlling of  self-interest lobby groups.

Sub-division and high performance design policies/guidelines are needed for all new developments of urban and suburban settings.  A key aspect of this would be the development of energy efficient, passive solar buildings around public transport centres.

Planned layout of Railway Stn Precinct

Sketch fo 'Enquiry by Design' Cottesloe Australia

Ecotect-Architects Sketch for the Town of Cottesloe, Western Australia, Enquiry by Design, 2008

Building density around transport nodes

Increasing density around railway stations is desperately needed but it needs to protect the northerly exposure for our buildings and achieve good cross ventilation for apartments and commercial facilities. (Note: in the northern hemisphere this would equate to southerly exposure).

There is a great deal of discussion and research being done at a planning level these days but there is not enough technical research and data from a solar energy use perspective.  A multi-disciplinary approach is desperately needed to not deliver impressive looking design inputs, but definable outputs and economic analysis based on FACTS  rather than populist perceptions among architects, planners, engineers and governance at all level.

Solar Energy in the Built Environment and Addressing Climate Change

It is not an easy path, but the Australian Solar Energy Society [‘AuSES’]  could be far more active in the future and should be able to attract more interest and involvement among the elite of the built environment professionals.

We need far more research of the built environment that is based on high performance solar design principles.  It is a crucial area for advancement in the path to a more solar economy and it will have very long term benefits if adopted as a scientific strategy.  It has been the ‘elephant in the room’ for the last 40 years!

Built Environment image Elephant in the room

Built Environment Elephant in the room

It is amazing how the housing construction industry to date has preferred to keep truly high performing solar design away from the public.  Although the reasons are complex, it is ethically inexcusable.

Solar Mentors Programme

We desperately need a new generation of young professionals to take up the challenge and start using science and analysis to combat ignorance and vested interests.  We need a transparent process of presenting data and information that is relevant to the thinking of 21st century politicians.

At future AuSES conferences the challenge goes out to young professional architects, engineers and planners and post graduate students in these disciplines, to start producing compelling information that changes the face of how we develop the built environment.

We need more validation and more innovation!  Hopefully the new AuSES Solar Mentors Programme will deliver more action at conferences in this discipline.

A commentary by Garry Baverstock AM,

CEO of and President of AuSES, WA

Useful links:

Global Building

Passive Solar Design of Buildings

Climate Sensible Home Design


Sun Control Pergolas

Solar Water Heating

Energy Auditing


Passive Solar Design

Climate Sensible Design

Solar Hot Water

Inter-generational Change

The Reality of  the Politics

The Reality of the Built Environment